Introduction: new ways of approaching an old debate
The development of agricultural biotechnologies for less developed countries (LDCs) is a widely debated issue. Many researchers have indicated potential benefits that modern biotechnologies may provide to agriculture, also for resource poor farmers in small scale agricultural systems. For example, the ability to adjust crops to their natural environment, in terms of resistance to both biotic (pest insects, fungi, viruses) and abiotic stresses (drought, salinity), has been claimed to provide opportunities to reach farmers in marginalized and underdeveloped areas.
At the same time a lot of criticism has been voiced regarding the appropriateness of currently existing biotechnologies for resource poor farmers. Critical evaluations of the social impacts of the Green Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s (e.g. Pearse 1980), analyses of the industrial and commercial context in which these technologies have been developed (Kloppenburg 1988, 2004), and analyses of the farming systems in LDCs (Bindraban and Rabbinge 2003) strongly indicate that the current technologies ‘on the shelf’ are badly attuned to the needs of resource poor farmers. Others indicate that modern biotechnologies may provide advances in terms of production, but will fail to address issues of food security and poverty for rural poor.
This observation is the basis for a critical reflection upon the development of modern biotechnologies. The contradiction between the acclaimed potentialities the technologies have to offer, and the actual situation in which these potentialities are not being materialized, leads to questions regarding social or historical elements structuring the development of biotechnologies in certain specific directions, based upon an instrumental conceptualization of technologies as solution to social needs.
Acknowledging the controversies over biotechnologies in a development context, this paper is part of a larger research effort which is concerned with processes of tailoring modern biotechnologies and genomics for a very specific context and target group, namely resource poor farmers in developing countries. Instead of engaging in an unfruitful and polarized pro-contra debate over modern biotechnologies, the project sets out to investigate to what extent a reconstruction of current biotechnology development is possible, in order to allow (bio)technologies to be shaped and reshaped in specific context and socio-political circumstances. These questions in turn require a further elaboration of a conceptual framework that rejects a vision of technology as ‘fait accompli’, and instead sketches room for manoeuvre to constantly reconstruct technologies to meet social needs.
A critical constructivist framework as proposed in this paper will not focus on the appropriateness of existing biotechnologies and ways to select ‘the most appropriate technology’. Rather the focus is on processes of endogenous technology development , which are believed to be better attuned to local needs and circumstances and processes of sustainable development. This perspective moves beyond a mere technical agenda in terms of biotechnology development, as well as beyond notions that technology development has a certain ‘impact’ on social structures that needs to be managed. Rather, (bio)technology development is conceptualized in a larger historical framework in which technology development is part of a deeply social process (e.g. Ruivenkamp 1989, 2005). This process involves change at various levels, both in terms of practices, techniques, and efficiency, as well as in redefining social roles and relations of dependency and power. Because of these social aspects, the process in which technological innovations take place is fundamentally political, or rather sub-political , in terms of Ulrich Beck (Beck 1994).
An exploration of new approaches to (bio)technology development in LDCs will specifically aim at challenging political dimensions of technology development and at revealing the ‘social choices’ that are present in the process of technology development; i.e. the choices that relate to the shaping and changing of social roles and relations as part of the process of technological development. The central question is whether it is possible to envisage practices of technology development, in which a redefinition of social roles as part of technology development is not a passive side-effect that stakeholders have to adapt to, but rather a central and conscious part of development.
More concretely, in this paper constructivist and critical theoretical frameworks are being explored, to reach an appropriate and useful conceptualization of biotechnologies for development. The importance of a conceptualization of technologies as ‘socio-technical ensembles’ is discussed, rather than as mere objects. Moreover, technologies are claimed to feature important political dimensions, being value-laden, rather than having any ‘neutral’ status. This conceptualization of technologies is argued to be relevant in development studies. It is therefore taken as a starting point to rethink possibilities for tailoring technologies to processes of endogenous development. In doing so, the value of participatory methodologies in coming to a contextualized biotechnology development is re-evaluated. Aiming to take the proposed theoretical conceptualization of technologies seriously, an extension and refinement of participatory approaches is proposed.