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Ep:11 Klara Fischer on Why “technology is not scale neutral”

[intro music]

Matthew 0:06

Welcome to Feed, a food systems podcast presented by Table, a collaboration between the University of Oxford, Swedish University of Agricultural sciences, and Wageningen University. I’m Matthew Kessler and today it’s just me speaking with Klara Fischer, Associate professor in Rural Development and my colleague at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

Klara 0:27

There's not one side that is scientifically right or wrong. But this is a scientific issue where having a lot of dimensions that are not really scientific, it is so much about an ethics and social justice, what do you think you should do with your mind? It's a lot about values. So you can't find out what's right or wrong by just looking at the facts. I think that's what interested me. 

Matthew 0:54

Klara Fischer has worked with smallholders in South Africa, Uganda, Zambia and Tanzania. She is interested in how smallholders adopt and adapt new technologies and practices, and how agricultural policy and advice is well or poorly communicated to smallholders.

In our last episode with data scientist Vincent Ricciardi we looked at what are the different assumptions made about smallholders at the global scale and if the data supported those ideas. Here we flip from the global to local perspective and zoom into the Southern Africa context, where Klara has been researching for over a decade now. In our conversation we see how Klara reframes and questions some of the controversial debates surrounding smallholders. What role should genetically modified crops play in smallholder production? Where do we draw boundaries of the farming and food system? Can some of the success stories of the Asian green revolution translate well to the African context? Before diving into these topics I first asked her what she had for breakfast.

Klara 1:50

I had oatmeal porridge, with jam. It was drottningsylt. It's a mix of blueberries, and raspberries, and some Swedish knäckebröd. 

Matthew 2:06

Thank you for joining us today. Klara, I'm really excited to talk with you because you hold nuanced views on two highly polarized subjects that intersect with our theme of scale today. So the first is around biotechnology and specifically genetically modified or GM crops. And the other which connects with the first is about what is the future look like for smallholder farmers? But first, how did you get into food and agricultural research?

Klara 2:30

I think it was, during my undergraduate studies in biology, I studied a biological sciences in in the UK. And compared to in Sweden, when if you study biology, in Sweden, at university level, it's much more only biology in the UK, I had the chance to take some geography courses and anthropology courses. And in the end of the 90s, the GM crop issue was coming up. And I got very different perspectives in the ecology lectures and the genetics lectures, for example, about the possibilities and risks and ethical issues around GMO crops. So then for my master's, I had moved back to Sweden, and I did my Master's in Lund, in the south of Sweden. And so I wondered, are there actually any studies where smallholders grow GM crops? And so I started looking at that. So this was around 2001. Then I found out that there were hardly any studies done on that. It was mainly just discussed all the time in scientific papers, and in the general debate in the introduction and in the discussion parts of papers. 

Matthew 3:34

Klara also observed that in these discussions, different disciplines or ways of seeing the world often landed on two different sides of the debate.

Klara 3:44

Lab people like molecular biologists. And also economists were much more positive. Whereas researchers looking at system level like ecologists and geographers, they were more negative. So I thought that was really interesting. So my, my entry into food and agriculture questions was to the GM crop issue, I would say, wasn't interested specifically in food and agriculture before that.

Matthew 4:08

And what was it specifically about the GM crops that attracted it? Was it that there was a contentious debate? And you're interested in kind of understanding the science? Or was it something about GM specifically?

Klara 4:19

I think from the beginning, it was a contentious debate. And the fact that I got so different perspectives presented to me by different researchers. So I think my point of view from the beginning or my understanding of it was that there's not one side that is scientifically right or wrong. But this is a scientific issue where with having a lot of dimensions that are not really scientific, it is so much about an ethics and social justice, what do you think you should do with your mind? It's a lot about values. So you can't find out what's right or wrong by just looking at the facts. I think that's what interested me, probably also a bit of this, the fact some people were so angry about it interesting.

Matthew 5:05

Yeah, it certainly is a is a field that gets a lot of strong opinions, and that it transitions really well and to thinking about how the values influence these different debates. We spoke with Ken Giller. In an earlier episode, he made us really understand that there is not one single type of smallholder, when we talk about smallholder, it's this large, heterogeneous group. And we often from the outside, paint them with a single brush, and we say this is the future that needs to happen. Can you maybe lay out what are some of the different views about what is considered to be the best future for smallholder farmers? And also what are the values or assumptions that are built into those narratives?

Klara 5:45

That's a really difficult question. But just to start, where you started what is the smallholder I think we use the term smallholder because we want some time to talk about marginalized poor farmers or farmers who have less resources than then when people are and it's easy to categorize them by scale, but many small holders are small holders because they are poor. And I still think it's useful category. We need the word. We can speak of things if we don't have words, but it's important that we talk about What we mean and a small holder can be many different sizes. And also, depending on where you are in the world, you know, the soil, the weather, the market possibilities, the politics, everything around it will be different, to create different possibilities. So my experience is mainly with smallholders in Sub Saharan Africa. And that's quite different from smallholders in other parts of the world, I think.

Matthew 6:43

Yeah. So then let's zoom in on what are the different discourses around the future of smallholders in Sub Saharan Africa.

 Klara 6:50

One strong discourse that I found in my, in my PhD work, when I looked at agriculture development in South Africa, was this idea that smallholders need to become business minded. So there was this discourse, focusing very much on that we need to change the individual. And that's not exclusive to South Africa. I would say that in the South African case, that that discourse had a particular mix of the history with colonialism and apartheid, and today, very neoliberal policies, and market-oriented policies would focuses on creative entrepreneurs. But this idea of creating entrepreneurs, I see that all over Africa. And, of course, there's nothing bad with being an entrepreneur, but I think there is something bad. We're trying to fix poverty by thinking that you need to change poor people. And that irritates me. That discourse, actually, because I think it's moralizing. And I think it talks about poverty in a way that makes it sound as if poor people are to blame for their poverty. So while there are relevant parts of that discourse, that many smallholders need better access to markets, better infrastructure support, and so on, but when it's created, together with this talk about that, we need to create entrepreneurs, and that this part of creating entrepreneurs is a lot about you need to change, not about how can we help you that that's when it comes becomes problematic? I think. So I think it's really important to somehow disentangle the talk about the need for market access with the entrepreneur talk. It doesn't sound nice, but also, I don't think it works. Because poor people are not poor, because they're lazy. Poor people are mainly poor because of structural, political and other types of problems.

 Matthew 8:40

Another camp that I hear about is kind of on the opposite end of that, is that not that farmers shouldn't smallholder Nestle scale up, but that they should stay small holders. Can you explain that point of view?

 Klara 8:54

Yeah, I think when you talk to small holders in Africa, at least, exactly like then can give her said actually, that when you talk to smallholders about what do they want for their children or so on? They want them to get the job in town. They don't want them to inherit the farm for most, or many smallholders. I think that when they themselves picture a way out of poverty, farming is not that costs. So that's important to have in mind, I think, and also to appreciate that just because you're poor. I don't think other people should have the right to decide what you should do. You see what I mean? So smallholder farming is important for many reasons, for example, it creates a much more complex landscape. It's much more biodiverse. It's, it's more diverse on crop level, it's probably better for the environment in many ways than large scale farming and large-scale monocultures. But we need to find ways that it can be better, but also good for the people. I mean, we cannot save the environment by keeping people in poverty. I acknowledge the idea that smallholder farming is good. I think it is good for many environmental reasons. But we need to think about how to then support small holders to get out of poverty but without reducing the positive environmental benefits right now. 

Matthew 10:14

To dive deeper into the efficacy of GM, I asked Klara to unpack her study “Is Bt maize effective in improving South African smallholder agriculture production?” But first, what exactly is Bacillus thurigensis, or BT?

Klara 10:30

So Bt maize is a maize that is genetically modified to have some DNA from a soil bacterium that produces a substance which is toxic to certain insects. For example, stem borers, so Bt maize produces this toxin. So when the assemblers eat on the maize, they die. And Bt is also used in organic farming and it's one of the few substances that is allowed in organic farming as a pesticide. So it's considered fairly harmless and natural, you can say. So the idea with Bt maize then is that farmers want loose yields to stem borers and farmers can also reduce their pesticide use and reduce labor time for scouting for stem borers and applying pesticide. It can raise yield for those who didn't have a good pesticide management in place beforehand. For those who had a good management of STEM bars beforehand it can reduce labor time. Since the maize produces its own toxin, you don't need to apply a pesticide. So Bt maize was introduced in South Africa in the end of the 90s. 

Matthew 11:37

So we've discussed that it was positively integrated. And you see it today in the market with large scale farmers. And you also saw many government programs came in to encourage smallholders to adopt Bt maize. Did this impact how smallholders adopted these technologies?

Klara 11:42

It was very positively received by the large-scale commercial farmers. And today, over 90% I think of all the GM crops grown in South Africa by large scale farmers is GM. This is mainly Bt and Roundup Ready. So Roundup Ready is herbicide tolerant maize, I think most of the maze cross is the one with so called stuck trades when they have both herbicide tolerance and Bt. So for the large-scale farmers, it reduced labor costs. So it made their farm operations, it improved their economy, that's why it was beneficial for them. So the idea was that for small holders, it would raise yields because small holders generally don't treat for them Boris very thoroughly.

 Matthew 12:30

Why is that?

Klara 12:32

Um, it's probably a combination of different things. But one thing is that it's not assemblers, you know, they bore inside the stems and they fly at night, and smallholders knowledge of the pest insects is often not very, very good. So when the maize is damaged, it can look like it's nutrient deficient or suffering from drought. It's sort of wilting, it's not really, really easy to detect why the maize is not feeling well, you see what I mean? And also, of course, you need to apply pesticide which costs money. And I can't say exactly how it is for Bt pesticide, but more generally, with both medicines for animals and pesticides, and fertilizer smallholders, often dilute and or use less than needed, because then you know, you can, it will be less costly. So there are many reasons that that stampers wouldn't be really well managed. Also, another thing is that many smallholders, especially the poorest ones, in many Southern African countries where you plow the soil. If you don't have your own animals, you need to wait to borrow traction from someone else. And then you plan too late. Or if the rain so late, because most farming is rain fed, you have to wait for the rains so you also plant later and that affects the level of stem borers make sure so because stem borers comes certain times of the year. So there are many, many factors to take into account.

Matthew 14:01

So we've discussed that it was positively integrated. And you see it today in the market with large scale farmers. And many government programs came along to encourage smallholders to adopt Bt maize. Did this affect how they smallholders adopted these technologies?

Klara 14:16

And overall, I must say in the South African case that what smallholders mainly need, it's not Bt maize, they need other things. And in the end, it didn't improve or make their farming worse. The database didn't affect smallholder farming at all. It didn't have the positive impact. And because smallholders in South Africa, so use two different governments project projects coming in promising things and then not showing up and being delayed, and there are misunderstandings. So they sort of expect that, oh, this project will be in for a while, and then it will probably disappear. So they didn't commit themselves so much. When the project ended. It wasn't very disruptive because smallholders hadn't changed their practices. 

Matthew 15:02

Klara then discussed whether smallholders were using open-pollinated varieties, hybrids, or GMs. A quick summary of key differences. With open-pollinated, seeds are pollinated with other plants of the same species by wind, birds, insects and humans, and are carefully selected for beneficial traits to be saved and replanted in the next season. Hybrids are cross-pollinated between two different but related verities, also for desirable traits such as higher yields or better flavor or to improve the plant’s tolerance to different soil or climatic conditions. They are typically higher yielding and it is more difficult to save true hybrid seeds. GM refers to having the DNA of seeds genetically modified in a lab to incorporate a desired gene, either of the same or a different plant or animal species. There are also regulations around saving and sharing hybrid and GM varieties, and as Klara explains, there is also cost differences too.

Klara 15:54

In these areas in South Africa, they grow open pollinated varieties, or their own land races, which are also open pollinated. They buy seed in the shop sometimes, but when they do, it's almost always open pollinated, right is because they are much, much cheaper. And the Bt was only bred into hybrid mice. And when it genetically modified, it becomes even more expensive. So I think, in 2008, when I did my field work on this, for the first time, the Bt maize was 10 times more expensive than the open pollinated right in the shop. So it's a huge difference in price. And that was the major hinder, I would say to making small holders buy that seed. So they used it when they got it for free from the government, but no one farmer has boasted afterwards, out of the 300 farmers that I interviewed. 

Matthew 16:47

So what was Klara’s general assessment of GM in this example?

Klara 16:51

So I think that because numbers are a problem in this part of Africa. Bt makes sense technologically so to say because it makes sense that it would be a good idea to have a maize that produces toxin against these insects that are a big problem. But because the Bt wasn't bred into Right is suitable to the small holders, it wasn't useful. And also the whole, the patent regulation around GM crops make them even more difficult for small holders to make use of in a way that is helpful for them. So my conclusion I would say is that you really need to look at the technology in a wider situation, you need to understand the whole sort of Technology Package, you can't only look at the Bt, we need to take into account the effect that it will spread into a hybrid variety, the cost of seed, the type of agricultural advice they got, and regulation that you know, limits the possibilities to share and save seed, which is really important for food security in this context. 

Matthew 17:53

Another study that you published in 2016. That's called why technology is not scale neutral. And this, of course, caught my attention for this series, you describe the Asian Green Revolution, where higher yielding varieties were introduced to farmers, which led to poverty reduction. And now Africa is again in the midst of a debate of whether or not to currently adopt these technologies. I'd like to ask a lot of questions about this, because I think it's a really interesting paper. But maybe we could start with the basics of what do you mean by scale neutral? And what made you decide to ask this specific research question?

Klara 18:30

Yeah, I noticed when I did my work on GM crops in Africa, that there were people talking about GM crops and seed as scale neutral. And they also said that this technology, i.e., GM technology, is so useful for smallholders because the technologies in the seed, so you need nothing else, you only need the seed, so it scale-neutral. Based on my own research, I felt that this argument doesn't hold. It's not scale neutral. It's not equally useful for smallholders and large-scale farmers. This is not what I see. So I started to dig into where does this term scale-neutral come from. And I was looking at papers that use the term and see who they cited and traced it backwards. The first one that I found that used the term was a guy called Gershon Feder. And he was an agricultural economist, and he was working at IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute). And this was in the 1980s. So he talked about, he wrote about the Asian Green Revolution, he talked about new crop technology as scale neutral. And he he wrote several co authored papers in the 1980s and 90s about this. But actually, Feder came to the conclusion that crop technology is not scale neutral, which was really interesting, I think. So he talked about scale neutral technology as technology which is divisible. For example, you can take one seat and you still have the technology you don't, you can use it on a very small plot. Whereas indivisible technology would be a lot of irrigation infrastructure, for example, is indivisible, and big combine harvesters and things. But he concluded that much of this divisible technology such as seed is dependent on indivisible technology, it performs better together with indivisible technology, for example, if you have irrigation infrastructure, you will get higher yields. So his conclusion was that this term wasn't so useful. But it was picked up by others and used to promote technologie like GM crops, for example.

Matthew 20:33

Klara then began comparing the literature on the Asian green revolution with the debate on a new green revolution for Africa today.

Klara  20:40

There is, of course, much critique and controversy around the Asian Green Revolution. Also, there were problems with environmental degradation, pesticide overuse, and also that it didn't reach the poorest and so on, but based on the conclusion that overall it contributed broad poverty reduction. Anyway, I wanted to compare that with what is going on in Africa today. So I found several factors that I thought were key for that the differences that we see today. And the 111 key difference is that we talked about different crops. In the Asian Green Revolution, it was wheat and rice, and they are self pollinating. And also, during that time, the varieties of wheat and rice introduced to farmers during the 1960s Green Revolution, they were not hybrids, it's much more difficult to develop hybrids from self pollinating varieties. And it's much easier to develop hybrids from open pollinated varieties like maize. So maize hybrids, they would they started being developed or ready in the 1930s. But with self pollinating varieties like wheat and rice, farmers can take their own seed that technology is in the seed when you reuse it. So in essence, farmers only needed to adopt this new higher yielding varieties once which is a big difference from hybrid engine. tactically modified maize today because you need to buy seed every year if you want to keep the benefits of the technology. So farmers get much more bound up in to the seed market. So I'd say in and dependent on having to having money to buy seed.

Matthew 22:19

So that’s one difference between the two. Rice and Wheat are self-pollinating which means they’re more difficult to adapt into hybrid varities. Where as African maize farmers would need to keep buying their seeds each year, which wasn’t the case in the Asian Green Revolution.

Klara 22:30

 And then another big difference is that the Asian Green Revolution was based on not for profit initiatives. Today, a large part of the African Green Revolution is much more bound up in the private sector. Even though there are also nonprofit initiatives, the seed market has been so concentrated, see research and development is to a very high extent privatized, and see this extensive. So that's the big difference. And then also, the whole structural adjustment in Africa and the downscaling of support to farming over a long period. And the global reduction of state funding to agricultural advisory services is a big difference. agricultural extension was much more present during the Asian Green Revolution than it is today. So all those factors, sort of list them and show that because of this, we cannot talk about scale-neutral technology, it doesn't help us understand the situation at all, because so much about how the technology works, is not in the technology. It's in all these other factors.

Matthew 23:35

We were just talking about some of the biological and social factors at play in Asia, and that the African context is a bit different. As you were saying some of the governmental and structural supports for some of these initiatives are in place. Are there other lessons that Africa can learn from the Asian Green Revolution,

 Klara 23:53

since the world is so and the food system and the seed market is so globalized today, I think it's difficult to say what Africa should learn. It's about the whole system. One important thing to consider, I think, is that, for example, our agriculture in Europe was very dependent on the state support and more or less quite close boundaries, whereas many African countries have through the IMF and World Bank, being forced to open up their markets to global competition so much. And that has made it very difficult to develop and support smallholder farming. I think that has shifted a bit in more recent years. In the 90s and early 2000. The idea that globalization of the market was the only way was much stronger. So I think it's good that that debate has shifted a bit to acknowledge the need for state support also,

Matthew 24:53

Right. It's not just the geographic and ecological and cultural taxes, but also the time dimension. Yeah, the consideration that we're playing a global food system were very different several decades ago than they are today. Yeah, definitely. What would you recommend as the political and economic commitments that can ensure that these technologies are more equity distributed? We've already kind of established that they can't be scale neutral.

Klara 25:18

But if we go back to the case of the Bt maize, it's a privately owned technology and the Bt maize varieties that were introduced to smallholders. They were not developed for the smallholders they were developed for large scale commercial farmers. So I think the first thing is actually to take serious the challenge of adapting the technology to smallholders conditions. And for that to happen, I think, more publicly funded research is needed. And I think, in the case of South Africa, the government, for some reason keeps on even now this year, to promote GM crops as the pathway out of poverty for smallholders. And it doesn't make sense because it still the GM crops on the market are the ones bred into varieties suited well for large scale farming, but you can have sufficient amounts of water at the right time and good soil and fertilizer and so on. In fact, there are varieties on the market that would help smallholders, but these varieties are maybe not so hot. And you know, I think we need to get away from this idea that you need the most modern technology to create development, you don't, you often need quite simple. You don't need to be at the technology forefront to make a change. I think actually investing in government funded agricultural advisory services, and to have agronomy education where students learn about smallholder farming so that they don't graduate with this idea about the trajectory for all farming is to become a large-scale commercial farmer. I think that would make a big difference. 

Matthew 26:52

Yeah, that's really interesting. I'm also reflecting I worked in Nepal, with smallholders and all of the agriculture education was geared very much towards scaling up and then we went to village where there wasn't a farm of that size in sight, and the advices that they were giving were based on kind of their own understandings of how To apply in the situation, and it was enough in meeting what were the needs. So it's interesting to think about diversifying the educational system.

Klara 27:23

Yeah, I think actually, that is really important, it seems, from comments from other researchers and things that I read that this is a situation across the world, my personal experiences from South Africa in Uganda mainly. And in those cases, the agricultural education is absolutely geared towards large scale commercial farming.

Matthew 27:43

Another notion you trouble connected to scale is that higher yields don't necessarily mean increased food security. Can you talk a little bit more about the research you did in South Africa that examined whether or not to maybe I already spoiled it, whether increased yields would lead to reduce poverty and hunger?

Klara 28:02

So it's the obvious conclusion, right, that if we don't have enough food, and then we produce more food, so we will reduce hunger and poverty. But to go into the details of it, it's really that simple. So for example, in the case of South Africa, smallholders, often have farming as a backup activity, as a food security or sub subsistence activity that sort of subsidizes efforts to try to find a job in town or support, migrating household members, for example. And then you don't you don't want to maximize production in farming, if it's comes with the risk, when you have farming as a backup or security, you want to spread your risks in farming. And then diversification is makes much more sense. Of course, it's not bad for smallholders to produce more, but sometimes it comes at the cost of something else, maybe you need to invest more time in farming, then maybe you don't have that time, or that time is better used, doing something else that brings more money, maybe it increases risks, and then you can take the risk of trying to find a job, for example. And also when in focus groups with farmers, I ask them to, to describe the most important features of maize, and to rank them. And yield didn't even come up. Not until I started asked for yield. And then it came at the bottom.

 Matthew 29:27

So what was on the top of the list?

 Klara 29:29

It was resistance to drought, resistant to hard wind, it was storability. So maize come with a variety of starch composition, and the ones with harder starches are more tolerant to insects in storage. So harder starch right is that were better to store better to for home processing. Those came at the top always and good wasn't discussed. So let's say something and also when I tried to get farmers to measure the infamy to how much did you harvest last year or how big it was not something that they were thinking about? It was extremely well, I failed in getting any form of accurate numbers. But it was interesting in itself, because it shows that the yield is not the priority. 

Matthew 30:16

That’s a really interesting insight to think about diversifying your risks in farming. Some might interpret that as okay, I need to grow different types of crops and raise different livestock, or you can also see it as I need another type of job to help feed my family. There’s a larger discussion to be had in the future about parity in agriculture and what is a fair price, but we’ll have to dive into the later.  In the United States which I’m more familiar with and I believe throughout Europe too, many small-scale farmers are largely dependent on off-farm income for their economic security. 

Klara 30:48

That's the same in Sweden actually. With it's becoming more and more difficult to survive on farming unless you scale up a lot. And many, many farmers in Sweden diversify into tourists are having a bed and breakfast or maybe the wife has another job. And so it's very common that farming is not a full time occupation. So I think actually, we need more research that places farming in a wider livelihoods’ perspective, it's not so common. And the role of farming is very different in different countries, I would say in South Africa is quite particular, in relation to other African countries also, because of the historically very strong push for labor in the mines. So many rural areas have been like labor reserves. And that's the case in some other African countries. But in many African countries, the situation is very different than farming is a much more important part of people's livelihoods. So the conclusion from this is that it's so important to understand the context. You can't draw general conclusions about the rollout of farming for smallholder is it's different, depending on history, politics, and so on, not only depending on the local environment, but depending on all these social and political and economic factors.

 Matthew 32:08

Your research works intimately with small holders and farming communities, which is a perspective not always present in the conversation about that you're pretty much coming from the ground level. And one example where this might be evident is a discussion on whether farmers should be adopting these technologies. But from our previous conversation, you take issue with the term adoption. Why is that?

Klara 32:32

I think mainly it's because adoption often comes with the assumption that technology is good. That that's the technology proposed Is this a good solution for the adopters, much of the adoption literature is a normative in that way that it has an intention of facilitating adoption, without problematizing the technology, because technologies are so different. I mean, when we talked about the scale neutral earlier, and I talked about rice and maize, for example, and hybrids and open pollinated varieties, that's an example of how different crop technology can be. So you need to unpack the technology. But another problem with much of the adoption literature is that it doesn't take the farming system into account at all. It sees adoption as the relation between the black box technology and the farmer as sort of individual entities floating around in a vacuum. If I shouldn't be very harsh. The adoption literature goes to the extent that it can talk about economic incentives that can facilitate the adoption of market structures that can facilitate adoption, but it's very economics oriented. And it also talks in 99% of the cases, it talks about farmers as individuals. Well, some of the adoption literature talks about neighbors. Some of the recent adoption literature acknowledges that farmers can be influenced by neighbors when they make the decisions. But especially when it comes to smallholder farming. Farming is very much based on collective decisions. And you need to organize your farming within a broader society, not only within the family, you might need to borrow animals for plowing, you might need to help each other out in the harvesting and so on. So it's based on collective decisions. And it's not, it's not up to the individual. But the adoption literature focuses very much on the individual. And it often speaks about the non adopters as problematic. For example, the adoption literature frequently shows that those with larger firms adopt more frequently, and those with smaller farms less, and men are more positive to technology, and women are more reluctant adopters. It doesn't help us understand why some farmers don't adopt technology. And an important reason for this is that it doesn't unpack the technology and it doesn't look at the farming as a system. It looks at the farmer as an individual, almost disconnected from the farm even. 

Matthew 35:11

So we’ve been talking about some challenges and critiques to how different people understanding smallholders in the countries you’ve worked with in Africa. What types of innovations have you found to be especially helpful to these farmers?

Klara 35:22

I think actually, the Social Security system that is in place in South Africa is a very good model that has nothing, seemingly nothing to do with farming, that that can actually help farming a lot as well.

Matthew 35:38

Can you describe that system? 

Klara 35:41

Yeah, yeah, South Africa, like in Sweden, they have a system in place where everyone in South Africa over 60 gets a pension, regardless of if you have been working on ought to get the basic pension, and all parents or caretakers to children up to 18 get a childcare ground. And then there are other grants like disability grant and foster care grant and so on. But the pension on the childcare ground are the two big ones and, and those make a big difference in poor people's households. And I have seen individual life stories change, like I talked with a woman in 2019 was last time I was in the villages in South Africa, where I have been doing fieldwork since 2008. And I've been following 11 households more in depth. So I went back to those 11 households to see how their life had changed since I was there. 2012. And we did in 2008, we did a participatory wealth ranking of all the households in the village and she was classed as, as very poor, the out of four, four categories that that people in the villages decided on rich, middle, poor and very poor. So those who were rich, they were still poor in on the World Bank definition. But she so she was very poor. She was living in her house sold as the only adult with a disabled grandson. And she had adult children that had moved to town to try to find jobs, but they didn't get the new jobs and her husband was dead. She was really struggling. She didn't plant her field because she didn't have the time, she was planting in her garden next to the house. You know, she spent a lot of time fetching water fetching firewood, planting the little she had and so on. Then when I was there, 2019 she was so much better off, and she was much happier. And she said yes, because now I'm old. So now I have a pension and life is so much easier. And what had happened since 2012 was that the village got the electricity, and she got the pension. So the electricity meant that she didn't have to fetch firewood for everything, she still used the fire for some things, but she had this small electric stove. And also with her pension, she didn't have to starve. And she could always put food on the table. And because many households are intergenerational, and they have some old people in the household as well, so they might have a pension or two. And that can be a basis for being able to invest in something, for example, investing in farming, or investing or starting a small business, and so on. So actually, I think we need to look more broadly and not only see at farming, to see how we can fix farming. So I think the pensions is a very good idea to support farming. 

Matthew 38:35

As a systems thinker, Klara’s doesn’t draw the boundary of the farm system at the border of the farm. She also encourages other research to think this way as she argues for the importance of interdisciplinary research and thinking.

Klara 38:47

With this example of the pensions, I think that can be a sort of a general recommendation that just because the problem is located in one place, it doesn't need mean that the solution is located in the same place, or in the same discipline, or you cannot connect problems and solutions in that way in general, not just regarding farming. But if we look at environmental degradation, for example, because environmental degradation happens in one place, it doesn't mean that it's the people who live there that have caused it. So we need to sort of disconnect problems from solutions and think critically about them. And for that, we need interdisciplinary collaboration. And we need to sort of acknowledge the boundaries of our own knowledge.

Matthew 39:30

So we end with these kinds of forward-looking questions. And one of them is what visions of the future of smallholders in Sub Saharan Africa inspire you, and what visions alarm you,

Klara 39:41

When I see initiatives of, for example, supporting small holders with appropriate seed like new open pollinated varieties, that inspires me, often more low tech, and much less high tech interventions that look for small changes, because what worries me is that there's so many products with so grand hopes to sort of eliminate poverty or transform smallholder farming completely and, and that they just repeatedly fail. Because this grant hopes they don't match with what's possible to do. And often they imply investment in, for example, in appropriate technologies. What inspires me is researchers who take time to spend a lot of time in the field and to really try to engage with smallholders’ perspectives, and to give voice to small holders that actually reaches out to policymakers. And because the academic environment is so competitive, and we're very much pushed to publish as much as possible if you're not stimulated to spend long periods in the field, or to spend a lot of time communicating your research to the general public, rather than writing academic papers, for example. So that discourages me. I think it's really a clash between what is needed and what we are sort of forced to do to keep our job

Matthew 41:09

It would be nice to be able to reimagine the entire incentive structure behind not just behind academia, behind engagement with different technologies and smallholders. But that's a bigger project. But uh, I think maybe this podcast was a small step in that direction.

Klara 41:22

Yeah, but this is a really good initiative. I mean, you contribute to, to popularizing important subjects.

Matthew 41:32

And the last question they'll ask is, what evidence and knowledge base do you draw from in your own research and work

Klara 41:40

So that the evidence I draw from his field work with smallholders in Africa and participatory engagements and also some fieldwork in Sweden? Actually, a sort of a sidetrack, but that helps me put things in perspective. And theoretically, I draw on science and technology studies. I think that is important because it places technology in the wider context. And what is missing a little bit in science and technology studies is nature I feel so I also drawn on like Farming Systems Research and, and Ecological Research on agriculture. And so I feel that although I have a background long ago in biology, I feel like I'm pure social scientists now, but I like to have conversations with biologists to understand the biological dimensions of the food system. I feel that it's important for me to have that dimension.

Matthew 42:36

Well, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Klara 42:39

Thank you, it was really nice. So we’ll keep in touch.

Matthew 42:48

And that wraps another episode of the Feed podcast. Thank you all for listening. We’re still a new show and you can help us grow by telling your friends and colleagues about the show and rating and reviewing us on Apple podcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

You can find more information about Klara Fischer and links to some of her work on our website: And there you can also subscribe to our weekly newsletter Fodder, where you’ll receive a carefully curated list of the latest research, news and opportunities on food systems sustainability topics. We also have new explainers out on Food sovereignty and Agroecology that have been reviewed by people who sit on opposite sides of debates around what those terms mean and how they should be used.

This episode was edited and mixed by me Matthew Kessler. A big thanks to TABLE intern Rachel Carlile who has been helping out with the podcast for months and also co-authored both explainers. Music in this episode by Blue Dot Sessions. We’ll be back in your feed in a few weeks when we speak with Sophia Murphy, executive director at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

Sophia Murphy

You can see a lot of power imbalances and injustices in the local as well as in the global. So, speaking as a woman, my life were all contained in my village, the chances of me benefiting from an emancipation movement is very much less than if I’m able to meet with other people. I just think human society forever has flourished through exchange.