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How farmers matter in shaping agricultural technologies: social and structural characteristics of wheat growers and wheat varieties

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Abstract

Science and technology studies (STS) research challenges the concept of technological determinism by investigating how the end users of a technology influence that technology’s trajectory. STS critiques of determinism are needed in studies of agricultural technology. However, we contend that focusing on the agency of end users may mask the role of political-economic factors which influence technology developments and applications. This paper seeks to mesh STS insights with political-economic perspectives by accounting for relationships between availability of diverse technologies, variations in political-economic structures, and farmer interests and characteristics. We present the results of an analysis on the recent development of three wheat varieties: (a) a wheat variety that was modified genetically to tolerate the herbicide glyphosate, (b) wheat varieties with characteristics selected to serve specific markets, (c) and emerging research and development of perennial wheat varieties. Using data obtained through a survey of wheat growers in Washington State, we analyzed whether farmer interest in these three clusters of wheat varieties was associated with distinct individual characteristics and attitudes and whether those characteristics and attitudes are consistent with political economic structures. Although our analysis did not allow us to assess the degree of direct influence that farmers have on the technological development trajectory for these types of wheat, we were able to document variation in technological alternatives and farmer characteristics related to different political-economic trends.

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Notes

  1. Because it is not practical to successfully save seed from hybrid corn for the following year’s planting, farmers who commit to using hybrid corn would need to purchase seed each year.

  2. De-skilling refers to a situation whereby workers’ skills are replaced with a technology. It involves the reduction of the knowledge and practical activities of workers in a labor process. For example, when artisans or craftspeople become assembly line workers they can be said to be de-skilled. In the case of farming, hybrid corn de-skilled because it replaced seed-saving and varietal selection knowledge and skills of the farmer.

  3. Language taken from http://www.wsulibs.wsu.edu/holland/masc/finders/cg370.htm (accessed 1 April 2010).

  4. Although missing cases tended to be less than 10% for each variable, the SPSS program deletion of missing cases during logistic regression reduced our sample size by as much as 200. After running tests to determine that missing cases were randomly distributed, we used the SPSS program’s linear interpolation function to replace missing cases.

  5. At least one herbicide-tolerant wheat variety was derived from mutation breeding. Therefore, it is not technically genetically engineered, but may be called genetically modified (GM). It is also important to note that there are other herbicide tolerant wheat varieties in the pipeline that have not yet been commercialized.

  6. We are not making normative judgments regarding the social and economic impacts of Fordism, post-Fordism, or anti-Fordism. For example, someone using a utilitarian argument could make a case that the “mass production for mass consumption” model of production yielded social benefits. Someone using a rights-based or virtue theory of ethics could argue that harm to farmers, who were driven out of business by the mass-production system, outweighed the benefits. We recognize strengths and weaknesses in each of these arguments. However, the goal of this paper is to determine if we can categorize farmers according to these structural trends and whether those categories can help us to understand the social and economic significance of different types of wheat.

  7. It is important to clarify that land-grant university research has been and remains diverse. Indeed, the point of this paper is that land-grant university crop research may be more diverse than the political-economy theories acknowledge. However, trends in research funding and institutional goals have led scholars to raise concerns about the increasing emphasis on private-goods research at land-grant universities (see Glenna et al. 2007).

  8. Bonanno and Constance (1996, 2001), also Antonio and Bonanno (1996) have characterized post-Fordism as a corporate strategy for outsourcing production with the goal of circumventing Fordist environmental and labor regulations. Thus, we use post-Fordism to refer to the emergence of production, marketing, and consumption practices that are more flexible and diverse than the mass production and mass consumption Fordist system and which may or may not be associated with changes in labor relations.

  9. Although WSU wheat breeders have authored articles on the role that perennial wheat breeding could play in participatory and organic agriculture, this is not a stated goal of the WSU wheat breeding program. Currently, the program is emphasizing reducing inputs, reducing soil erosion, and increasing farmer autonomy. This information will be important when we interpret our data analysis on farmer interest in perennial wheat.

  10. See http://plantbreeding.wsu.edu/perennialWheat.html (accessed 1 April 2010).

Abbreviations

GM:

Genetically modified

SESRC:

Social and Economic Sciences Research Center

WAWG:

Washington Association of Wheat Growers

WSU:

Washington State University

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Correspondence to Leland L. Glenna.

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Glenna, L.L., Jussaume, R.A. & Dawson, J.C. How farmers matter in shaping agricultural technologies: social and structural characteristics of wheat growers and wheat varieties. Agric Hum Values 28, 213–224 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-010-9275-9

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