Democratising Food and Agricultural Research – citizens’ transforming knowledge and ways of knowing

By Michel Pimbert

Throughout the world, agricultural research has largely been thought of as the domain of scientific experts, with farmers at the receiving end of the research outputs. If a crop variety or policy fails, farmers are often blamed for their “ignorance and inability” to farm correctly.

The question is rarely asked: Is there something wrong with the research itself? For these reasons, there is an increasing need to explore ways of democratising the governance of science and technology, ensuring that the voices of small scale producers are heard, - and count -, in the process of agricultural research.

Conversations with farmers, pastoralists, indigenous peoples, policy-makers and representatives of social movements between 2005-2007 have led to a major initiative, in which citizens can exercise their right to decide on the kind of food and agricultural research they want. The aim is to facilitate the participatory design of alternative, farmer and citizen-led agricultural research – one which is democratic and accountable to wider society. This initiative, which started in 2007, is now unfolding in four regions, with one country acting as host for each region: West Africa (Mali), South Asia (India), West Asia (Iran) and the Andean region in Latin America (Bolivia). It is coordinated by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and its regional partners.

In each setting, this action research explicitly aims to strengthen the voices of small-scale producers and other citizens in setting agendas for scientific and technological research as well as in framing policies for food and agricultural research. Each site-specific research process adapts and combines the following key elements to ensure a competent, fair and trustworthy deliberative process:

  • The formation of safe spaces for small farmers and the use of participatory methods for deliberation and gender inclusion (citizens' juries, consensus conferences, Participatory Video, visioning exercises and other culturally appropriate methods).
  • A set of carefully-designed safeguards to ensure the quality and validity of the knowledge and actions generated. Safeguards are combined in mutually reinforcing ways to ensure that deliberative processes are broadly credible, trustworthy, fair and not captured by any interest group or perspective.
  • A mechanism for linking formal decision-making bodies and processes with citizen spaces in which expert knowledge is put under public scrutiny, by engaging relevant social actors and coalitions of interest.

Work with local partners in different regions has resulted in strong bottom up processes of farmer/citizen deliberations on the governance and directions of food and agricultural research. For example:

i) in South Asia , - and India in particular -, the Alliance for the Democratization of Agricultural Research in South Asia (ADARSA) has facilitated farmer-scientist dialogues, studies of public and private sector partnerships in agricultural research, and a major citizens' jury involving the voiceless in Indian society (see ).

ii) in West Africa, a similar multidimensional process has recently culminated in a farmer led assessment of public research as well as two citizens' juries on the governance and directions of agricultural research in Mali (see )

iii) In Peru and Bolivia, participatory action research with indigenous communities is strengthening horizontal exchange and recognition of indigenous innovation systems. 4 parallel dialogues between experienced farmers and scientists are undertaken in 2010. The process is now building up to stage a major citizen jury/panel in the region.

Small scale producers involved in the citizens' juries have made specific policy recommendations on key issues: What food and agricultural research do we need? For whom? Why? How? Where? And with what desirable impacts on people and the environment? National and international policy dialogues are now under way in to ensure that the voices and recommendations of hitherto excluded farmers are made to count in decisions on the governance and strategic priorities of food and agricultural research.

Whilst the entry point for these citizen deliberations is agricultural research, many of the issues and processes involved are directly relevant for the governance and control over the production of environmental, economic and social knowledge used in policy making.

For more information and multimedia accounts of this multi-regional initiative see

By Dr Michel Pimbert
Deputy Chair of CEESP


Team Leader Food and Agriculture
International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)

Work area: 
Social Policy
Go to top