Questioning temperaments in agricultural science


back to issue

IT is widely asserted that food security and agricultural livelihoods will be most severely affected by climate variability and change. Since this scenario of future distress receives much of the research attention and funding, there is now a sense of complacency in the agricultural research and development circles – almost as if most current problems have been adequately addressed. The massive investments and rapid developments in crops and animals (salt tolerant and submergence tolerant rice, climate proof crop varieties, etc.) that can survive inundation, new temperature regimes, weeds, pests and diseases, all reveal the commendable commitment of modern science to find solutions for emerging problems. But is that the entire story? Or are these yet another set of replicable ‘production solutions’, where a knowledge system unwilling and perhaps incapable of understanding and analyzing the problem in its entirety, has reduced it to yet another production problem like coastal inundation, a pest or a new weed?

This essay explores the evolution of the most revered actor in the agricultural knowledge system – the agricultural scientist. If ‘science is what scientists do’ and the substance of this science is conditioned by the scientific method, then it is important to know how the scientific method of the agricultural scientist articulates his understanding of agricultural development and the environment, as well as the application of science and technology to problems therein. The evolution of the middle class professional, a striking phase in the history of the agricultural sciences, has unfortunately been inadequately studied, in part because scholars, including reputed historians, have focused more on the manifest revolutions in the physical production of food, fibre and other agricultural commodities.

Events and processes in the global as well as Indian history of the agricultural sciences are used to illustrate the evolution of this agricultural science professional. The current catwalk of science down the climate change ramp assumes that present and future problems in agriculture have nothing to do with the substance or processes of scientific research and technology development pursued in the past, and can be resolved using the same epistemology, shared causal relationships and methods of validation of knowledge that are used by the agricultural science community the world over. Climate change offers the agricultural sciences an opportunity to reconsider the shift from defensive to offensive research strategies (accepted since the late 1950s) and understand systems relationships – bio-physical, ecological and socio-cultural.


The radical advances in physical production of cultivated species, known to us as the agricultural revolutions, first took place when man started cultivating crops and domesticating animals (mimicking nature to the maximum extent possible), and second, when man started selectively breeding varieties of these species to get the desired traits (grain yield, uniform ripening, etc.) and using chemical inputs to enhance soil fertility, pest control and expression of these desired traits (manipulating nature and exerting pressure).


The evolution of the modern agricultural scientist took place almost unobserved somewhere between the first and the second agricultural revolutions. By the time the second agricultural revolution was consolidated (in the 1970s), the agricultural scientists were at the helm of the entire agricultural world, occupying not just knowledge spaces on crops and animals, but shaping the politics of the entire sector. They were working in and heading its scientific research organizations, technology diffusion systems, professional, trade and social organizations.

The history of agricultural science is simultaneously a history of changes in the motives and rationale of research. As a species trying to understand and improve cultivation, our motives in analyzing and learning from nature and subsequent well-articulated scientific enquiries evolved from the desire to reduce drudgery, to seeking increases in production with an indirect interest in higher rents and the quest for ‘principles’ under-lying production practices. There were important incentives provided for landlords and tenant farmers (through their guilds or local organizations) to pro-actively seek technological improvements in agriculture. The Rothamsted Experiment Station founded by John Lawes, a county gentleman, was run from the profits he made from the manufacture of super-phosphate fertilizer. The slogan of those days, ‘Science for Profit’, says it all!1

The mid-19th century was the formative phase of the professional agricultural scientist. Jean Boussingault’s agricultural experiment station (1834), the very first in France, was manned by the educated middle class. Similarly the Mockern experiment station (1852) was set up in response to an initiative by the Saxon farmers, whose draft charter for the station was legalized by the Saxon government – the first agricultural science legislation. The first ever public legislation for national agricultural research, however, was the legislation for state-sponsored experiment stations in the USA through the Hatch Act (1887).


The origins of the Hatch Act can be traced back to the deliberations within the 4S movement in rural America, symbolizing the birth of a new era of institutional arrangements for agricultural science. Discussions in Congress (1886-1887) about the role of scientists, farmers, rural communities and government (including federal versus state responsibilities and powers), marked the first informed debate on conflicting interests and compromising decisions on the level, nature and allocation of research investment.2 These debates capture the earliest legitimization of scientific research for production of public goods and also represent the agricultural researcher as the farmer’s learned benefactor.

Though research stations and public support (from the East India Company and later the British government) in India pre-dates any European attempt at organizing agricultural science and populating it with experts, it is never considered worth the mention.3 The first experiment station in India (Government Cattle Farm in Haryana, 1809) was meant to select and breed camels and later horses (1815) and bullocks (1853) for the cavalry. Whether set up for the army or for trade (with cotton, sugarcane, tea and coffee research stations later in the 19th century), all these research stations were peopled by educated Europeans.


Feudal India identified itself with this modern science and its methods of cultivation, regarding with ridicule and at times sympathy, the modes and practices of peasant production in a subcontinent whose agricultural production based on these very peasant knowledge systems had delivered unimaginable wealth to the European and Indian elite. When more professionals were needed to improve production and reduce losses in the fields, the middle class was eager to enrol for this technical education and take up scientific research careers. State support for the training and production of these middle class professionals occurred more or less at the same time in Europe and in India. As the provision for agricultural research constitutionally became part of every national budget after World War II, a variety of legislations, organizational formats and investments in physical infrastructure and personnel for agricultural research started appearing, particularly in the erstwhile colonies.

Disregard and contempt aside, a total failure to learn about local agricultural knowledge and practices from the peasants marked the European agricultural scientists and their native counterparts (then an understudy or field hand), both educated middle class professionals.4 The agricultural scientist had by then silently and irrevocably consolidated his place in the cosmos of agricultural knowledge, marking the first phase in the evolution of this key actor; a major driver of the second agricultural revolution.


By the 1950s, the motive had become agricultural development, an act of benevolence from the developed West using the application of its science for the benefit of less developed tropical East, intriguingly discussed more in journals of international development and foreign affairs committees than in their science or economics counterparts. Articulated as the public goods nature of agricultural technology, and the state’s responsibility to provide technology, openly and equally accessible to all, in an area where private profitability is not assured, this increased government spending on the production of agricultural scientists and through them, more technologies. Moreover, it was felt that individual farmers caught in a low equilibrium trap cannot afford to conduct research for the technologies they need.5 Scientists thus become party to the formulation and implementation of several policies and institutions (rules or norms), to formally guide and shape the conduct of science. This articulation of science policy has been accompanied by a steady increase in the population of scientists, pressure for more funds, adequate facilities and protection of professional interests.6


Simultaneously, the global post-war economic order and the success of the Mexican wheat-rust programme with the arrival of the Norin-10 dwarfing gene from Japan, evinced a staunch faith in modern science and technology, and a theory of the impact of technology on economic development. For the agricultural scientist this period was one of setting the house in order, of reaffirming a particular cause-effect relationship and of aligning scientific disciplines and methods to the validation of these causes and effects.

In the wake of the Asian famines in the 1940s and 1950s and the impending threat of a red revolution, it was important to deliver the knowledge public goods to Asian farmers to pull them out of poverty and to ensure that this knowledge is presented as politically neutral production technologies. When food security became the national policy in India and elsewhere in the developing world, governments (irrespective of their political ideologies) began to invest in agricultural research and in the agricultural education system to ensure the generation of technologies. Instrumentalism, defining science ‘as the discussion of means on the basis of given objectives’ and bringing with it a logical distinction between the morality of science and reality of the political world, ensured that agricultural science received the patronage of the state and international donors, and maintained its moral allegiance to delivering technical solutions to production problems.

The articulation of the agricultural sciences as being different from the other applied sciences in two major aspects is evident in the aid documents of these times.7 First, it is expected that all research results will be applied. Second, and partly the reason for this expectation, is that all agricultural research is caused by or is allegedly determined by the need to solve agricultural production problems. This focus on agricultural production problems is ‘justified by viewing the problems of rural poverty and hunger largely as problems of production.’8 Once food security is reduced to a series of production problems, the euphoria of the green revolution technologies in India becomes such that all accompanying institutional changes made to enable this revolution in cereal production such as new support structures, instruments and incentives, are underplayed.


Memories of how the professional agricultural scientist made the transition from engagements in scientific inquiry to indubitably political work – for instance, Sir Daniel Hall in Britain or a more recent George Harrar in the USA – may look irrelevant now, but are critical to our understanding of the evolution of the modern agricultural scientist and the conduct of agricultural science. Between the 1940s and the late 1960s, the agricultural sciences had set their house in order – globally. They displayed a common normative faith in the philosophy of productionism and shared causal beliefs about the nature of production problems and the expected impact of their knowledge on these production problems. The leaders knew how to choose their men; the ones that possess a missionary zeal.


The most illustrious pick of all was Norman Borlaug, chosen by George Harrar and Eric Stakman to head the Mexican wheat programme (in 1944), which focused on soil development, plant pathology and wheat and maize production. Borlaug, a brilliant plant pathologist involved in testing fungicides as a Dupont employee, drew Stakman’s attention in a wrestling match. Stakman recommended him for the new job, noting how Borlaug would ‘fight to the last ditch and had real determination, … which was something you would need to undertake a new job, a pioneer job in Mexico.’ They needed a scientist who had the fortitude and perseverance, ‘the missionary zeal’ to take up this job, which was bound to be problematic given the ‘obvious differences in what was known as the Anglo-Saxon temperament and the Latin temperament.’9

We now know that this young plant pathologist became the world’s most famous geneticist. He not only transformed a defensive research programme (focusing on disease resistance and soil management) into an offensive one (transforming the genetic potential of the plant to push yield frontiers), but also overcame the Latin American and Asian temperaments and heralded the green revolution.

The Anglo-Saxon temperament was maintained in all agricultural production systems in the world by transferring the equipment that generated people with this temperament. Commencing in the 1960s, the reach of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) with its international agricultural research centres and an agricultural education system moulding an educated middle class, drew upon the content and structure of similar knowledge generation organizations in the West to create thousands of professional agricultural scientists.


In India, the University Education Commission that recommended (first in 1949) a new system of rural colleges and universities with freedom to create a distinctive tradition in purpose, spirit and methods of education, demanded a flexible and need-based curriculum to cater to specific development problems in each region. While they suggested that the philosophy of US Land Grant Colleges could be applied to India, the USAID (and the Ministry of Agriculture) decided to forget the philosophy and transfer the model instead.10 When transferred by the USAID, ‘its expressed goal was to effect rapid social change in developing countries by working with elites in a top-down fashion.’11 The ideal isolated zones were created to train professionals in the agricultural sciences and extension to solve agricultural production problems based on the newfound confidence in genetics and the offensive research strategy it offered.


The agricultural sciences have paid dearly for their reductionism and isolation. Armed with research results, the agricultural scientists have no doubt saved millions of lives from starvation and millions of hectares of forest land (which would have been necessary to feed these hungry millions without the productivity enhancing technologies they had generated). Yet, despite their successes, their shared causal beliefs about knowledge and production were soon being torn apart by the evidence of the impacts of knowledge on the environment, small farmers and their livelihoods, nutrition and health of the population. Evidently, advances in production technologies did not match the worsening rural and environmental realities.

Along with the global acceptance of an industry and service sector led growth model, and the limited impact of the agricultural sciences in the 1980s and 1990s, overall assistance to agriculture in the early 2000s fell to a third of its level (US$ 6.2 billion) in 1980 (at constant 2002 prices). Interestingly, this phase of declining public investment in agriculture and the agricultural sciences coincided with an increasing number of legislations facilitating the growth of the private corporate sector as well as civil society organizations in agriculture. The former, with its ownership of 96 per cent of global grain trade and a significant share of plant genetic knowledge and resources with legally sanctioned manipulation and control over them, has been at the forefront of several controversies involving modern technologies and trade. The latter, a parallel world of socially and ecologically responsible science, indigenous knowledge, and political ecology, emerged with eco-friendly, fair trade and organic agriculture products increasing in markets.

The missionaries of the 1960s with their offensive research strategy have stunted the options for evolution of the agricultural sciences, leaving this body of knowledge incapable of delivering the promised public goods and miserably inadequate in addressing the relationships between the environment, people and agriculture. Both the design and practice of the offensive research strategy over half a century have rendered these sciences deficient in the three principles of evolution, i.e., sustained variation among the members of the population, presence of heredity or continuity, and the ability to pass on features that bestow advantages in the struggle for survival.


Weeding out variation within and around mainstream agricultural science was the most important achievement of the offensive research strategy– whether it was regional temperaments or local knowledge systems, conventional methods of plant breeding and selection (for multiple purposes – say, fodder quality and grain output instead of just grain yield) or inter-disciplinary understanding of pest incidence. Lacking in diversity and with increasing focus on one particular strategy, the knowledge outputs from these sciences were increasingly seen as redundant, providing limited hereditary material to survive in evolving systems.

Unable to understand or explain the evolving social and ecological contexts, the agricultural sciences were no longer fit to survive and produce knowledge for these changing and diverse contexts – these technologies needed legal and institutional protection. No wonder, subsidies to encourage diverse people and contexts to adopt the same resource degrading technologies was necessary to make the offensive research strategy work, as was a regime of intellectual property rights to produce the knowledge public goods that farmers could not afford to produce for themselves!

It is likely that the agricultural monolith of converging offensive knowledge, policy and practice structures will succumb to a different evolutionary potential given climate change impacts, when different components of the edifice (such as resource degrading subsidies) are demolished, new knowledge systems (such as agro-ecological sciences that merge economic and ecological sustainability) evolve from existing deviants of the mainstream, and dynamic reincarnations of current decadent governance mechanisms are born (decentralized political structures based on ecological and democratic values). Agricultural scientists, along with many others who have faith in science, must now reclaim their ability to comprehend and work with diverse ecosystems and cultures, in ways that enhance both human and ecological wellbeing.


For those of us who continue to have faith in science, it is not a celebration of Darwin that is important this year, but our ability to revive the evolutionary potential of the agricultural sciences. We must now draw upon our capacity for self-reflection wherever we confront complex systems relationships in nature and recover our memory of Vavilov who gave us our understanding of crop genetic diversity and died of malnutrition while being tortured by a powerful state. We must be cognizant of the ways in which the very missionary zeal of the scientist is complicit in perpetuating these crises (hunger and starvation, climate variability and change, diseases and lack of credibility) when the sciences do have the capacity to engage with several forms of knowledge and practice, and in the process evolve in new directions.



1. This section draws heavily from Rajeswari S. Raina, ‘Public Patronage and Political Neutrality in Agricultural Research: Lessons From British Experience’, The Economic and Political Weekly 32(39), 1997, 2473-2485 and several papers cited therein.

2. It is no coincidence that the experiment stations created through federal land grants under the Hatch Act were located in or tied to the Land Grant Colleges and Universities created under the Morrill Act of 1862. The transfer of these models to India must be seen in the light of these interactions between scientists and farmers and the state.

3. The first public funding for agricultural research in Britain (in 1910) came from a pot of ‘whiskey money’ which the government suddenly received due to a change in its liquor policy, and not knowing what to do with it, relented to the pressure from pioneers like Sir Daniel Hall, to allocate the amount to agricultural science as part of provisions under the Development and Road Improvement Act 1910.

4. Exceptions like a J. A. Voelcker or A. Howard were always there, appreciating and recommending lessons from the multiple dimensions of peasant production systems.

5. T.W. Schultz, The Economics of Agricultural Research, in C. Eicher and Staatz (eds.), Agricultural Development in the Third World, 1984, pp. 335-347.

6. R.R. Nelson, Less Developed Countries – Technology Transfer and Adaptation: the Role of the Indigenous Science Community, Economic Development and Cultural Change 23(1), 1974, 61-77.

7. Paul B. Thompson, The Spirit of the Soil. Routledge, London, 1995.

8. M. Altieri, Agroecology: The Science of Sustainable Agriculture, Intermediate Technology Publications, London, 1987.

9. Rockefeller Archives Centre (RAC). Oral Histories – Eric C. Stakman (RAC, RG 13, Box 6, Folder Vol.5), 1970, p. 986-987.

10. Op cit., fn 2.

11. Lawrence Busch, Universities for Development: Report of the Joint Indo-US Impact Evaluation of the Indian Agricultural Universities. AID Project Impact Evaluation Report No.68, USAID, USAID, Washington, DC, 1988.