Plant Breeding the Social Aspects of Knowledge and Development

Political ecology seeks to understand how and why plant breeders modified agricultural ecosystems and thus the wealth and power of individuals and nation-states. One key to this effort is how social processes affect the development of technical and scientific knowledge. A social constructionist perspective sees specialist knowledge as one of the many artifacts that characterize a civilization or culture. It focuses on the social processes by which people identify problems, search for technical solutions, and put forth tentative answers.20 Adoption of an answer by others indicates whether the new technical knowledge solves the problem and is the final arbiter of whether the knowledge is true.

Social processes implicit in the identification of problems and the proving of proposed new technological answers are usually the avenues by which political power enters into the issue of which technologies get developed and adopted. Those people who have power are able to argue that their identification of the problem is "correct," and they are able to guide the work of technologists and scientists toward solutions that make sense for them. Powerful individuals are also able to establish the parameters within which the verification and adoption steps are conducted.

In these ways, one component of the exercise of political power is the ability to influence what sorts of technological practices get invented and utilized. Once adopted, a new technology may increase the wealth and power of its advocates, thus giving them further abilities to influence the next round of technological development.

Plant breeding created new capital because it helped create surplus grain. Those who controlled the distribution of this grain (some farmers, grain merchants, and others) thus saw plant-breeding science as a potential route to further capital accumulation, which in turn spurred interest in further development of high-yielding varieties. In this way, the desire for capital accumulation, the fundamental motivator in capitalist societies, was harnessed to building political support for programs in plant-breeding science. New knowledge produced new and higher yielding production practices, which in turn promoted appreciation for yet further developments of plant-breeding science.21

A second key to understanding plant breeding comes from the work of Joseph Schumpeter and his concept of capitalism as a system of "creative destruction." Schumpeter saw that new technological processes, constantly proliferated by capitalist economies, upset the existing methods of doing things. As a result, new patterns of wealth, power, and prestige emerged to replace the old order, and the new order itself would be replaced after yet another round of innovation.22

A political ecological framework thus attempts to understand plant breeders as self-conscious inventors. Their views of the problems to be solved—low and often unstable yields—reflected the interests of political and economic leaders, including some farmers, particularly the largest and most technically proficient ones. Plant breeders sought new plant varieties that gave higher yields, and their work was subjected to a testing process affected by a wide range of social interests, including farmers, food industrialists, and consumers. In turn, this new knowledge fed into the yield transformation that increased capital and created Schumpeterian creative destruction. Social orders within and between nation-states changed in response to the wealth and power generated by the increased yields.

It is ironic that the word "destruction" must enter into an understanding of the work of plant breeding. After all, the science ostensibly was interested in the production of plenty and the elimination of human drudgery. If plant breeders make better plants that produce more food with less work, is that not a positive contribution? New technologies, however, invariably created the seeds for the destruction of old ways of doing things. Winners and losers emerged from Schumpeterian creative destruction. Most importantly, however, understanding the role of capital accumulation behind the science helps illuminate why the increased plenty was not necessarily channeled toward the elimination of hunger and starvation.

Knowledge of new plant varieties and how to use them, often accompanied by a panoply of other technical and social changes, was the bedrock on which the yield transformation of the twentieth century occurred. Many people who formerly were farmers found it impossible to continue in that work. This was Schumpeter's creative destruction in operation. At its foundation was the knowledge base of plant-breeding science, constantly changing through the social processes of capitalist economies.

Schumpeter envisioned creative destruction operating without heavy government involvement in the details of change. After 1945, however, several governments began consciously to promote new technologies to develop other countries, which was a euphemism for promoting creative destruction. Perhaps development was one of the most ironic concepts to enter late-twentieth-century language, and in basic ways its meaning was tied to the results of plant-breeding science and the yield transformation.

Development commonly means a society that has material plenty through urban industry and modern agriculture. Human labor in such societies is highly productive in terms of creating a great deal of wealth with relatively small inputs of labor. An industrial society, however, rests importantly on the work of the plant breeder. It was the breeder who found the plants that could be grown efficiently, that is, more harvest with lower costs per unit of harvest. Fewer people could provide all the food for a population, and many formerly rural people moved into the cities to work in industries and services.

Cultures that have not made this transformation are considered backward, traditional, or undeveloped. The historical development of plant breeding was intimately involved with efforts by people in the developed countries to spread the new technology of high-yielding plants to the less developed countries. In fact, it might be said that being developed required the adoption of technologies created by the plant breeders and other agricultural scientists. At a very fundamental level, therefore, use of plant-breeding science became synonymous with the property of being developed.

Nevertheless, considerable controversy about the use of high-yielding varieties reverberated among policy analysts of both the industrialized and less industrialized countries. At least four different critiques and assessments emerged, although the categories were not mutually exclusive.

One school of thought was developed by those connected to the actual work of agricultural modernization. It tended to celebrate the scientific triumphs, particularly as they occurred in less industrialized countries such as India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and elsewhere in the third world. Development in this school was the same as progress, and to undergo the yield transformation was a route to humanitarian salvation, prosperity, and freedom for a previously poor people. In this analysis, those who provided the technical assistance to promote the transformation acted for the good of all humanity.23

A second set of conclusions was a somewhat more pessimistic analysis that emanated from some who would not have disagreed with the previous analysis. Transformation of yield, in this view, may have been a technical and humanitarian achievement, but its primary function was to provide temporary relief from what was seen as the inexorable and undesirable growth of the human population. Often the term population monster was used to create the image of people breeding out of control and threatening to outrun their food supplies. This second image of the yield transformation had most of its intellectual and emotional roots in the political economic thought of Thomas Robert Malthus, but it also drew on elements of ecological and conservation science.24

Not all analysts were happy with what they saw from the yield transformation as it occurred in both industrialized and less industrialized countries. A third school of thought focused on the idea that the technology for yield transformation enabled those farmers better endowed with education, capital, or political power to outcompete their lesser endowed colleagues and thereby drive the latter out of business. This analysis saw the yield transformation not just as a technical matter based on plant breeding but as a source of social inequity and misery for small farmers. Rural sociologist Jack Kloppenburg saw a different problem emerge from plant-breeding research: the concentration of wealth through the use of legislation to protect plant varieties. Justice, economic and political stability, and the moral legitimacy of society were casualties of a Faustian bargain to get higher yields.25

Another branch of critical and pessimistic thought about the yield transformation focused on the environmental damage caused by the transformation of yields. In this fourth school of thought, the new varieties created by the plant breeders led to reductions in biodiversity; destruction of the soil through erosion, salinization, or compaction; increased and unhealthy dependencies upon fertilizers and pesticides; contamination or destruction of water supplies; and an inviable dependency on the use of soon-to-vanish fossil fuels. In short, this analysis criticized the technology of the yield transformation as ultimately unsustainable and therefore unwise.26

Each of the preceding four analyses of yield transformation is supported by an empirical body of evidence. In addition, each has support from various segments of society. Some would argue that any faults of the plant breeders' results could be mitigated by appropriate social and environmental policies. Therefore, so the argu ment goes, if some benefits were produced along with some faults, societies can keep the benefits while softening the harsh consequences of agricultural modernization.

Unfortunately, arguments about the social and environmental meanings of the yield transformation suffer from a limitation of view that renders each of them fatally flawed as a guide for understanding past events and for shaping the agricultural reforms of the future. This is not because no wisdom attends any of the four perspectives, but because each in its own way has critical gaps that render it inadequate. The political ecological framework for analysis helps to fill the most important gaps.

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