Example of good research
I have been reading a fascinating book by David Montgomery called Growing a Revolution: Bringing our soil back to life. He looks at the history of agriculture, especially from a perspective of what has led to the degradation of agricultural soils. And then investigates how regenerative agriculture might reverse this degradation. One of the dynamics about the book which I have enjoyed is that the author is not afraid to make some bold statements.
One of the people that Montgomery spoke to for his book was Rattan Lal, the respected soil scientist and researcher. Lal spent time in the 1970’s as a researcher at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Idadan, Nigeria. The focus of his research was overcoming the massive issue of soil erosion. He potential benefits of adapting small-scale agriculture in Africa to conservation agriculture practices. In other words adopting the principles of no-till, cover crops and diverse crops. The major take-away from Lal’s research was, in Montgomery’s words: “don’t clear the forest if you can avoid it, but if you do, make sure you leave the ground covered with vegetation and mulch.”
So what is the problem?
All of this is by way of introduction to the main point I would like to make in this blog. Below is an excerpt from the book:
“Within two years of his (Lal’s) departure from Africa, trees were growing through his experimental plots. The grand experiment was over. He’d figured out something that would work for subsistence farmers. So why were his findings ignored? Funders and aid agencies alike wanted breakthroughs and rapid revolutions, not gradual improvements of the soil. Commercial interests pushed to develop solutions that could be commodified; they wanted agrochemical products, not practices that anyone could adopt for free. No modern, forward-looking foundation or agency wanted to hear about mulching or growing a diversity of crops. Such simple answers did not – and still don’t – fit the technophilic narrative for progress.”1
There is a huge issue in agriculture that most of the research, especially prominent research, is driven by the agrochemical agenda. Research is funded by companies that sell products, and companies and organisations that do not sell products often do not have the money to fund research.
I am by no means saying that all agricultural research should be thrown out the window. There is a lot of very good research out there. All I am saying is that we need to read the research with all this in mind. Continually ask the question, who funded this research and what is their agenda?
Where is progress in agriculture coming from?
In my opinion, and from my experience, progress in agriculture is coming from farmers. There are many farmers from all over the world that are driving innovation. Sometimes it feels like practical farming and agricultural research exist in two separate worlds, which is crazy. The academic research should be informing farmers. Although it seems as if it rather supports the agrochemical industry and “backs-up” their new products, and it informs other researchers.
I have published two peer-reviewed articles in academic journals. What I published basically just provided evidence for what we and the farmers had known for a long time. It certainly was not anything revolutionary. The process of getting those papers published was painful and laborious. It takes a lot of time and demands a very specific approach. I do understand the importance of this rigorous process, but it leads to very little research being published from people who practically work with farmers – we just don’t have the time.
Where is this progressive information shared?
Due to the progress coming from farmers rather than researchers, where are these progressive practices being shared? Mostly among farmers, consultants and agricultural field-workers – at farmers days, study groups and informal gatherings. An example of this is what is happening with the regenerative agriculture movement – farmers are implementing this, and researchers are often trying to catch-up. The same is true for conservation agriculture – the research community is still debating its benefits, risks and trade-offs, all while farmers are adopting the practices and getting the job done.
The problem is that this often stays within a certain group of progressive farmers who are interested in new innovations. There are many farmers who are under so much pressure, they are doing all they can to just survive. These farmers often do not have the time, or the inclination to find out about the innovative practices other farmers are implementing. They rely on the agricultural industry – agrochemical reps and popular media – to inform their decisions. Therefore I think the bias in the research is such a problem.
Once again, I would like to emphasise that I am not saying there is no good research by academics. We have the privilege of working closely with some academics that are passionate about their research making a difference to farmers – that is why they work with us. It is more the general trend that concerns me.
This dynamic I have discussed often leaves farmers confused and unsure which practices to implement. There are numerous practices that farmers can adopt which do not cost lots of money or require expensive inputs. The problem is that these expensive inputs are often communicated as the latest, best and most supported-by-research solutions to the challenges they are facing. It does not benefit companies that sell agrochemicals to advocate for practices that reduce inputs – that is just not good business.
I believe farmers should consistently question they information and options they are presented with. Consider where this information is coming from, and what the people communicating it might have to gain. It is not about being cynical, but it is important not to be naive.
My hope is that the innovative practices being implemented by farmers around the world will overwhelm any contrary evidence coming from research. This would force the whole industry to take note of the practices that reduce inputs and improve the health of farms.
- Montgomery DR. 2017. Growing a revolution: Bringing our soil back to life. WW Norton, New York. p 81.