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Balancing crop productivity with sustainability

Innovative solutions must balance crop productivity and sustainability as environmental pressures increase, requiring farmer participation and local knowledge.

As the global population grows and environmental pressures mount, modern agriculture faces an unprecedented challenge: to balance crop productivity with long-term sustainability innovatively. Meeting this challenge requires the participatory development of farmers, who hold essential local knowledge and bear the direct impacts of agricultural practices.

Multistakeholder platforms (MSPs) have emerged as a promising approach for bringing together diverse participants – from farmers to researchers to government officials – to develop sustainable agricultural solutions collaboratively. However, these platforms frequently fail to achieve their goals, with projects derailing due to discrepancies among stakeholders’ expectations and interpretations.

The MSPs: A microcosm of divergent perspectives

Figure 1. Farmland in Hamamatsu City
Credit. Author

To better understand these dynamics, we closely examined the case of MSPs for developing biological soil diagnostic technologies in Hamamatsu, Japan, from 2017 to 2020. Funded by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the platform aimed to implement the Soil Fertility Index (SOFIX) and related techniques to support sustainable agriculture in the region.

Despite the involvement of multiple farmer groups, university researchers, and local government representatives, participation and engagement progressively declined over the project’s three-year lifespan. By the end, the technologies had not been widely adopted, relationships among stakeholders had deteriorated, and the MSPs were deemed to have fallen short of their goals.

Revealing the roots of disengagement through narrative analysis

To diagnose the causes of this failure, we conducted in-depth, qualitative interviews with 20 farmers, 4 researchers, and 3 local government and organizational representatives who had participated in the MSPs. Analyzing this rich narrative data, we uncovered significant discrepancies in how different stakeholder groups perceived and interpreted the soil diagnostic technologies.

Farmers who became disengaged from the platform over time tended to expect the technologies to deliver immediate, quantitative improvements in crop yields and input costs. They wanted specific, actionable recommendations akin to conventional soil testing.

Figure 2. Co-occurrence network of farmers with less engaged farmers (n = 9)
Credit. Author

In contrast, farmers who remained engaged accepted the technologies’ limitations and uncertainties, viewing them as inputs to a longer-term learning process rather than a singular solution.

Figure 3. Co-occurrence network of highly engaged farmers (n = 4)
Credit. Author

Meanwhile, researchers and government officials, eager to attract and sustain farmer participation, often presented the technologies as more complete and definitive than they were.

Figure 4. Co-occurrence network of researchers and research officers (n = 5)
Credit. Author
Figure 5. The co-occurrence network of the documents provided by city halls and the research institutes
Credit. Author

These overly optimistic portrayals, while strategic, risked misleading farmers and setting unrealistic expectations.

A proactive approach to align expectations and preserve engagement

Drawing on these findings, we propose a concurrent self-evaluation methodology to surface such discrepancies in technological interpretation during the course of MSPs, rather than merely in a post-mortem analysis. By combining periodic stakeholder interviews with narrative analysis and visualization techniques like co-occurrence network mapping, this approach can help MSPs facilitators detect divergent expectations and understandings as they emerge.

Equipped with this real-time diagnostic information, facilitators can proactively align participant expectations, clarify uncertainties, and preserve engagement before relationships deteriorate beyond repair. Importantly, this methodology enables stakeholders to recognize and reconcile discrepancies through open dialogue rather than having evaluators impose post-hoc judgments.

While our case study focused on Japan, we believe this approach holds broader relevance for agricultural development platforms across Asian cultural contexts, where direct expressions of dissatisfaction may be less forthcoming. With further testing and refinement, concurrent self-evaluation methods could become a valuable tool for sustaining the solidarity and effectiveness of participatory innovation processes worldwide.

Cultivating understanding to reap sustainable innovation

Ultimately, our findings underscore the importance of building shared understanding among diverse stakeholders from the very outset of participatory agricultural development projects. MSPs organizers and facilitators must invest time and care to align expectations, clarify roles, and instill a learning mindset in all participants.

By proactively surfacing discrepancies and promoting inclusive dialogue, concurrent self-evaluation represents one promising avenue to foster the mutual understanding and solidarity required for MSPs to bear fruit. As the Hamamatsu case demonstrates, neglecting these relational dynamics can result in promising platforms and technologies withering on the vine.

For governments and industry bodies involved in advancing global justice, an important implication is to avoid underestimating the uncertainty of technologies under demonstration in their communication, particularly by refraining from using keywords such as “completed” or “established.” Moreover, they mustn’t solely demand quantitative outcomes, such as increased crop yields, from participatory projects. Furthermore, it is necessary to pay attention not only to the “loud vocal” farmers but also to the marginal ones. To this end, support for intermediaries such as facilitators and mediators who bridge discrepancies in participatory development should be considered.

In an era of escalating food system challenges, the global quest for agricultural sustainability hinges on our ability to harness the collective wisdom of all stakeholders – from farmers’ fields to researchers’ labs to policymakers’ offices. Only by bridging interpretational gaps and cultivating genuine collaboration can we hope to reap the full potential of participatory innovation.

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Journal reference

Kihira, M., & Maruyama, Y. (2024). Toward the concurrent self-evaluation of solidarity in platform-based development: a case study of discrepancies among technological interpretation in Japan. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 1-25. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10668-023-04404-5

Mariko Kihira is a PhD candidate in the Department of Social and Human Environment, Environmental Studies at Nagoya University in Japan. After completing her MSc in Rural Development and Communication, Development Studies at Van Hall Larenstein in the Netherlands, she worked on various research projects related to agriculture on an outsourced project basis. Through her experiences of being deeply involved in small groups within local farming communities, she has developed a strong interest in aggregation and discrete stakeholder networks in the context of farming.