From Agricultural Science to Transgenic Crops (Part 4)

Pt. I | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3 | Pt. 4

Part 4 with Christopher Henke, discussing his book Cultivating Science, Harvesting Power, follows below. All entries in the author-meets-blogger series can be found here.

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WF: What do you make of the intersection of STS and agricultural studies?

CH: STS folks aren't often citing rural sociology, and vice-versa. I think the connections between these realms are greater than it might at first appear. Historians of science like Margaret Rossiter, Charles Rosenberg, and Deborah Fitzgerald were writing about agricultural science some time ago (as a sociologist, I remember being surprised when I attended my first history of science conference, and saw a whole session devoted to agricultural science on the program). And now more folks in rural sociology and even agricultural economics seem to be reading their Latour. Now that STS has moved well beyond its initial focus on the laboratory, I think that there will be more and more attention to topics such as agriculture and agricultural science. Additionally, there are the anthropologists and cultural studies types like James Scott who are exploring the intersection of expertise, the state, and land use.

WF: You're also making a case here for the value of social scientists for agricultural change. Can you amplify that? Like, how so? What can social scientists do?

CH: The world is chock-full of experts, so it's a challenge to argue for our place in this hierarchy. But I think that ethnographers and others researchers who delve very deeply into the details of everyday practices and structures have a special set of skills that makes them useful when it comes to policy debates. Without going so far as saying I "know better," I have invested a lot of time and research in understanding the issues and politics in this setting, so I think I have something to say about it. We can say the same about other researchers who are studying agricultural or other systems through ethnographic methods. If there are questions about how these environments should be managed, those who have this understanding ought to have a place at the table when those decisions are being made. Getting to the table, however, is a political challenge that must still be solved.

WF: Keith Warner was here last Fall, talking about his book Agroecology in Action, which is also set in the Central Valley. His book goes well with yours. How would you fit the agroecology program into your "repair" schema (maintenance versus transformation)?

CH: Keith does a great job of showing how new paradigms for agricultural expertise and intervention are being used to address the environmental problems related to farming. In a lot of ways, his book shows the responses that many folks interested in new ways interacting with farming environments are using to address the environmental costs of agriculture. You could say that the examples he describes are ways of trying to reorient and perhaps even transform the ecology of power in agriculture. In that respect, my book kind of describes the history of the more mainstream structure of the land-grant system and farm industry in California, whereas his book points toward possible future directions that people are now testing out as an alternative to this legacy. This isn't to say that programs like Integrated Pest Management haven't been around for some time, but I think the impact of these principles is only slowly creeping into the bulk of industrial farming practices. In the more contemporary case studies of my book, I show how Cooperative Extension advisors have struggled in recent years to get growers to think more holistically about pest management. It's often not an easy sell, and in large part their efforts have been more oriented toward a repair as maintenance approach---modest changes to the existing structure of the industry and its practices.

Agroecologies, as Keith describes them, are not necessarily always "risky" in terms of crop production, but growers can often perceive them this way, in part because of fears that they represent a kind of Trojan Horse form of increased environmental regulation from the state. Again, I think this is a place where ethnographers can make a useful contribution to mapping and understanding the structures and politics of the ecology.

WF: Speaking of last Fall, how about that Pollan article about the Farmer-in-Chief?

CH: I think Pollan's article was great---I am always jealous of Pollan's ability to write so well and so smart and so direct about issues that I have been stewing over for some time. Pollan's recent work and mine share an interest in how our food system got to be the way it is today, and his "Farmer in Chief" piece does a great job of laying out a series of ideas on how we might proceed from here. I don't know if I agree with everything he says---for example, I don't think I would take transgenic crops entirely off the table (though I don't believe they are a panacea, either), and I don't believe that we can or should get entirely away from our industrialized system of food production. But we could certainly do a lot better, and the future of our food would look a little brighter if we were to take many of the suggestions that Pollan lays out in his manifesto.

WF: Oh, and what's next? Your mention of transgenic crops reminds me to ask. I know you've been working on an NSF-funded study of the environmental impacts of genetically engineered crops. Can we get the bare bones of that one? What's your research question? What's your argument? We can finish this discussion with a teaser of things to come. Another reason to tag the post as "news breaking."

CH: My new project is indeed about contemporary debates over the environmental impacts of agricultural biotechnologies. There are two main parts to it so far. The first part focuses on a controversy that started in 1999, when a group of researchers at Cornell University published a brief study suggesting that pollen from genetically engineered corn could harm monarch butterfly larvae. This news sent shockwaves through the agricultural science community and created a media frenzy around the world related to the findings. It's kind of old news now, but you have to trust me that it was big at the time, and created a lot of uncertainty about the prospects for GE crops globally. At that time, biotech crops were taking off in the US, but were still greeted warily in many other parts of the world (still are in many parts, too). This put a lot of pressure on supporters and regulators of GE crops to show quickly that the technology was safe for monarchs and safe generally. In many cases, the debate over the relevance of the findings revolved around questions about the appropriateness of certain types of research practices, especially whether or not research was taking into account the "real world" conditions of monarch behavior in the field (versus a more controlled laboratory setting).

In a second part of the study I'm looking at protests at sites for GE crop research around the world. In many places, protestors have demonstrated and vandalized field trials of biotech crops as a means of keeping the technology from being introduced in their communities. As a result, many field trial sites must be guarded and kept secret in order to prevent them from being disrupted. I've been tracking episodes of these protests, and they appear to be happening on a week-to-week basis around the world, for several years now. I think this case shows not only how controversial GE crops remain, but also how the "place" of research continues to matter for a technology that is meant to transcend the specific conditions of a given place. This is the common thread that brings these two cases together: the field is where agricultural biotechnologies are being contested. Therefore the role of place---and continuing questions over how GE crops should be assessed in specific places---will continue to be an important axis of controversy in debates over this technology.

WF: If the blog's around when you publish the work, we can do this again.

CH: Thanks, that would be fun.

Pt. I | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3 | Pt. 4


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