Farmers' understandings of genetically modified crops within local communities

Lane, Andrew; Oreszczyn, Sue and Carr, Susan (2007). Farmers' understandings of genetically modified crops within local communities. Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Swindon, UK.




Much of the debate around the science and technology of genetically modified (GM) crops has focussed on the policies and practices of national governments and international organisations or on the acceptability of GM products with consumers. Little work had been done with the primary users of such technologies – farmers. Further, the management of knowledge has become a significant issue for all sectors of the economy and yet little attention had again been given to farmers as a particular societal group of small to medium sized enterprises subject to ‘knowledge-based’ influences from many other societal groups.

Aims and objectives

This project investigated the attitudes, intentions and practices of farmers regarding the new technology of GM crops (both those with experience of them and those without) in relation to their social setting. The relationship building research approach we developed had three phases that used three different, and progressively more interactive, discussion and mapping techniques to engage with (often the same) participants. Telephone and face-to-face interviews with farmers, and a workshop with farmers and others involved in agriculture, helped:

1. Explore how farmers construct their understandings of GM crops through their interactions with others, in particular family members, neighbouring farmers, seed companies, farming advisors and the local community.

2. Ascertain the acceptability to farmers of recommended management practices for GM crops used in the Government sponsored Farm Scale Evaluations (FSEs).

3. Develop models of social learning systems appropriate to support individual farmers within informal social settings who decide to adopt contentious new technologies such as GM crops.

Key findings

Farmers’ understandings of GM crops as a new technology:

Farmers view GM crops as a technology derived from new practices in plant breeding that build upon previous technologies and contribute to the running of the whole farm business. They are responding to them much as they would to any new technology, as a technology that provides improvements that are assessed for their value in practice by experimentation in the individual farm context. Farmers who had been involved in the FSEs, and those who had not, believed that GM crops offer clear economic and environmental benefits to themselves and the wider public. New technologies, such as GM crops are attractive to farmers as a way of reconciling conflicting demands to deliver high quality products at low cost and also to farm in an environmentally responsible way.

Farmers’ acceptance of recommended management practices:

The farmers involved in the FSEs had no problems following the recommended management practices and several could see ways in which to modify them to create benefits to themselves and to others if GM crops were licensed in the UK, in particular by using lower rates of herbicide.

Farmers’ social learning systems and links to their communities:

Farmers’ learning is dominated by informal learning, beyond any initial formal training, and this occurs through experimenting and the use of tacit knowledge arising from using new technologies in practice on their own farm. They also actively engage with other farmers (their network of practice) and many organisations that impact on their work (their community of influencers). That is, they draw on and exchange knowledge and experience from the range of people in their social environment.

Farmers’ network of practice is widely distributed rather than being local while their community of influencers is complex, but relatively stable and consistent over time, and largely not local, although the degree of influence of individual members of the community may change. Some influence over practice is one-way (e.g. regulations that impose restrictions on what can be done) while some influences result from two-way negotiation (e.g. with agricultural advisers on agronomic matters). Key individuals within organisations in their community of influencers are often important, rather than simply the organisations themselves.

Most farmers have to act individually at the boundary between their network of practice and community of influencers in order to find and exchange information and knowledge. For example, with the decline in public funding for the former Agricultural Development and Advisory Service (ADAS) there is a lack of official people working at the boundary between farmers’ network of practice and other key communities of practice within a farmer’s community of influencers. Similarly, there is a less effective connection between both the scientific research occurring in the agricultural science community of practice and agricultural policy development occurring in government departments and agencies, with the day-to-day agricultural practices and long term plans of farmers.

The value of our research approach:

Farmers appreciated the use of a more participatory approach that sought the inclusion of their views, as users, into the broader conversations about new technologies. They also valued the interactive, relationship-building nature of the research approach.

Dissemination of findings

An integral part of the project has been the sharing of the outcomes of each phase of the study with the participants and with key stakeholders in the agricultural sector. A project website, project reports, conference papers, journal articles and an executive summary document are being used to disseminate the findings to different audiences.

Implications for policy and practice

Based on our findings there is a need for:

• An enabling environment that is responsive to farmers’ needs, with clear, consistent and long-term policy signals about the future of agriculture, to allow them time to adapt to changing demands.
• Improved connections between farmers and consumers.
• Greater awareness amongst policy makers, regulators, scientists and the supermarkets, of what farmers can and cannot do.
• Independent, trustworthy, sources of research and advice for farmers.
• The valuing of farmers’ informal learning from experience, for example in the shaping of agricultural research.

The following features are among those that would most improve the systems of support available to farmers in their decisions about new technologies:

• horizon-scanning on behalf of farmers, to synthesise information, look at the potential of new technologies, and develop clear long-term directions for agriculture
• government-sponsored intermediaries qualified in and knowledgeable about agriculture, to improve the links between government policies, scientific research and the grassroots

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