Knowledge and Science

These concepts of joint innovation can unleash enormous forces and dynamics which go far beyond their original purpose. However, they have only established themselves to a limited extent which the IAASTD explains with the lack of economic interest in improving common goods and increasing general prosperity on a long-term basis. Frequently, sustainable solutions can lead to lower revenues, such as in the turnover of agrochemicals, machinery and energy. Scientists themselves are also opposed to such joint innovations as these approaches question their traditional authority of science as a universal and unbiased method to describe the objective truth. The societal role of scientists changes fundamentally according to whether they are considered guardians of indisputable certainties or whether they are “simply” just one contribution to a more complex picture of reality and its improvement.

Privatisation of knowledge

These different perspectives are reinforced through the privatisation of agricultural sciences, which also extends to public research and increasingly considers knowledge as private property instead of a common good. This disastrous tendency can be observed in companies’ technology and product development as well as in the contested funding market for private and public research. In this market, scientists and their departments compete for “academic excellence” with publications and increasingly extravagant PR measures. Temptation is growing to promise more than the acceptable. Real problems but also not so real problems become a good argument for selling technologies. In most industrialised nations the public sector is increasingly withdrawing itself from organising and financing agricultural research. Huge investments in high-tech areas, which are considered strategic future technologies and competitive fields, contrast with the neglect of traditional agricultural training and research."Today in many industrialized countries an increasing percentage of the funding for university science comes from private commercial sources. It tends to be concentrated in areas of commercial interest or in advanced sciences such as satellite imaging, nanotechnologies and genomics rather than in applications deeply informed by knowledge of farming practice and ecological contexts. (...) A condition of funding is that the source of funds often determines who is assigned first patent rights on faculty research results. In some cases the right to publication and the uninhibited exchange of information among scholars are also restricted. The assumption under these arrangements that scientific knowledge is a private good changes radically the relationships within the scientific community and between that community and its diverse partners." (Global, p. 72)
It is being replaced by agrochemical companies who are providing a declining number of specialised farmers with standardised technological package solutions for cultivating a decreasing number of crop varieties, as well as for industrial forms of high-performance livestock farming.

In a few emerging economies in Asia and Latin America this trend of privatisation is being confronted with a huge increase in public agricultural research and training. However, in most poor agricultural countries these public investments in agricultural knowledge, research and innovation have stagnated since the 1980s."Globally public sector R&D is becoming increasingly concentrated in a handful of countries. Among the rich countries, just two, the USA and Japan, accounted for 54% of public spending in 2000, and three developing countries, China, India and Brazil, accounted for 47% of the developing world's public agricultural research expenditures." (Synthesis, p. 25) Even the 15 international agricultural research centres (CGIAR) managed by the World Bank, whose research and plant breeding played a crucial role in the Green Revolution, have a comparatively small annual budget.  The result of this development is that those areas in which science and research are needed most have for decades received the least investment. Small-scale agriculture, whose needs differ greatly from those in industrial agriculture, still fails to receive enough attention from the scientific community.

Traditional and local knowledge

Nowadays, all knowledge which is not part or the result of modern science is referred to, either patronisingly or somewhat helplessly, as “traditional” or “local” knowledge."Local knowledge: The knowledge that is constituted in a given culture or society. Traditional (ecological) knowledge: The cumulative body of knowledge, practices, and beliefs evolved by adaptive processes and handed down through generations. It may not be indigenous or local, but it is distinguished by the way in which it is acquired and used, through the social process of learning and sharing knowledge." (Global, p. 564)In practise, this knowledge is the most important tool that farmers, forest workers, pastoralists, fishermen, housekeepers and healers, as well as gardeners and craftsmen around the world have at their disposal. Having evolved in the course of history, it comprises in its own way important interrelations of the respective locations which, in their complexity, often overwhelm specialised natural scientists who think in a monocausal way. Traditional and local knowledge also has its weaknesses as country lore about the weather proves, especially in times of climate change. The IAASTD lists many examples of valuable traditional knowledge which are not part of the perception of “modern” agricultural research and development. These include centuries-old forms of sustainable water and soil management, biological pest control and joint seed development, as well as the immense stock of knowledge and experience with regard to the diversity and benefits of seeds, wild plants, animals and micro-organisms for healthy nutrition and medicinal use.

Between oblivion and biopiracy

Combining traditional and local knowledge with the findings of modern science in practice (and on an equal footing) entails huge opportunities. However, it also bears risks: Many guardians of traditional knowledge have become suspicious due to experiences of their knowledge simply being taken or even expropriated through patenting. For example, to date there are no effective international agreements in place which prevent biopiracy or implement fair forms of sharing the benefits. Models to integrate local and traditional knowledge and the rights of its guardians into the international market of science in a fair and respectful way are meanwhile intensively discussed. However, they are only rarely implemented in practice.

The enormous wealth of traditional and local knowledge often eludes scientific description. One reason for this is the regional, cultural and spiritual diversity of the knowledge and communication systems in which traditional knowledge is used and passed on. When such connections dissolve, knowledge is quickly lost. One example is the loss of regional and local languages, with which the concepts and knowledge of local biodiversity and ecology, as well as of their interrelation and benefit, also disappear."Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region where formal education and government services function in languages different from the first languages of almost the entire citizenry." (Sub-Saharan Africa Report, p. 101)
"Local and traditional knowledge about the environment is embedded in languages that are typically not formally used in extension (except ad hoc in the field) or in research, except to mine information." (Sub-Saharan Africa Report, p. 109)
Language and communication barriers also set painful limits for the authors of the IAASTD. The precondition (or disqualifying criterion) for cooperation and teamwork in the “global village” of the Internet is a common language. It also turned out that scientists from various disciplines even speak different languages in English.

Investment in the future

The IAASTD calls for a huge increase in public investment in agricultural knowledge, and urges that it be conveyed on all levels.
Public funds must be specifically used to serve public goods which are of strategic importance for food security, climate change and sustainability issues as sufficient funding from the private sector is practically not available.
The report also calls for a new form of ethics of science and openness, which neither hides in an “academic ivory tower” nor in a “knowledge bunker” of the private sector.

Videos: Indigenous knowledge

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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Donors of globalagriculture Bread for all biovision Bread for the World Misereor Heidehof Stiftung Hilfswerk der Evangelischen Kirchen Schweiz Rapunzel
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