The World’s Fair is pleased to offer the following discussion about Agroecology in Action: Extending Alternative Agriculture through Social Networks (MIT Press, 2007), with its author Keith Warner. Warner is a Franciscan Friar and currently at Santa Clara University, where he lectures in the Religious Studies Department, and serves as assistant director for education at the Center for Science, Technology & Society.
Agroecology in Action, says its publisher, “shows that agroecology can be put into action effectively only when networks of farmers, scientists, and other stakeholders learn together. Farmers and scientists and their organizations must work collaboratively to share knowledge–whether it is derived from farm, laboratory, or marketplace. This sort of partnership, writes Warner, has emerged as the primary strategy for finding alternatives to conventional agrochemical use. Warner describes successful agroecological initiatives in California, Iowa, Washington, and Wisconsin. California’s vast and diverse specialty-crop agriculture has already produced 32 agricultural partnerships, and Warner pays particular attention to agroecological efforts in that state, including those under way in the pear, winegrape, and almond farming systems.” Agroecology in Action, says its author, is an attempt to produce academic research that is engaged with public and social problems by drawing from interdisciplinary science studies and from the sciences of ecology.
This is the fourteenth in our series of “Author Meets Bloggers” posts, where we talk to authors about their new work. (See them all here.) What follows is part one of a conversation about the book.
We’re running this discussion slightly differently than the prior ones, with extended answers from the author. We’ll also have additions to Warner’s comments on the book added in new parts over the next month, instead of all at once. In the meantime, confer this post at the webpage for Robert Gottlieb’s Urban and Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI) book series out of MIT (we linked to this before, here) where Warner further discusses his motivations and goals for the book. Agroecology in Action is the third publication in a new series there called Food, Health, and Environment. Also in the meantime, we encourage all questions and comments about the book, the research, and the topic.
WORLD’S FAIR: How did your interest in agrofood issues lead you into the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS)?
KEITH WARNER: I have been interested in alternative agriculture (or sustainable agriculture) for more than a decade. I am a California native, and I have witnessed alarming losses of farmland due to development, and when I decided to pursue doctoral studies, I wanted to study the intersection of sustainable agriculture policy and land use. I studied at the Department of Environmental Studies at the University of California – Santa Cruz, a self-consciously inter-disciplinary program. I imagined I would study the science of alternative agriculture, but also the policies which supported this, or failed to. I learned very quickly that agriculture is quite different from other environmentally consequential activities in its regulation. Agro-environmental policy in the US and California is chiefly agricultural economic policy and available scientific knowledge about production practices. The trajectory of agricultural development is guided by technoscientific research and market development. Not all the news is bad, however; there are hundreds upon hundreds of farmers and scientists in California who have been working very hard to shape that trajectory so that it might be more sustainable. I wrote this book to show how alternative approaches to the generation and exchange science have made this possible.
As I began to poke around rural California looking for some way to formulate a study that would interest me, I learned about the “agricultural partnerships” by which a range of social actors were simultaneously addressing environmentally problematic farming practices and the power dynamics in the relationships between scientific experts and farmer-practitioners. I discovered that underneath the discourses of omniscience on the part land grant universities and the farm bureau, a significant portion of the farming community questioned the inevitability of contemporary, polluting practices. This rarely looked like an insurgence, but more like a questioning of the singularity of the science. Farmers (or as we say in California, growers) are a pragmatic lot, always looking for opportunities to cut costs and often, to informally experiment with new technologies and practices. Often, the success of these experiments is determined by local ecological conditions, many of which are invisible to university scientists.
I became interested in these partnerships — and their challenge to conventional wisdom – at the same time that I began reading Bruno Latour, in particular Science in Action, and Pandora’s Hope. These two unwrapped some of the cloaking of the “official story” of science, and inspired me to undertake an effort to explain what was really happening in California agriculture, or at least part of it. Latour contributed a couple of key concepts that I found essential. First, he proposed following scientific actors around to find out what they really do, not just what they say they do. Second, he explained how scientists work in networks, and how technologies, knowledge and resources circulate through networks. Third, he described the essential role of non-scientists in scientific networks. With these ideas rolling around in my head, I set off to do my field work. I interviewed roughly 225 people, plus attended dozens of field days and indoor meetings where growers, scientists and others debated the feasibility and desirability of novel, alternative farming practices.
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