World's Fair

Chinese Science and Agriculture

In our post on Science and the Farm Bill, we might’ve noted more clearly that such a topic was worth a near-daily accounting. We might, or could, in another incarnation, devote the entire World’s Fair to just that topic. Just this week, three stories related to agriculture and science came across our desk.

One was the Subsiidies and Small Farms discussion noted in an earlier post.

A second, which my father actually notified me of in an early morning call–and while I have the em-dash available, let me offer an aside on that matter, which is that parents should never make calls that early because, well, if someone calls you at breakfast it can only be bad news, so I was quite relieved it was news of Chinese agriculture and otherwise–now where was I? Oh yes, the article from the Washington Post business section — “In China, Farming Advances Lie Fallow: No Clear Path for New Science or Policy Changes to Reach Rural Fields” — which tells of the problems in China of getting their leading-edge scientific work out to the small farms in the provinces. (The third, to foreshadow, is about Food Miles and will be discussed tomorrow.)

As the Post says:

China’s vast network of food research centers and laboratories churns out mountains of papers on the latest farming techniques and technology. Their work on chemical use, pollution risks and genetically engineered crops is considered to be among the most advanced in the world. The Ministry of Agriculture keeps close tabs on the developments, constantly issuing new advice and new regulations based on the research.

But it isn’t getting to the right place. Chinese officials are trying to dictate agricultural practice, and to do so with the newest studies available to them. But now, in the 21st century, they are backing away from their full-on chemical directives of the 1980s:

In the 1980s, the government pushed the use of chemicals to increase food output. Now, in light of research on the dangers of pesticides, the state has been trying to break farmers of their dependence on them, but banned pesticides still regularly show up in rivers and lakes. China’s statistics show that more than 10 percent of cropland may have been polluted because of improper use of pesticides and fertilizers.

Small, local farmers are criticized for drawing only on information “passed down from…parents and grandparents” or “the pesticide salesmen,” and then bemoaned for not having access to the new (but shifting) advise from scientific counsel. I see this as a difficult position to be in, and I would be less inclined to take the heirarchical view seemingly supposed by the Chinese (and the article’s author) that this is simply and only a problem of farmer’s not hearing the government.

For a scientific audience, the story speaks to the travels of science and the question of its value and place in civic issues–and it suggests that small farms are worse off because they don’t have science, and it speaks of science as a portable entity easily cargoed by truck or something from one place to another, and it infers that the concern is a simple matter of with science or without. Given that the most central concern here is more than just food safety, and onto ecological health — pesticides, water contamination, land use practice, plus the food itself — this is also a good case through which to examine the complicated relationship of science and the environment.

For science studies folks, it’s a great example of the travels of science and the question of its value and place in the civic issues–and it brings up center-periphery issues, undermines the unanimity of “science” (which gets you to put it in quotes), illustrates the contested values of scientific practice and the ways by which technical scientific solutions dominate public policy and problem-solving. We might even compare the Chinese situation to the Agricultural Experiment Stations in the US, or the Ag Extension Service. Plus, you need only the inestimable Dave Ng to tell you that science is a much different practice in places less well funded, with less stable infrastructure, and as part of less developed institutional contexts.

Nevertheless, my point in either case is more modest, that you can read these articles in many different ways. No matter which one, it’s interesting in light of broader discussions about agriculture and science.


  1. #1 Laura
    August 9, 2007

    Okay, what’s the third story?
    (and I bet you thought no one would read all the way to the end…)