GFAR blog

Scaling for impact vs.”occultism”


“This Northern view of what the North brings to the South in the area of agricultural development is starting to get annoying”, said Ulf Magnussen as he set the scene for a provocative statement.

That statement of his was indeed not the only one during this session. Patrick Caron the chairman opened that particular session about scaling up research into impact, and, to the shock of the attendees, stated that he doesn’t believe in scaling up research into impact! As he explained his point of view, he revealed that he is more of a believer in impacting at scale. What it is the difference? Read through!

Ulf Magnussen’s presentation followed immediately after, where the attendees expected him to show how AgriFoSe 2030 relates to impacting at scale vs. scaling to impact. Instead, he cleverly highlighted the paradox between ideologies versus science, stating that the North has been imposing “occultism” and “sectarianism” on the rest of the world, and making it pass as science.

Now I was intrigued!

As I was left with a big question mark hovering above my head, he went on describing more than one paradox in scientific research related to agriculture. There were the science based policies vs. the practices on the ground, the academic debate between social sciences and life sciences, and the third one: demand driven research vs. Innovation and research.

Magnussen’s mandate through the AgriFoSe 2030 project was capacity development and investing in humans, especially colleagues around the world. He referred during the presentation to building capacity and developing skills. The skill he deemed as missing among today’s scientists was critical analysis and synthesis of the current state of knowledge.

It didn’t end there and I didn’t want it to end there, there were several things to clarify, things I believe can make a difference if understood well. I asked him for an interview later in the afternoon, and this is how the interview went:

Q: What were you referring to when you talked about “occultism” and “sectarianism”?

A: When it comes to agriculture some practices are not based on science which is strange [when you think] that it comes from the secularized countries. [Instead of] inventing new buzzwords like agroecology, and organic we refrain from this branding and look into different aspects of sustainability rather than sectarian [trends]. Unfortunately the proponents of these are very good communicators and can reach policy makers easily.

 Wealthy people in the north are finding out non scientific things [based on] belief and impose [them] via different channels to people who are struggling for food everyday, I think this is obscene.

So he didn’t know I am an agroecologist, I would have agreed with him if we were discussing Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic agriculture which had an esoteric undertone to it, and was indeed a European invention that was exported world wide and commercialized via the Demeter standard.

Agroecology as I knew it was a Latin American invention that was relayed to the rest of the world by the European schools of thought. Yet, to the best of my knowledge agroecology cannot be imposed for two reasons (probably there are more reasons): Many find agroecology a buzzword and there is little consensus as to what it means.

The second reason which I have personally heard from Miguel Altieri (the reference person for the science of Agroecology): Agroecology is based on indigenous knowledge, and belongs within social movement of peasants who have this kind of knowledge, so no development agenda imposed from abroad would have any interest to impose agroecology on people struggling for food everyday.

Could we say the same about Climate smart agriculture? I never asked him.

Q: So how do you feel about agroecology?

A: Agroecology! What is new? Why is the word needed? we have used the term agro-ecological zone, I have nothing against the content, it is like the emperor’s new clothing! It is just something Olivier de Schutter presented to the UN.

I was still curious to know, what creates the positive impact, according to him, in the field of scientific research?

Q: So since this session was about scaling to impact, you mentioned how the AgriFose project has reached out to several universities world wide, how would you describe the impact of the project activities?

A: We have started this year in January, so there is no impact to report from the this project. However we have experience in 20-30 years of Phd training in Thailand, Vietnam and Ethiopia. It is ridiculous that we go tell the Africans what they should do, it is much better to invest in people. My non scientific conclusion is that investing in people and empowering them is the way forward. It takes time but much more sustainable than running a project.

Q: So how would you describe the cooperation with the African and Asian  universities you referred to?

A: We are drawing on previous good cooperation, such as Makerere University in Uganda, University of Rwanda, and Ho Chi Minh university in China. We have exchange programs with senior colleagues and have a dialogue on the collective knowledge synthesis and try to analyze the qualities of the research and reach generic conclusions. We need to be better in the techniques of synthesis.

 Q: You mentioned that the key for scaling up is to invest and empower people to communicate research findings. How do you empower people in your line of work?

A: One way is teaching research methodology, ethics and other generic issues to create honest open and professional scientific cultures. We teach research ethics and how to communicate between researchers.

Q: That’s for researchers, so what is the best way to communicate science to non experts?

A:  It is a trade off, but we have to stick to the truth without too many shortcuts, and whatever we say must be based on science .

The type of communication should be based on common language and making complex things simple and that is an challenge and art.

Indeed, it was always a challenge for me to communicate agroecology to people who cannot see the point in a term that promises a long list of benefits based on stories, from small scale holdings no less. Many would lose interest as soon as they realize how it is unlikely for these systems to scale up to a convincing impact.

The term agroecology got reduced to a buzzword that promises a solution to climate change, food insecurity and social injustice by politicians. Such promise is based on context specific outcomes that were communicated by scientists in no uncertain terms as a viable alternative to the business as usual. This attempt to scale up to impact strips agroecology of its value.

Agroecology , as I see it,  is a social science that connects with other branches of life sciences, an innovation driven by the need to cross disciplinary boundaries. However, the stories from the field can tell a lot about impact at scale. I have seen several success stories of farmers who overcome drought through a diversified, energy and nutrient efficient management of agricultural land and crops.

A good example for agroecology in action would be the collective management of an agricultural landscape by a group of small scale farmers. In this case farmers are guided by principles, and collectively devise the techniques and co-create the knowledge that allows them to get the most out of the landscape without ruining it. This is impact at a local scale.

Interestingly, there was a presentation by Emile Frison about agroecology in the Theme 2 session that you will find here.


Blogpost by Tarek Soliman, #GCARD3 Social Reporter – tareksoliman143(at)

Photo credit: Wikipedia

This post is part of the live coverage during the #GCARD3 Global Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, 5-8 April 2016. This post is written by one of our social reporters, and represents the author’s views only.

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