The Dark Side of Innovation for Family Farmers: Reflections on an International Symposium on Innovation

This post explores rapid rise to prominence of the term ‘Innovation’ within agricultural development, and presents some reasons why it is an inadequate framework to address the deep injustices in contemporary food systems, especially as they relate to family farmers and other small scale food producers. In summary, this fits into five categories:

  1. Innovation as a Trojan Horse;
  2. Innovation scatters debate
  3. Innovation as a tool of capture
  4. Innovation as a tool of containment
  5. Innovation as a tool to ‘weaponise the youth’
Image result for FAO symposium innovation family farmers
Picture credit: FAO 2018 

Last November, I attended The FAO Symposium on Agricultural Innovation for Family Farmers. The express purpose of the Symposium was to ‘[unlock] the potential of agricultural innovation to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals’. Around 600 people attended the symposium, including 76 government delegates and 300 NGO representatives – the remainder being either from academia or the Private Sector.

I also had the honour of participating in the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC) pre-meeting, intended to brief participants on recent developments int he field of agricultural innovation and develop a collective strategy for how to approach the Symposium. 

Some key moments included a heavily contested final plenary (more details on this below), and the eventual announcement by FAO DG, Graciano da Silva, of an ‘Innovation Unit’ and an ‘Innovation fund’.

My lasting impression is that the term ‘innovation’ is generating a great deal of confusion – and in deeply problematic ways. The following analysis conveys a bit more detail about the Symposium, and explore (under five headings) my emerging thoughts about agricultural innovation. While I hope these headings will be useful, they all elaborate the idea that innovation is an inadequate framework to address the deep injustices in the food system

1. Innovation as a Trojan Horse

Innovation is a powerfully enchanting word. Part of this has to do with its association with one of humanity’s favourite traits: the ability to overcome impossible odds through creative and inventive thinking. Not only does this explain its alluring quality, but also its current status as a site of intense debate and disagreement on the future of food and farming. It is a now undoubtedly a vital component in what Sidney Tarrow (2013) would call ‘the language of contention’ – that is, the language that shapes the interests and actions of social movements.

Part of innovation’s enduringly problematic role in contemporary debates (much like ‘sustainability’) stems from its resistance to adhering to a single definition. However, if the innovation we want remains unqualified, then technologies such as ‘gene editing’ and components of the much-vaunted ‘4th Industrial Revolution’ (4IR), will end up being conflated with the decidedly low-cost, low-tech, social innovations common in the repertoires of agroecology and food sovereignty activists.

The dangers of such vagueness were evident at the Symposium, where we saw presentations on gene editing (by the FAO plant division), the launch of a totalising ‘Agricultural Brian’ (by corporate giant Alibaba), broad support for biotech (e.g. by the Biotechnology Coordinator for USDA and Frédéric Seppey from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada) and repeated reference to 4IR ‘staples’ like drones, blockchain, and ‘big data’. While there were emphatic calls for family farmers to be put at the heart of such processes, this inclusion was invariably framed in terms of consumer ‘choice’, and virtually no discussion was held around the ways that such expensive tech could benefit the poorest family farmers.

Added to this, ‘Big Ag’ interests clearly had a disproportionate influence on proceedings. We heard in the opening plenary, for example, that significant monetary donations had been made to the Symposium by government agencies with substantial agri-tech portfolios; for example, the US, Canada, and the Netherlands. The exact amount of these donations was not disclosed, nor the understanding of what is expected in return. Nonetheless, this should all serve to deepen fears about the role innovation is playing in global agriculture. In short, innovation has fast become a means to advance controversial agricultural technologies as the primary tools to solve ‘the problem’ of family farmers and wider sustainability crises.

Picture credit: FAO 2018

2. Innovation scatters debate

Innovation designates too broad a mode of action to usefully direct debate. It can mean almost anything: constituents as far apart as hyper-tech corporates and peasants seem to recognize the term. But this means that in a debating context like FAO, a great amount of people are talking past each other, and actually very few mechanisms were built-in by the Symposium organisers for resolving these differences. Instead, the prevailing attitude was one of frustrated urgency. As Marco Gualtieri (from Seeds and Chips) put it, ‘we have the tech right now that can make the difference …so let’s do it’; however, his presentation actually included very little detail on specific technology, let alone on which terms they should be used.

This vagueness may prove to be disastrous. Innovation alone is utterly incapable of addressing deep historical injustices – it naturally (as a discourse which routinely valorises newness, novelty, and hi-tech solutions) deflects complex debate in favour of identifying ‘concrete’ short-term fixes. The language of deep historical trauma finds no traction here; in fact, interventions drawing this to attention are summarily dismissed or ignored. This marks a departure for the FAO which has, in recent years, helped to establish spaces where political disagreement can surface and attempts made to resolve it.

The IPC (and their constituent organisations) spent a great deal of time and resources in attending the Symposium, and despite a considerable effort in pre-planning and building internal consensus, their contributions were repeatedly deflected or ignored. During the Symposium the IPC offered their own definitions of innovation (most notably in the form of a letter sent to the Symposium organisers) – this effort represented an important attempt to push back against a tech-focussed approach to innovation.

This effort must be sustained, however; by simply attending the Symposium we may even have helped to further legitimise unqualified innovation as the FAO’s central approach to addressing food system crises. It is essential that we continue to collectively define the types of innovation we want (as well as those we don’t want) over the coming months and years. As details emerge about the Innovation Unit, the Innovation Fund and the FAO’s ‘Decade of Family Farmers 2019-2028’, we must remain alert to the ways innovation is being framed, and be ready to offer critiques and alternatives.  

Picture credit: FAO 2018

3. Innovation as a tool of capture

In complement to a movement of infiltration, is one of capture. While there were some moments when the language of biotech was used overtly, most of the time such interests are being framed in language originally intended to liberate small scale farmers. Broadly speaking, this relates to the language  of ‘participation’: we heard, for example, extensive talk of ‘putting farmers at the centre’, ‘giving farmers a range of options’, ‘multi-stakeholder platforms’, and, of course, ‘farmer participation’ itself. However, we rarely heard any details about how this participation would be governed. Instead, when stripped back, the general messages here are salient, and quite in opposition to efforts to consolidate the rights and interests of small scale family farmers. In short, the general narrative being pushed here is one where innovation means:

  • deregulation (to allow more rapid innovation);
  • private sector funding;
  • private sector participation (through a ‘multi-stakeholder’ framework);
  • and disciplining family farmers to uptake new technologies

Within this narrative, the term ‘unlocking’ is ubiquitous – a term evidently designed to signal urgency and a solutions-based approach, but which actually has a range of meanings. Firstly, ‘unlocking’ makes no sense if you start from the perspective that family farmers are already in possession of knowledge (if not always the political capacity) to adequately develop agroecological innovations. ‘Unlocking’ in this context is undoubtedly a euphemism for circumventing sites of peasant resistance and neutralising existing regulation. Moreover, when we consider that family farmers constitute not only a substantial opponent to a lot of agricultural tech, but also a largely untapped market (there are 500m family farmers worldwide), phrases like ‘unlocking potential’, ‘exploitation’, ‘regulatory innovation’ (the latter coined by the USDA delegate) confirm a distinctly extractive intent.

Image result for agricultural innovation technology fao
Picture credit: FAO 2019

4. Innovation as a tool of containment

The global debate around the issue of agricultural technologies is a deeply divided and contentious one. This much was in evidence through the Symposium, not least during the final plenary. On the final morning of the Symposium, ‘The Chair’s Summary’ was released, setting out a series of principles and recommendations clearly meant to consolidate consensus on the issue of agricultural innovation. The document was not well received, with members of the IPC (but also some government delegates and academics) pointing out (among other things) its failure to mention ‘agroecology’ (despite repeated CSO interventions on this subject) and, conversely, the inclusion of ‘4IR’, despite no one using the term during the Symposium:

Recommendation 13: There is a need to enable family farmers to adapt and innovate in the use of new technologies and solutions (e.g. digital technologies, 4th industrial revolution, etc.)

In light of this, it is clear that innovation would be useful to the FAO (and other regime actors) as a term that could hold together the diverse factions which make up contemporary agri-food sector. Innovation, it seems, is simultaneously dynamic enough to be attractive to small scale family farmers, and sufficiently vague enough to qualify some of the more toxic agricultural tech.

Picture credit: FAO 2018

5. Innovation as a means to ‘weaponise the youth’

The youth are a key constituency for those advancing a positive narrative for high-tech innovation. A prominent refrain during the Symposium was ‘we need to make farming sexy again’ – an understandable sentiment given ageing farmer populations, especially in Europe. As with numerous other key terms, however, ‘youth inclusion’ is often used as a euphemism for the processes of accelerated technologisation. The second day of the Symposium featured an event called ‘Youth as drivers of innovation: Interactive event’. This event acted as a showcase of young farmers using high-tech solutions, which they were using mainly as a means of guaranteeing profit. Without this, we were told repeatedly, no young farmers would be interested in farming.

A keynote on the first day was also dedicated to this theme – given by Iris Bouwers, Farmer and Vice-President, European Council of Young Farmers. Her address resembled the structure of a Ted-talk, in its overt personalisation of her struggle. Indeed, she framed her success in terms of two pillars: ‘entrepreneurialism’ and ‘banking’. The role of the state support (such as the CAP) and collective struggle were entirely missing from this account. As well as being a staunchly depoliticising account, Bouwers also added strident support to the hi-tech narrative – ‘Young farmers need to be round the table’, she said at one point ‘…they are the ones who will use the drones’.

It struck me as depressingly insightful when during the IPC debriefing meeting on the final day, Marciano da Silva (from La Via Campesina) warned, ‘they are beginning to weaponise the youth’. However, if research linking young farmers and technology uptake is at all accurate, this processes has well and truly begun. As I see it, the links between youth and technology represent a daunting frontier for those of us thinking through how to promote agroecological innovations based on a combination of low-cost, low-impact (but also lower-yielding) practices and technologies, and a social justice and knowledge-intensive approach. While I am convinced that if we use the term ‘innovation’ at all, it should always be in conjunction with ‘agroecological’ (or at least some word which qualifies the its political and practical scope), substantial work still needs to be done in order to ensure this boundary setting doesn’t exclude and alienate.

By: Chris Maughan

This post is based on ideas being worked up in a forthcoming article on the governance of innovation with Colin Anderson and Michel Pimbert. Contact for more details.

More AgroecologyNow! analyses of innovation in agriculture can be found here and here.