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New agricultural technologies lead to progress, deskilling

It’s an indisputable fact that technological advances have led to phenomenal increases in the efficiency of production agriculture. In the United States, few sectors of the economy can match the tremendous gains in productivity and efficiency that have taken place in agriculture. Just compare the progress U.S. agriculture has made in the past 50 years say, to the auto industry, which has been characterized largely by inefficiency and declines in productivity.

This progress has come in many forms — biotechnology, machinery, science — but it hasn’t come without a price. There are, of course, the millions spent by various corporations to enable the commercialization of these important technologies. But there are other, less obvious costs, and some sociologists and historians are just now taking a closer look at these unforeseen consequences of technological advances in agriculture.

These more subtle changes usually occur whenever a technological advance drastically and permanently alters farmers’ practices. It’s a phenomenon sociologists call deskilling — the process by which skilled labor within an industry is eliminated by the introduction of new technologies.

One of the first of these involved the hybridization of corn. During the early part of the 20th century, virtually all of the corn grown in the United States was produced from open-pollinated seed. However, beginning in the 1920s, researchers started developing hybrid corn, which led to increased yields and higher total production, which in turn led to fewer acres being needed to be put into corn production.

The development of hybrid seed enabled the beginning of the commercial seed market, as farmers were persuaded to buy new hybrid seed each season, replacing the traditional practice of planting farm-saved seed.

This dynamic and rapid switch from open-pollinated to hybrid corn seed eventually led to the

deskilling of farmers, argues Deborah Fitzgerald, a historian who specializes in farm labor and economics. A certain skill set or knowledge was required of farmers to plant the appropriate open-pollinated corn seed. These farmers needed to know maturity rates, climatic conditions, soil quality, insect and disease prevention potential, and the value of the crop on the open market.

In addition, this art required growers to keep consistent and accurate records, or “score-cards” as they were sometimes called, so that you would know from year to year, and even decade to decade, what your seed selection had accomplished in terms of production, disease prevention, and so on.

But by 1945, this art or knowledge of seed selection had been almost totally replaced by hybridization, and the popularity of hybridization grew so that by 1945, hybrid corn constituted 90 percent of the corn grown in the United States. As Fitzgerald says, “quietly, quickly a type of knowledge, specifically a type of user knowledge was gone — transferred and transformed in historically ‘the blink of an eye.’”

Farmers who had earlier been able to select corn, whether from the field or from the seed dealer — according to visual characteristics — now had no concept of what to look for.

Also, the growing properties of a particular line were not apparent in the hybrid seed. With open-pollinates, farmers had been able to correlate visual characteristics such as indentation and color with their particular growing conditions, but with hybrids, they could not predict how any line would perform on their own farms. And, since hybrids could not be grown successfully for more than one year due to their narrow genetic base, farmers had to purchase and plant new seed each year.

Another, more recent, major technological advance in crop production has been the commercialization of GM or genetically modified crops. Again, this technology led to a degree of deskilling, as farmers no longer were required to make certain pesticide applications and/or field preparations. Even further, this technology has had significant unforeseen consequences, such as the development of herbicide-resistant weeds.

On the other hand, the technology has resulted in fewer pesticide applications, an increase in conservation-tillage practices, and fewer labor requirements, to name a few of the advantages. The point that sociologists and others who study such things are trying to make is that new technologies in agriculture — like everything else in life — are a trade-off. Skills will be lost, and there will be unforeseen consequences. In the final analysis, we can only hope the advantages will outweigh the disadvantages.


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