Andy Monk, "Participation in food industry technologies in the age of sustainability", with commentaries by Richard Hindmarsh and Gyorgy Scrinis and a response by the author, in Brian Martin (ed.), Technology and Public Participation (Wollongong, Australia: Science and Technology Studies, University of Wollongong, 1999), pp. 209-230.
in the age of sustainability
It has been claimed that broad scale participation in food industry matters is the only means by which to cater to interests of farmer groups as well as to environmental, economic and social concerns. Some Landcare groups and regional farmer research groups have been moving towards the above objectives. The achievement of these social, environmental and technical objectives through participation, however, is beset with factional interests. Broad scale participation, while certainly present in agricultural science, tends to be interest group specific and narrowly focussed. Achieving "ecological" objectives through community participation is a great challenge to future agricultural sustainability in Australia.
The Organic Agriculture Movement fosters consumer, industry and farmer participation in the crafting and regulation of science and technology. While nationally and internationally oriented, the movement is very regional in its support and promotion of participatory R&D. The regulation and control of organic production technologies is also highly participatory and open in its discussion on policy matters. But any participation in technology is also crafted to rule out certain influences and interests. This is no less the case with the organic movement. This chapter is an exploration of how this grouping achieves the sort of participation it does, how successful it has been, and the impediments that it has met in its path.
The tomato exemplifies such developments. Being one of the most popular fresh food commodities at a global level, it finds its way into a wide range of fresh and processed foods from hamburgers and pizzas to pasta sauces and soups. Whether we desire it or not, most of us each day of our lives consume tomatoes in one form or another. This food item has undergone radical change from its original nature of being a soft-skinned cherry-size fruit to one of being hard skinned, long lasting, and able to withstand a large degree of physical trauma. These changes stem from food industry pressures for the fruit to fit in with the requirements of intensive mechanical harvesting, handling, packaging and long distance transport. Aspects of taste and nutrition have often been overlooked by the food industry as companies vie for market share which mostly relies upon supplying large quantities of produce as cheaply as possible. Even with what is called today a consumer-led revolution in the food industry, where the consumer is the focus of setting food trends, the technical requirements of foods to have good shelf lives, to handle well and to be economically competitive, all outweigh less tangible quality aspects, such as nutrition and taste, of many of the foods we consume.
There are conflicting accounts of the level of democratic participation in the present food industry and in its related science and technology base in Australia. On the one hand we are seeing this distancing of food production processes from an increasing number of citizens. The rise in complexity and sophistication of food products and their increasingly non-local production are contributing to this distancing. Consumers, while they seem to have such a vast range of food choices, actually often are excluded from the processes of food technology choice. On the other hand, there are moves which are re-emphasising local links with food production and food production technology design. This is seen at a consumer group level with the boycotting of certain practices and technologies or the setting up of alternative production and labelling schemes such as with organic or gourmet products. The consumer is then allowed an active choice in participating or not participating in the consumption of such foods and therefore indirectly supporting or rejecting certain food technologies. Such participatory moves can also be seen at a primary producer level in the steering and design of agricultural research by farming groups. Participation is also present via the active involvement of entire communities in land and water management connected with agricultural production and sustainability issues.
What do these developments mean for the future of democratic participation in food industry technologies? This chapter will explore some of the variations in community participation or lack thereof, in the steering, design and control of food industry technologies in Australia. This discussion will be set amidst the climate of searching for technical developments which are deemed to be ecologically sustainable. I argue that community participation in such processes is highly desirable in the search for sustainable technology use. While this does not solve all the problems inherent in determining and assessing sustainability in the longer run, the process of public participation in technology choice seems to be one of the most effective means of voicing and enacting environmental concerns.
A changing food system
Agricultural science as an institutional practice has its roots in the mid nineteenth century when leading Western governments including Australia began funding research institutes and extension services. So called "scientific agriculture" became a huge success, firstly with the use of newly developed synthetic fertilisers, and then later with hybrid crop strains and modern pesticides. Combined with expanding irrigation projects, subsidies for land development, and then the boom of the "green revolution" technologies in less developed countries, modern style agriculture and its scientific support base have seemed both omnipotent and universal in application.
These developments and successes encouraged a model of agricultural science which was predicated upon the dispersion of knowledge and technologies from centrally located laboratories and field sites. These "centres of calculation" were very much seen as the harbingers of truth and appropriate technology, which were responsible for converting backward, peasant or regional practices into modern scientific agriculture. Reliant upon the early successes of seemingly universally applicable techniques and technologies, such a centralised model was successful for many decades in boosting yields and raising farm productivity in many agricultural regions of the world.
The last few decades have witnessed challenges to this approach, resulting in both intellectual and policy shifts which place more emphasis on the regional social and physical environments into which technologies or ideas are dispersed. Certain green revolution failure stories raised awareness of the need to see technologies as integrated packages reliant upon a range of infrastructural supports for their success. Such infrastructural supports included credit facilities, extension services for the transfer of agricultural knowledge, well managed irrigation, efficient transport systems and access to agricultural inputs. The lack of any one of these and a range of other optimal factors could greatly affect the outcomes of the techniques and technologies in question. The "systems" approach to agricultural extension and development has brought research and extension back to a local level in order to accommodate regional differences. The local nature of agricultural practice has been gaining acknowledgment since this time, and is changing the ways in which research, development and extension are carried out both in industrialising and in developed countries.
Reconciling food production and sustainability
Meanwhile, environmental impacts of modern agriculture are similarly affecting research policies, particularly in the developed world. Downstream environmental and social impacts of modern agricultural technologies have been scrutinised by a growing number of critics and government institutions. The long term sustainability of traditionally defined farm productivity has also come under fire, as soil resources, soil fertility and irrigation potential are compromised. In Australia, there have been numerous reports and investigations over the past decade, outlining appropriate scientific and technical change that is required at the farm level. Foremost amongst these has been the Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) report on agriculture commissioned by the federal government in the early 1990s. As yield increases are slowing, and as environmental damage has been made unambiguously evident through such media sensationalised phenomena as land salinisation and acidity and river algal blooms in some agricultural regions, research trajectories have changed course. Agricultural ideas and technologies that were in the past perceived as self evident and true, regardless of the context, are now being seen as reliant upon optimal social, technical and physical contexts. The environment, the biological life of the soil, and bio-diversity on farms are now being seen as vital elements for highly productive farms.
Instituting the changes suggested by international and national ESD reports have been reliant upon co-operation between individuals and regional groups. Participation by a wide range of important stakeholders has also been recognised as essential for the long term sustainability of shared pool resources. Such participation builds trust within communities, and allows individuals to justify individual action which may otherwise be economically or technically irrational. For instance the sharing and utilisation of water resources is imbued with "ecological" issues which require collaborative effort to maintain the system's integrity. Maintaining participation in such schemes has proved difficult in many situations, however, and many environmental schemes are beset with problems of policing. The pollution of waterways is still an area quite difficult to regulate. There seem to be certain important elements to shared resource groupings which help prevent a "tragedy of the commons"--where publicly shared resources are otherwise used up by individual self interest. Among the most important is widespread participation in such schemes which builds group identity, a shared understanding of the problems, and a sharing of the implications of the success of the scheme. There are a number of examples in the Australian agricultural industry which represent such successes.
Organising for participatory change
Participation in processes of change in Australian agriculture has involved both intragroup and intergroup co-operation between farmers, researchers, bureaucrats, private companies and consumer groups. The most dramatic case of intergroup co-operation has been between the National Farmers Federation (NFF) and the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), organisations representing two traditionally opposed social groups. This example symbolises the growing acknowledgment of the connection between environmental quality and productivity for the farm sector. Out of this alliance has evolved the National Landcare Project (NLP), which has encouraged regional rural groups to work together on environmental and production problems directly related to rural activity. These initiatives have helped raise awareness, allowed for ownership of environmental problems, and have so far resulted in a moderate degree of physical and technical change to the farming landscape such as tree planting, salinity control and pasture improvement. Such activities have encouraged a focus on developing local solutions to land degradation.
This local orientation has involved working directly with farmer groups for the supply of agronomic information, for setting research and technology agendas, and for giving feedback on research results. Combined with an increase in farm-based trials, where research is carried out within existing commercial farming operations, this has the potential to radically alter the ways in which future agricultural science is practised. Such practice is reliant upon farmer participation, which enables a more regionally specific transfer of knowledge and technology to filter into, or develop within, a given region. The trialing of pastures, new crop strains and cultivation practices are increasingly being carried out within the light of this local focus.
Changing R&D: the dilemmas of moving toward sustainability
Due to public research and development (R&D) fund cutbacks through the 1990s, the culture of research has been changing. Regional farmer participation in agricultural R&D has become a popular, effective and economic means of diffusing new agricultural techniques. Indeed some of these developments are being supported by the private sector. Concurrently, economic, technical and legal advances are making it more commercially viable for private firms to invest in agricultural research such as biotechnology. Such research, however, tends to be short-term focused, and, for obvious commercial reasons, tends to rank environmental concerns lower on the list of priorities. Environmental issues are often transformed by both trends, in ways which primarily serve the interests of individual producers and the raising of productivity. Biotechnology, for instance, while being touted as a "clean" solution to agrochemical use, poses a range of problems in its own right. The potential for raising yields and the ability to commodify and market this new agricultural input commodity are the main driving interests behind the technology's inception. The present Australian culture of agricultural R&D is therefore being driven by two sometimes counterposing forces. Both research directions involve participation, but often to differing ends. The "environment" tends to be important if and when such interests coincide with production interests.
The challenge in the age of sustainability has been to systematise participation in agricultural R&D in such ways as to cater both to interests of farmer groups as well as to immediate and downstream environmental, economic and social concerns. Some Landcare groups and regional farmer research groups have been moving towards the above objectives. The achievement of these social, environmental and technical objectives through participation, however, is beset with factional interests as has been seen above. Broad scale participation, while certainly present in agricultural science and agricultural practice, tends to be interest group specific and narrowly focused. For example, so called "conservation farming" which restricts soil losses to farms through minimum tillage activities and stubble retention, relies upon increased herbicide use. The achievement of one environmental objective can often compromise other objectives. Achieving a broad, more "ecological" objective, which integrates and satisfies both social and physical environmental objectives with farm production, is a great challenge to future agricultural sustainability in Australia.
The notion of participation in environmentally related issues is fraught with methodological difficulties. Participation is usually perceived as involving the input of various interest groups which voice their own agendas before consensual or majority agreement is reached. In terms of environmental issues, interests are often voiced which may coincide with environmentally appropriate action, but also may not as with some aspects of conservation farming. Environmental issues that are given voice also tend to be those that are easily observable and are seen through prisms of commercial interests. The biotechnology and agriculture debate has very much been constructed in this way. When discussing participation, we therefore need to remain aware that this participation is partial and defined within the parameters of interest of those involved in such projects. Even given wide scale rural participation in sustainability projects and rural improvement projects, this is no guarantee that through such practices the environment will be better served. Simply relying upon public participation will not naturally solve problems of agricultural sustainability. Without an overriding cultural ethic which is specifically reliant upon the ecological integrity of a region, individual and interest group participation in environmental matters can potentially compromise the long term sustainability of a given region. The encouragement of public participation may well be a vehicle for the establishment of such an ethic.
Participation in the food industry
These dilemmas of public participation in food production technology are also related directly to the evolutionary changes in the global food system of the twentieth century. The second half of the 1900s has been the era of the consumer, in terms of food price drops and in terms of sheer volume and variety of food stuffs available in the industrialised world. Technological and demographic changes have also led to far less active social involvement in the production of food. Most developed nation agricultural work forces are now less than 5% of total employment. There has also been a radical drop in people preparing their own food in the home. The tomato farming and processing industry, for example, has seen drastic drops in labour requirements for production while simultaneously experiencing huge boosts in total production output. This has led to a cheap, readily available, relatively homogeneous food commodity for consumers across the developed world.
Food is increasingly sold as ready to eat for the time-conscious consumer. Whereas in the past, consumers of food products may have had an awareness of where their food came from, perhaps even who produced it, today anonymity is the rule, with food often-times travelling across continents and oceans before being consumed. It is not so much the social and physical distance of food production as the homogenisation of mass production practice which stifles an ability to differentiate food products and therefore practices. The lack of access to knowledge of what a given food product represents discourages citizen-led initiatives to either actively encourage or to protest against and boycott technical or social practices involved in its production. The remote nature of food production also has the effect of being less of a direct concern to most consumers. It can be argued that consumers are participating, however crudely, in market and technological changes by expressing their buying power. Such participation, however, is often based on a lack of information and knowledge of what a given product represents and the sorts of technologies implicated in its production.
Technical and legal developments in biotechnology are one classic example of these problems. Some consumer movements have promoted laws to ban or at least label all products containing biotechnologically modified food products, but such moves have so far failed. These attempts may be unsuccessful due to a range of complicating technical and commercial factors. Food industry claims that the costs of separation of modified and conventional commodities would be prohibitively high is a major rhetorical ploy which is stalling food regulatory bodies from enacting legislation which would deal with this issue. While some countries have bans on such products, the rhetorical pressure of open trade is weakening the ability of countries to exclude a production practice whose end product is undiscernibly different from its conventional counterpart. The tomato and the soy bean are two of the most ubiquitous food commodities of the modern food industry that find their way into a vast range of processed foods. The effective inability to discern biotechnologically altered from normal strains of these foods once released into the food processing industry works against those attempting to boycott such items. The question must be asked, who is freely participating in these technology use decisions and how are they being made?
Global trade developments have a built-in presumption that consumers will vote with their money for the support of a given product. This poses all sorts of problems in terms of regulation and management of future technology risks, establishing sustainable economies, and public participation in the direction and design of technology. However unacceptable these developments may be, this does leave the consumer as the main public participant with any significant degree of power, even if that power is generally unorganised and libertarian--i.e. being able to choose which can of beans or which type of egg to buy. We can now buy "Farm fresh eggs," "Free range," "Vegetarian fed," and "Organic" among other labels in at least a selection of supermarkets in urban areas of Australia. Ideally, so market analysts tell us, the consumer market is the perfect embodiment of choice and participation in society. However, the dozen or so tomato sauce brands available on supermarket shelves are usually identical in nature. Arguments against the claims of rational choice and individual consumer control of markets aside, when information is lacking on the product itself, an informed and participatory act cannot be committed. Participation is clearly declining at this end of the food system, as food commodities become more anonymous and layered with multiple invisible technical transformations. For instance, what types of chickens are used and why? How are they "farmed"? What are they fed? What other drugs, antibiotics and supplements are they given? What other unseen technologies are used in the production process? How are they killed and what is their experience of it? In terms of participatory democracy, this point is crucial. An ability to be involved in decisions at this end point of production practice (i.e. consumption) is arguably one of few points of control and participation left open to the citizen/consumer in a period of intensifying international trade and repealing of national government regulation. Trade developments are placing pressure on regional economies and citizens to conform to standards of practice beyond their own design, further compromising participation in such practices.
Assessing technologies and apportioning risk
The modern food system presents an increasing array of complicated technical decisions regarding safety of food sources, production practices and technology choice. Comprehensive assessment of risk ideally involves not only data and numerical analysis, but also subjective assessments of the need and utility value of particular technologies. Public participation in such processes has been argued to be the most effective means of technology choice which integrates so called subjective factors into technology assessment. There are numerous obstacles in the way of such practices, however. While there have been moves toward community consultation on technology use for food irradiation and biotechnology, such consultation is often more aligned with public relations activities, rather than genuine open debate which might affect technology use. External cultural pressures toward global integration and open market systems place pressure on such community processes to conform to world standards rather than to implement regionally appropriate standards and rules.
The assessment of risk and appropriateness of these sorts of technologies is mythically presumed to be ascertained by rational means and processes. Usually this is believed to be best served via expert committees and individuals. Risk assessment, however, is always already riddled with non-rational interests. Commercial, cultural and career interests are among a host of factors which skew the assessment of any particular technology. Organising risk assessment which incorporates as wide a range of public participation as possible is one crude way of minimising the dominance of any one interest group, and particularly of metering dominant commercial interests. Given that there is neither a no-risk scenario nor a completely rational risk assessment scenario for any technology choice, such a participatory aim would seem appropriate.
Who should participate in such processes of technology assessment is less clear. Certain environmental issues may not be covered by the interests of participating members, and in fact some interests would be directly opposed to some measures. For instance, those with vested interests in biotechnology research and development are hardly to be expected to voice concerns against the technology. Similarly the safety of pesticide and herbicide use in the food industry will be supported by those with interests in their use. The attainment of environmentally or socially responsible practices and technologies might specifically require the lack of participation, and the effective exclusion, of some voices. Ironically however, it is presently the general public (and therefore the majority in terms of numbers) which is being silenced by commercial food industry (and therefore minority) interests. A more participatory model of technology choice would involve people on the basis of representative numbers rather than money and power. This would naturally see some commercial food industry interests being transformed and redirected to fit more appropriately with general public interests.
While the nature of some agricultural research is moving toward a more participatory model, general citizen participation in food production technologies is arguably dropping, and an ability to control and direct technological development is being extremely compromised. Environmental concerns are also being placed in jeopardy by global commercial developments which work against organised social participation in technology choice. Exacerbating this is the ways in which most environmental concerns are voiced. When couched within the interests of major stakeholders, this may not necessarily coincide with optimal environmentally appropriate action. This poses problems for participation which might otherwise lead to greater emphasis on sustainability and more conservative risk management.
Overcoming the participation paradox
The Organic Agriculture Movement (OAM) in Australia began formally in the mid 1980s. Organic agricultural production is based on the development and maintenance of soil bio-diversity and fertility that is not reliant upon synthetic inputs such as soluble nitrate fertilisers. Such practices can decrease farm runoff of fertilisers which cause nitrification of waterways and can reverse acidity and depletion of soils. To maintain farm yields, preventative practices, rather than pesticides and fungicides, are used. The OAM also places restrictions on overstocking practices which might otherwise compromise the long term sustainability of the farming system. Through encouraging more ecologically sound management practices, the OAM is actively responding to environmental concerns voiced by certain sectors of both the urban and rural population, and in this way is incorporating more "participation" of ecological interests into food production practice. The higher cost of most organic commodities is often a reflection of the ecological protection which is a part of organic production practices.
The OAM fosters consumer, industry and farmer participation in a broad range of activities involved in crafting science and technology. The regulation and control of organic production technologies is highly participatory and open in its design and regulation of policy. Conferences and workshops allow open discussion and debate over technology choice, research priorities, and the lobbying of government on matters concerning the industry. At a pragmatic market end, organic products exhibit a labelling and quality assurance certification system which allows consumers the ability to recognise and choose such products where appropriate. Organic production specifically excludes the use of genetic engineering, as well as irradiation processes and synthetic pesticides. Particularly for genetic engineering and irradiation, the organic certification system is the only present means of guarantee that consumers in Australia have that they are not supporting and participating in the use of such technologies. Such a system therefore gives consumers information to make an informed technology choice, albeit in a restricted, consumer sense.
The OAM also supports participatory models of agricultural science. While nationally and internationally oriented, the OAM is very regional in its support and promotion of participatory R&D. The "movement" sprang out of grassroots interest in curtailing certain detrimental effects of industrial agriculture. This community support base has been responsible for maintaining strong ties between farmers, united in a common cause. There exist regional organic groups in numerous regions of Australia. Such social networks allow for transfer of information, ideas and techniques, as well as often the sharing of resources. Much of this informal sharing has traditionally been non-commercial in nature. As the industry matures and enters more formal economic circles, some of this sharing is becoming more corporatised and privately controlled. The steering of R&D and the availability of research findings, however, remains aimed at open public access to information. Indeed, organic industry producers usually have a vested interest in expanding organic production and encouraging conventional producers into organic practice since this is leading to a greater public awareness of organics and is further legitimising the industry.
Such openness to participation is ultimately limited too, since the existence of any social or commercial grouping requires restriction and protection. In terms of protecting organic interests, the OAM faces its own problems and dilemmas. Being directly opposed to synthetic chemical usage in production practices results in open conflict with most agrochemical companies. While there are some inroads and links that have been made with such industries (in terms of organically certified inputs such as fertilisers), interests between these groups are rarely shared. Reactions to government interests are also mixed. While the OAM has traditionally been antagonistic towards government involvement, such relationships are gradually changing. As they change, and as research is oriented towards biological pest control methods and lower inputs for production, organic interests may directly benefit. However, the conventional paradigm of research still works against much organic practice.
Mediating and negotiating such relationships are ongoing trials for the industry which still requires a degree of distance and caution when dealing with the conventional sector in order to maintain its own exacting production standards. The mooting of biotechnology products as "clean and green" agricultural commodities by the agribusiness sector is one of many examples where "conventional" positions and interests differ from those of the OAM. The OAM maintains a technical and social world separation from conventional production which sometimes, ironically, acts to restrict wider public access to organic products. For instance the nature and requirements of organic foods simply make such commodities more costly to handle and sell. Organic meat and milk require separate transport and processing schedules which adds to their production costs. Also fresh foods like the organic tomato are generally softer and more difficult to store for long periods which increases cost and hassle for the retailer. Most organic tomato varieties are chosen by the farmer to fit in with more labour intensive practices which allow softer, more traditional varieties to exist compared with more mechanically handled conventional varieties. As a consequence, many organic foods are unable to be integrated into modern supermarket management systems as easily as most conventional foods. This has the repercussions of preventing wider consumer support for organic commodities under the present food industry and retailing regime, which in turn impacts on the degree of popularity of organics among primary producers.
Drawing a line around participants
Negotiation over the legitimacy of specific production standards, such as a particular technique or technology, is an ongoing process within the OAM. However, the movement also regulates practitioners so as to maintain organic standards. This level of coercion and regulation defines who is able and who is not able to participate in such an industry. The setting of these standards is based both on social negotiation, but also on certain overriding ecological ethics which are relatively non-negotiable. Such ethics define the parameters and the players to be involved in the process of participation.
The OAM practices of knowledge sharing conflict with trends in conventional agricultural R&D towards funding by and orientation towards private, opportunistic interests. These conventional developments underlie a fundamental change in the practice of science which has distinct and exclusive implications for participation, during a time when farmer groups seem to otherwise be participating more actively in R&D. Any participation in science and technology is always crafted to rule out certain influences and interests, even participation which purports to be open and democratic. This is no less the case with the organic movement, or with general policy changes and regulations which require more environmentally aligned production practices. The attempt to integrate environmental concerns into production processes and into technology design will inherently run into the problem of defining who is to participate and who is not. Certain interests are bound to be curtailed or diverted by environmental guideline and regulation requirements. The challenge of a participatory democracy is to mediate such dilemmas through public consultation to obtain a resolution on any given issue. But ultimately, such agreement on a given issue is resolved by a mixture of commercial and social interest rather than being resolved by rational discussion and decision making alone. Some groups are bound to have their own "rational" interests overridden by environmental imperatives outlined by more vocal groups.
Food, the citizen and technology choice
In numerous areas of the present food industry, participation in the process of crafting and regulating science and technology is being compromised. Less information or fewer technology choices are being made available behind a facade of multiple consumer choice. Likewise, trends in the funding and control of intellectual property are also leading towards less open, less participatory control of science and technology. Counter trends from Landcare and the organic industry examples are revealing how crucial is the involvement of a range of social groups for environmental matters to be catered for at the rural end of food production.
At a producer level, agricultural science and technology remain inherently a local and region-specific enterprise which relies heavily on the individual producer to innovate and experiment. Regional community participation in the management of catchment areas, salinity reduction programs and reafforestation is also changing techniques and technologies at an individual farm and regional level. This aspect of participation is proving itself invaluable in changing science and technology in ways which encourage greater participation in change, empower people in the processes of change, and encourage more effective, community-based stewardship of the environment. Participation in matters related to changing towards more ecologically attuned science and technology is revealing how essential is the social link in such practices. Environmentally astute production practices rely upon cohesive community support and trust, which can only fully develop in situations where the entire community is at liberty to participate in technology choice. While participation remains limited, communities have little control over local resources and practices. Encouraging participation will not solve all environmental problems. For example the stocking of the arid pasture lands of Australia is an area of hot dispute between pastoralists and environmentalists. But, by placing regional communities more in control of their own region, they have the ability to create an awareness of their own environment, and to then participate in actions for change which directly affect that environment.
Organic and ecologically attuned agricultural practices, whatever their present production limitations, present workable models of participatory action in technology choice and control. The establishment of more ecologically attuned technical practice in agriculture and regional management is reliant upon such participatory action. That such movements as the OAM aim at being open and participatory at most levels of practice is not coincidental but indicates a characteristic of ideal open democratic societies that technologies be based upon encouraging social access and control of science rather than restricting it, an ethic on which the OAM was founded. As with any process of participation, however, such action is based also upon exclusion of interests and the restriction of certain practices which might jeopardise the above aims. The move toward more sustainable practice in agriculture is reliant upon negotiation of these interests, rather than absolute openness to participation. Whatever the case, public participation is helping to fracture the myth of science and technology as inherently apolitical and asocial practices. Notions of participation need to be seen in a similar light, rather than being believed to be rational processes if and when they are entirely "open."
Commentary by Richard Hindmarsh[*]
For Andy Monk, community participation underpins open democratic society, and its choice of science and technology for sustainability. Yet, such participation should involve a negotiation of social interests for decision-making processes. To argue his case, Monk explores current technological trends in the intensive food industry. Here, corporate actors restrictively dominate innovation and decision-making processes. The result is agricultural practice that is most often not ecologically sustainable.
In complete alignment with Monk's account is Brian Wynne's explanation that flawed technological outcomes are a result of the "social insulation" of the innovation stage of technology to "professional cadres who operate with solely technical, `tool' conceptions of technology, and whose understandings of the social complexities of ... implementation is limited in the extreme." Research is thus conducted in a social "vacuum" and, in the absence of an entrenched cultural ecological ethic, in an ecological vacuum as well. To include broad environmental and social justice factors in innovation processes would contradict the technologies of industrial corporations, the profitability of which is significantly based upon the non-accounting of such factors. In response, thousands of non-government groups worldwide have emerged in the public interest to form social resistance movements.
To resolve flawed technological choice and ensuing social conflict, technology choice should thus be embedded into the larger questions of eco-social viability. Monk's assertion that this should involve a negotiation of social interests is one important step in this direction.
It is supported further where technology developers seek to dismiss social concern rather than confront it. As Monk recognises, to win over the increasingly environmentally-aware consumer, industry readily co-opts the term "sustainability" and packages its products as "clean and green." Others refer to such PR as "greenwash," defined as "the phenomenon of socially and environmentally destructive corporations attempting to preserve and expand their markets by posing as friends of the environment," or as "environmental whitewash."
The proactive process of socially-insulated innovation, as well as employing greenwash, therefore further questions in what capacity, if indeed any, that industrial technology interests should be included in participatory democratic decision-making processes.
To seal his case that sustainable agriculture can only result from the right decision-making mix of social interests, Monk explores the alternative but marginal enterprise of organic agriculture--one however predicted to grow from its current market of 1% to 5-10% in Europe and North America by the year 2000. Here, open participatory processes of debate exist over research, technology choice and agricultural practice. Instead of commercial interests dominating, eco-social community networks dominate the decision-making process. All participants from the farm to the supermarket are thus informed, and ecologically sound management practices that encourage human and environmental health are adopted.
Commentary by Gyorgy Scrinis[*]
Consumers do participate more or less directly in food industry technology decisions through their consumption practices. However, this participation occurs at the level of the general form, rather than the particular content, of consumption practices. It is a question of what kind of food consumers we are--rather than the particular products chosen within a distinct mode of consumption--where consumers significantly influence broader economic and technological structures. Of importance here is the level of commodification of food consumption practices, as well as where and how foods are purchased.
While the dominant structural and technological trends in food production identified by Andy Monk have been driven in part by large producers and agribusiness interests, they have also been fuelled by the active choices of consumers for certain types of foods and ways of purchasing food. For example:
In general, these consumer trends have further distanced consumers from a more direct involvement in, or awareness of, social and environmental issues associated with the production of food. These consumer practices have also led to the growing size and power of large agribusiness interests, and this necessarily comes at the expense of the power of farmers and the broader public.
By contrast, there are types of consumers and types of consumption practices which undermine these dominant trends in the food industry, and which favour alternative systems of production. These alternative consumption practices include: purchasing in-season, locally produced and organically grown produce where possible; purchasing primary produce or minimally processed foods and preparing one's own meals; shopping at small retail outlets or purchasing directly from small producers; and growing some of one's own foods. These practices remove several stages in the handling, processing and transportation typical of industrial foods, and put consumers in a position to be more aware of, and concerned about, the environmental, health and social structural issues of food production and distribution. These practices can also translate into direct support for alternative systems of food production and distribution.
This is not to advocate the liberal notions of consumer sovereignty or the all-powerful consumer. On the contrary, I am arguing that the greater the level of commodification of food consumption practices and the greater the distance between primary producers and consumers, then the less direct power consumers have in food technology decisions. Reversing the current trends in food consumption practices is arguably a precondition for any more direct public participation in particular food technology decisions.
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[*] Andy Monk recently completed a PhD in Science and Technology Studies, University of Wollongong, on the topic of sustainability and food production in Australia with a special emphasis on the organic movement. He has a wide ranging interest in the food industry and co-founded Australian Green Growers, a network of farms marketing and producing under organic standards.
. B. Latour, Science in Action (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1987), p. 232.
. See T. Bayliss-Smith and S. Wanmali (eds.), Understanding Green Revolutions: Agrarian Change and Development in South Asia. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984). This has particularly been the case for sub Saharan Africa, where irrigation was often lacking. The new high yielding varieties of the green revolution are reliant upon optimal applications of synthetic fertiliser and pesticides to attain the higher yields they were bred for. Where these are lacking, yields have suffered.
. B. Roberts, The Quest for Sustainable Land Use (Sydney: UNSW Press, 1995); J. Pretty, Regenerating Agriculture: Policies and Practice for Self Reliance (Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press, 1995).
. Ecologically Sustainable Development Working Group on Agriculture, Final Report--Agriculture (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1991).
. E. Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
. G. Hardin, "The tragedy of the commons," Science, Vol. 162, 1968, pp. 1243-1248.
. Ostrom, op. cit.
. A. Campbell, Landcare--Communities Shaping the Land and the Future (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1994).
. R. Wilkinson and A. Carr, "Convergence of scientific and farmer knowledge," Australasian Association for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Science, conference paper, Melbourne University, 1996; Pretty, op. cit.; L. Cosgrove, D. Evans and D. Yencken, Restoring the Land: Environmental Values, Knowledge and Action (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1994).
. The Mallee-based Birchip group of farmers is exemplary in this regard.
. S. Wright, Molecular Politics: Developing American and British Regulatory Policy for Genetic Engineering 1972-1982 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994); R. Hindmarsh, D. Burch and D. Hulsman, "Biotechnology in Australia: issues of control, collaboration and sustainability," Prometheus, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1991, pp. 221-248.
. B. Senauer and J. Kinsey, Food Trends and the Changing Consumer (Minnesota: Eagan Press, 1991).
. Consumers' Federation of Australia, The Right to Safe Food (Canberra: CFA, 15 March 1991).
. C. Plant and J. Plant, Green Consumerism: Hope or Hoax? (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1991).
. S. Beder, The Nature of Sustainable Development (Newham, Australia: Scribe, 1993).
. Wright, op. cit.
. E. Wynen, "Research implications of a paradigm shift in agriculture," Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, Australian National University, Canberra, 1996.
. The optimal approach should be a recurrent realisation that technological decisions are able to be repealed and technological trajectories modified to suit social interests and needs. Given this, we should always be extra cautious in policy decisions, or lack of decisions, which encourage the use of technologies which might have irrevocable or ongoing impact.
[*] Dr Richard Hindmarsh is an environmental social scientist based at Griffith University's School of Australian Environmental Studies. Working on genetic engineering issues for over a decade, he is currently preparing the first reader on the Australian biotechnology debate, as well as researching holistic technology assessment modelling for a sustainable future.
. B. Wynne, "Redefining the issues of risk and public acceptance," Futures, February 1983, pp. 13-32, at p. 18.
. For example, in the case of genetic engineering, see R. Hindmarsh, "Bio-policy translation in the public terrain," in G. L. Lawrence et al. (eds.), Social Change in Rural Australia (Rockhampton: Central Queensland University, 1996), Ch. 23.
. Multinational Monitor On-Line, "Greenwash Awards," 1996.
. "Organic focus: expanding supply and demand," International Agricultural Development, Vol. 16, No. 6, 1996, p. 23.
[*] Gyorgy Scrinis is completing his PhD on social theories of technology in the History and Philosophy of Science Department at the University of Melbourne, and is the author of Colonizing the Seed: Genetic Engineering and Techno-Industrial Agriculture (Friends of the Earth, 1995).
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