1) who are the users of agricultural technology? The farmers? Food processors? The consumer? The state? It is not very interesting of me to simply highlight that ‘the point’ of agriculture is a highly divisive and controversial question. However, that hist-tech understanding of the ‘user’, the power of which was abundantly demonstrated at Jones et al.’s conference on medicine and disability, could be productively applied to agriculture, seems worthy of further exploration. A quick google scholar search confirms to me that development studies literature on ‘farmer first’ initiatives are crying out for interpretation from the perspective of the history and philosophy of science.
2) if we allow that farmers are the key users of agricultural technology, and we can readily recognise the ways in which certain technologies - particularly when approached from the perspective of disability - are conducive of greater social division and exclusion, why are we so hesitant to admit the same in farming? There is an overarching culture of blame placed upon farmers who ‘fail’ to adopt the ‘correct’ techniques and technology. Before agricultural scientists and development programme leaders jump on my throat and say “but we don’t do that anymore!”, yes, there is now a greater sensitivity toward variations in farmer capacity for tech adoption in different parts of the world - but herein lies my question. Some people just do things differently. To hold them to a common standard is surely an odd impulse - unless perhaps we’re talking about a nationalised industry - and one that should at the very least be placed under the microscope. Interest in researching farmer ‘adoption’ of new technology seems to wax and wane - see Ruttan’s ‘What Happened to Technology Adoption-Diffusion Research?’ and again, in the case of agriculture, we seem to be thin on the ground for historians of science and technology. The best I know of is Deborah Fitzgerald’s ‘Every Farm a Factory’, but that’s getting older all the time! (Sub-text here is GIVE DOMINIC RESEARCH MONEY).
Innovation: Another common theme was disability as a catalyst for innovation. Rather than merely the obvious ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, it was much more common for speakers to emphasize the sheer variety of locations in which invention might take place. Jai Virdi’s paper for instance, which traced the history of the artificial ear drum from a prosthesis available to only a few (and requiring the expertise of a surgeon), to a patented and mass-produced device, and finally to a ‘quack’ remedy, demonstrated how novelty can breed novelty but - not necessarily - the kind of novelty that actually matters to a deaf person. An alternative model was found in Laurel Daen’s paper, in the figure of Captain George Webb Derenzy, who was wounded in battle and lost an arm, causing him to set about inventing devices to carry on as independent a life as possible. Working as an individual, and publishing his really remarkable catalogue of devices (including their prices), Derenzy did not however attempt to legally protect his intellectual property through the use of patents. What lessons for agriculture might these two cases hold? Well the first is fairly easy to translate - if left to industry, not all innovations will becoming increasingly valuable to the consumers concerned, though - by nature of their being novel - can still attract a significant market. In plant breeding this problem occurs with some regularity, simply because it can be extremely difficult to prove incontrovertibly that an improvement has been made from one variety to the next AND because where these improvements might actually be exploited - which depends upon particular environmental conditions and supplementary technologies such as fertilizers - is highly context dependent. As for the second case, that of Derenzy, well to what extent does it matter that he had a stake in disability through his own experiences? I’m sure this is by no means a general rule amongst disabled inventors, but what difference does this shared experience/risk make? To translate this to agriculture - once upon a time, most plant breeding firms were also engaged as agriculturalists at-large. What difference does it make that most plant breeding firms no longer share the same environmental experiences, or the same economic risks, as the farming communities that they serve? Moreover, global intellectual property regimes, that seek to homogenize laws and minimum standards of regulation, force further wedges between the farmer and the particular locations in which they work, by treating them all the same.
I’ve reached my typical 1000 word limit! Bye!
Thanks to Shubha Ghosh, Graeme Gooday, Viola Prifti, Mercedes Campi and Gregory Radick for providing comments and corrections on a draft of this post. Any of its failings are still mine, obvs.