Sunday, April 24, 2016

Theory and how it can help to re-configure and re-invent food systems (Link to Webinar)

Theory has an important role to play in re-inventing our food systems to be more sustainable, but I have the impression that the word 'theory' causes people to want to turn away and move to the next thing. Please hear me out before you do. I'll try to keep it short(ish).

First, you have to accept the basic premise that we all see and make judgments about the world using abstract concepts, otherwise known as 'theory.'  You may not think you apply theory to your judgments about the world and your valuations of what's important, but you do.

Take a look at the Merriam-Webster definition and you'll see various definitions, but all of them refer to the idea that theory is a set of principles or ideas, and their relationships to each other, used to explain phenomena.

Sometimes people don't realize that they are viewing the world through theory or abstractions, and this can get them into trouble. It gets them into trouble because theories, by their very nature, make sense of the world through a finite number of abstractions.  When I was doing my dissertation, this idea crystallized for me when I read this passage from Alfred North Whitehead's "Science and the Modern World":
The disadvantage of exclusive attention to a group of abstractions, however well-founded, is that, by nature of the case, you have abstracted from the remainder of things.  In so far as the excluded things are important in your experience, your modes of thought are not fitted to deal with them.  You cannot think without abstractions; accordingly, it is of the utmost importance to be vigilant in critically revising your modes of abstraction.  It is here that philosophy finds its niche as essential to the healthy progress of society.  It is the critic of abstractions.  A civilisation which cannot burst through its current abstractions is doomed to sterility after a very limited progress. An active school of philosophy is quite as important for the locomotion of ideas, as is an active school of railway engineers for the locomotion of fuel. (p. 73)
Wow.  That's some powerful stuff.  A civilisation which cannot burst through its current abstractions is doomed to sterility after a very limited progress. 

And, here's where I'll make the case for applying different theoretical lenses to our food systems.  We cannot afford any longer to see them through a set of abstractions, that, among other things, sees (very limited notions of) efficiency as paramount; that views 'comparative advantage' as a key operating principal; and in which ecological boundaries are not acknowledged. In light of the challenges we face, this is an urgent project. Before we can fundamentally re-configure our food systems to be more sustainable, which I maintain is what's needed, we need to see them differently, and we need to understand what values need to be put into action.

And that's what I'll be talking about in my upcoming webinar on May 3rd.  My dissertation research was primarily about applying different theoretical frames to food systems, and showing how they reveal different values, which, in turn, creates locally-specific food practices and relationships. One of my papers was on applying resilience theory to an exploration of urban agriculture and urban food practices in Senegal. That paper is currently in the final editing stages and will be published in an edited volume entitled, Global Urban Agriculture: Convergence of Theory and Practice between North and South by CABI (Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International).  I hope that you will join me in that discussion.  Registration is online here.

Thanks for reading!

Trip Blog: Human-Centered Design to Diversify Opportunities for Value-Chain Participation

First, I'll just apologize for the length of that title.  It's quite a mouthful, but I wanted to capture the essence of what I wrote about in the last entry, All Innovation is Social! Essentially, what I'll write about in this entry provides an illustrative example of what I wrote about in that one, namely that innovation is inherently a social process with social outcomes, and that it is important to be deliberate and inclusive about goals.

One of the center-led projects we're working on at GCFSI (in collaboration with researchers at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR)) concerns the design of a technology that is intended to promote greater participation of small-scale farmers and retailers in, and control over,* the pigeon pea value chain.** Pigeon pea is a legume that has been promoted as an agronomic innovation that can improve the sustainability of maize-based cropping systems, but adoption rates among farmers remain low.***

Many of the efforts to improve pigeon pea adoption have not engaged with value chain dynamics.  Historically, commercialization of the crop has been largely controlled by export companies that are exporting pigeon pea to India. This means that farmers can only engage with the value chain as price-takers. Farmers reported that they might be promised one price by the export companies, but, come harvest, would receive a much lower price. Such asymmetry, where control clearly is one-sided, results in a system where incentives to grow pigeon pea are minimal and unsure, especially for small-scale farmers who cannot take advantage of economies of scale.

In general, agricultural investments have focused on supporting small-scale farmers, but have not considered the larger food system within which farmers work.  The same is true of investments into pigeon pea production.  An almost exclusive focus on commodity production for export means that other local food system activities have not received support, effectively stifling development of local pigeon-pea related food industries and entrepreneurship. In contrast, we are exploring how the development of a more diversified pigeon pea value chain, one from which farmers and other local value-chain actors are able to derive more benefits and realize more of their interests, might be encouraged.

We hypothesize that local small-scale processing of pigeon pea can provide additional income generating opportunities, particularly for women (my colleague, Nathalie Me-Nsope, will write on the gender dimensions of this work). Our earlier research found that there is unmet demand for pigeon pea in urban markets, but that the current exchange relationships that comprise the value chain do not allow farmers to take advantage of this demand.  We are working with the idea that a locally-designed technology that splits pigeon pea would be a cost-effective tool for diversifying opportunities in local pigeon pea value chains so that farmers do not have to rely solely on the terms dictated by the large-scale exporters/processors. In turn, we hypothesize that increasing farmer choices in this way, and improving their capacity to connect with urban consumers, can incentivize them to plant more pigeon pea.

Image 1: Meeting with enumerators to discuss content of initial assessment
The first step towards an appropriately designed technology (what is often referred to as 'human-centered design') started with the testing of an instrument that will be used to gather data about local preferences, constraints, opportunities, and practices on pigeon pea growing, seed-saving, exchange, and consumption.  This will require interviews with actors all along the pigeon pea value-chain.  In order to develop an assessment that will provide us with the kind of foundation we need, Nathalie Me-Nsope and I traveled to Malawi earlier this month and met with LUANAR partners, Sera Gondwe, Charity Chonde, Joseph Dzanja, Joseph Chimungu, and Hankie Uluku.  We spent five days going through our instruments, tweaking them to be more relevant, and translating them into the local language, Chichewa.  We engaged in long and intense discussions over two of those days about the phrasing or applicability of certain questions (Image 1).

Image 2: Developing a plan for carrying out the field test of the initial assessment instrument

When we got to a point where we were relatively happy with the questions, we spent two days in the  field, where we interviewed farmers, retailers, transporters, and agrodealers in both Lilongwe and Dedza (Images 2 and 3).

Image 3: One of the enumerators testing out the questionnaire with a farmer in the Dedza region of Malawi
Upon completing those interviews, we again re-evaluated, re-configured, and re-worded our instruments according to the experiences and insights of all involved members of the team.  It was an exhausting process, sometimes contentious, but one which has resulted in the kind of data-gathering we need to put towards the development of a technological design process that meets the needs of users and informs us about the kinds of networks and training programs we should focus on developing.  Such a process not only recognizes the need to develop and test innovations in relation to the social context, but also recognizes that the context itself is a constituting factor in innovation design.

I'll periodically return to this project with updates about the process and design phases.

*I'm emphasizing the issue of control because development projects rarely engage with power relationships. In contrast, the work that we do explicitly recognizes that power and information asymmetries are fundamental.

**This project has evolved from a major research effort that MSU and LUANAR began in 2014, which set out to answer the question "“Where and how can multipurpose legumes be scaled for sustainable intensification of maize systems and what would the potential impacts be, in the medium term, across the food system in Malawi?”* The use of multipurpose legumes to sustainably intensify agricultural systems is a promising agronomic innovation, but adoption rates among farmers in Malawi remain low. For the most part, low adoption rates have been primarily addressed via farmer education, but there is increasing recognition that factors such as socio-economic context and off-farm food system dynamics heavily influence farmer decision-making and, thus, the potential for scaling agricultural innovations.  

***Pigeon peas are part of a group of legumes referred to as 'multipurpose legumes,' and are commonly found in Malawi, especially in the southern region. The use of multipurpose legume technologies is a common component of “sustainable intensification.” A legume is considered “multipurpose” when it serves several functions in a cropping system. For example, in addition to providing a food source for humans, a multipurpose legume may also provide a source of fodder for livestock; a reliable and sustainable source of soil nitrogen; wood that, when coppiced, can provide a source of fuel or building material; and, improved soil structure as a result of deep-rooted growth. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

All Innovation is Social!

I work for an organization called the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation, the mission of which is to 'create, test, and enable scaling of effective solutions and evidence based approaches to a defined set of future critical global trends impacting food systems.'  We are based at Michigan State University, and are one of eight development labs funded by US Global Development Lab at USAID.

Since coming to work for GCFSI, I've thought a lot about the concept of innovation. I like unpacking words and concepts, and think that doing so can force one to be more precise and thoughtful about how concepts are enacted and how those enactments are measured.

The word 'innovation' is used so often, by so many people, in so many different contexts, that it's no great insight on my part to say that, in common parlance, it carries more emotional weight than scientific. If you asked 10 people to define 'innovation,' you might get a consensus on the idea that it is something new that provokes change for the common good, but if you started asking about definitions of 'common good,' you'd get as many answers as people asked.

My favorite museum is The Henry Ford, a museum dedicated to the history of technological innovation. At The Henry Ford, there are many examples of technological innovations that changed the world, but less about the negative social, environmental, and economic implications of those technologies. For example, there's no denying that the steam engine was an innovation that provoked major social and economic change, but the consequences of that change were not always positive; in fact, they were pervasively negative for certain groups of people.  Clearly, innovation is historically situated and its effects are socially stratified, and whether or not an innovation is 'successful' depends on what the metric for success is.

Our food systems are facing some major challenges. Doing things differently is going to be required, but it is important to be clear about what the goals are, as well as who is served by any particular innovation.  For example, if conversations about innovation are guided by the imperative of meeting demand, but there is little discussion about the quality of demand and its interaction with supply systems, we are not acknowledging some fundamental truths about planetary boundaries. A so-called 'modern' food system has been operating without consideration for planetary boundaries, which, in turn, has resulted in extremely energy-intensive diets and food practices (one excellent article on the subject: "What Do Chinese Dumplings Have to Do with Global Warming").  Acknowledging boundaries means that trajectories towards energy-intense food systems must not be assumed, and that innovation needs to be shaped not only in the demand space, but also the supply space.  In other words, food security and ecological sustainability need to be simultaneously addressed in integrated ways (for one recent discussion, see this paper by Roberta Sonnino et al).
Figure 1: technocentric problem-solving

Furthermore, these are not just technical issues, but social issues.  Technology is never neutral; technological solutions have unintended consequences. Food systems, though often treated as a mechanical series of activities that get calories from farm to plate (or bowl), are intensely social and political, a fact that is often considered inconsequential or incidental by mainstream economists and engineers. I'm reminded here of a conversation I had with a wise engineer colleague here at MSU (Ron Averill) who says that engineers typically problem-solve with a techno-centric perspective (Figure 1), while he insists on a socio-centric approach (Figure 2).  Done properly, this kind of problem-solving would by constituted by the experiences and knowledge of those whom the innovation is supposed to serve.
Figure 2: Socio-centric problem solving

In Africa, where most of GCFSI's work takes place, food exchange is a highly decentralized affair, contingent on the activities and relationships of many small-scale entrepreneurs. Those livelihoods may not be well-served if metrics of success are shaped by, for example, conventional (i.e. western) notions of 'efficiency.'  As much as food is needed for sustaining bodies, it is also a vehicle for social and economic growth, and, thus, a primary platform for livelihood.  Innovations must be shaped not according to discipline, but by local realities and relationships.

Friday, April 15, 2016

A Blog's New Direction

This blog has been on hiatus for about 4 years, in which time I've finished a dissertation and entered a new phase of life.  I'm now very happily employed with the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation and also supported by the Center for Regional Food Systems.  I do a lot of my work in Malawi with faculty researchers from Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources .

From here on out, I'm going to make an attempt to keep this blog focused on food issues in a changing world.  I want to use it to explore food narratives and trajectories, as well as to unpack assumptions that are often used to justify certain courses of action or advocacy.

My interest is in contributing to efforts that support food systems that provide easily accessible and nutritious food, diverse livelihood opportunities, and which are environmentally sustainable (or regenerative).  I see food systems and food-related work as a forum for creativity and innovation, social and economic justice, and improved community cohesion.  I think my posts will end up being a combination of the political and the scientific, as well as observations about my work and the work of my colleagues.  I would also like to provide a forum for academics to discuss issues that concern them, but to do so in ways that are compelling to the general public.

I'm going to try mightily to balance every critical post with a positive one, because while there's a lot to complain about, there's so much good stuff going on that it would be a crime to dwell on the negative.

I look forward to building networks with a wide range of people who are also interested in these and related food issues.