Knowledge and Science

As with access to food, knowledge is also extremely unfairly and inefficiently distributed across the globe. “Intellectual undernutrition” and “scientific overnutrition” often occur side by side in the modern knowledge-based society between Google and superstition. On the one hand we see an abundance of data, information and specialists that can blur our view of what is essential. On the other there is a huge deficit in general knowledge and agricultural training, extension workers and agricultural colleges. There is also a shortage of researchers dealing with specific local problems, and a lack of competence to compile existing knowledge from different fields so that it can produce results and be used where it is most needed."The formal AKST system is not well equipped to pro­mote the transition toward sustainability. Current ways of organizing technology generation and diffusion will be in­creasingly inadequate to address emerging environmental challenges, the multifunctionality of agriculture, the loss of biodiversity, and climate change." (Synthesis, p. 30)
Since agricultural knowledge, science and technology (AKST) are the IAASTD’s central subjects, the agricultural scientific community is reviewed in detail. The report examines the history of their achievements and failures, their roles and self-conceptions. The authors draw a remarkably honest and critical picture of their own profession. They describe scientific progress but also clearly outline the enormous damages caused by science and research in the past. Furthermore, they stress the responsibility that the scientific community itself bears for these damages."Given the new challenges we confront today, there is increasing recognition within formal S&T organisations that the current AKST model, too, requires adaptation and revision. Business as usual is not an option. One area of potential adaptation is to move from an exclusive focus on public and private research as the site for R&D toward the democratisation of knowledge production." (Synthesis, p. 18)

Technology transfer or joint innovation?

Without ground-breaking scientific findings, the increases in agricultural production over the past five decades would have been inconceivable. The IAASTD describes the dominant model of scientific progress as the ‘Transfer of Technology’ (ToT) model whereby scientific institutions define problems and develop technical solutions to them. These solutions are then conveyed to local farmers, via agricultural extension workers serving as executive bodies. This is how the Green Revolution was implemented by national and international public research centres and institutions in particular, and also how increases in productivity in capitalist and socialist industrialised nations were achieved."The Transfer of Technology (ToT) model has been the most dominant model used in operational arrangements and in policy. However, the ToT model has not been the most effective in meeting a broader range of development goals that address the multiple functions and roles of farm enterprises and diverse agroecosystems.“ (Global, p. 58)
Multinational companies, which increasingly take over the role of public extension services, further refined and developed this hierarchical model. To this day, the ToT model is “state of the art” and the basis for the “agricultural treadmill”, which is to ensure that successful technologies are “distributed autonomously” under market economy conditions. ToT focuses on increasing productivity, with success being measured in terms of rates of return, i.e. the economic yield per dollar spent on research. As a result, successes and costs that cannot be directly measured from a market economy perspective, such as environmental, health and social factors, escape this assessment."Public investments must be targeted using evidence other than simply overall rates of return, as they usually do not include environmental and human health impacts, posi­tive or negative, or information on the distribution of costs and benefits among different groups.“ (Global, p. 497)

Since the 1970s, so-called participatory concepts have been developed which include the knowledge of farmers, communities, institutions and NGOs, as well researchers from different disciplines, paying attention to their respective interests and actively involving them in finding solutions. These methods are more time-consuming but achieve more sustainable results as all participants learn together, from each other and from common mistakes, adapting their targets and methods to real problems and conditions.

Facts & Figures

After a decade of stagnation in the 1990s, public agricultural research and development (R&D) spending in Sub-Saharan Africa increased by more than one-third in real terms, from $1.2 billion in 2000 to $1.7 billion in 2011 (measured in constant 2005 purchasing power parity dollars). However, about half of these investments were made in just three countries - Nigeria ($394 million), South Africa ($237 million) and Kenya ($188 million).

Global public spending on agricultural R&D increased from 26.1 billion in 2000 to 31.7 billion in inflation-adjusted PPP dollars - an increase of 22%. Spending was roughly evenly split between high-income countries and low- and middle-income countries, with China, India, and Brazil accounting for a quarter of global spending and half of combined developing-country spending.

Traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities is gaining credibility as a key weapon in the fight against climate change. Research suggests that traditional knowledge is an essential element of local adaptive capacity that can be enhanced through local seed systems, farmers’ rights to traditional crops and market access for local varieties. Most farmers in a iied study chose traditional crop varieties over modern varieties because they are better adapted to local conditions and are more likely to survive environmental stress and climatic variability.

At Rio+20, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) announced the creation of the Global Organic Research Network (IGORN). This was set up as response to the lack of support from mainstream research funders and the perceived failure of the Organic Research Centres Alliance. IFOAM plans to launch IGORN in 2013, establishing a series of research centres in the developing world. Research will focus on organic food and farming science, knowledge, and technology innovation within the global organic movement.

An ETC Group (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration) report criticised the influence the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other private sector actors exert on agricultural research. Over the last seven years, the Gates Foundation has committed over $1.5 billion to international agricultural development, with funding mostly tied to projects that also involve agribusiness or promote GM crops. Of CGIAR’s $696 million funding in 2010, $71.4 million came from the Gates Foundation.

Throughout history, about 7,000 species of the 10,000 to 15,000 plants known to be edible have been used  for food and animal feed. Today, less than 2% of these are recognised as economically relevant in agriculture.

Governments in Africa only spend around 6.6% of their national budgets on agriculture, a little more than US$15 per year for every rural inhabitant. In contrast, during the Green Revolution era, Asian governments allocated as much as 15% of their budgets to agriculture. Donor support for African farming has fallen from 15% of total aid budgets in the 1990s to only 4.2% in 2006.

Overall GDP growth originating in agriculture, in particular the smallholders, is, on average, at least twice as effective in benefiting the poorest half of a country’s population as growth generated in non-agricultural sectors. This is not surprising as 75% of the poor in developing countries live in rural areas and derive significant parts of their livelihoods from agriculture or activities dependent on it.

Videos: Indigenous knowledge

Click on the image to watch the playlist
Click on the image to watch the playlist


Civil Society

  • Democratising agricultural research An iied initiative that questions the often narrow interests of agricultural research
  • FiBL independent, non-profit, research institute with the aim of advancing science in the field of organic agriculture
  • Rodale Institute nonprofit dedicated to pioneering organic farming through research and outreach; run a long-term study comparing conventional chemical agriculture with organic methods
  • VDW Federation of German Scientists has nearly 400 members from different fields and  feels bound to the tradition of responsible science 
  • ENSSER European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility
  • UCS Union of Concerned Scientsts science-based nonprofit working for a healthy environment


Short video explaining biopiracy


  • Public agricultural research expendituresPublic agricultural research expenditures
  • Public and private agricultural R & D spending by regionPublic and private agricultural R & D spending by region
  • Research budget CGIAR and Monsanto South-AmericaResearch budget CGIAR and Monsanto South-America
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