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Participatory Research: Re-Envisioning the Role of the Farmer in Local Food Safety Innovation

TCI scholar Anthony Wenndt with a group of men and children sitting in a circle
Anthony Wenndt worked with community members in Unnao District, Uttar Pradesh, to develop sustainable mycotoxin mitigation strategies. (Photo courtesy of Anthony Wenndt)

“What happened to it?” I asked one woman after she reported that the hermetic (air-tight) grain sack we had given her wasn’t being used in her storage facility. She grinned sheepishly. A giggling daughter guided us through the courtyard and gestured to a corner shaded by a thatched roof. I was baffled to see the sack cut up into a makeshift tarpaulin sheet, used to cover the family’s prized sewing machine. My field team gasped with conflicting feelings of shock and curiosity.

This was not an ordinary sack. This was a food safety intervention. The woman and her husband had sat through an entire training session on the sacks, their preservative value, and their effectiveness in preventing dietary exposures to harmful fungal toxins (mycotoxins) that accumulate in food. I took a step back to reflect. In most conventional scientific endeavors, this event would have constituted a missing data point. But in my study, this woman’s conscious, informed decision to disregard the training was a piece of very powerful evidence; this type of personal, human-centered decision-making about priorities unique to individuals’ experiences is the very essence of participatory research.

Participatory research is a process of collaborative learning undertaken jointly by professional researchers and local community members, leveraging the stakeholders’ respective strengths and skills to develop solutions that are scientifically valid and, most importantly, imbued with local wisdom and cultural context. In India, food quality and safety monitoring systems are under-developed, particularly in smallholder-based food systems that largely depend on informal markets and self-provisioning. Without effective surveillance, smallholders have little capacity to diagnose food safety threats and take concerted action to prevent losses and the accumulation of toxins. Participatory research can address these issues by enriching endogenous paradigms of change with targeted, evidence-based actions.

Enhancing capacity for sustainable, locally sensitive innovations

TCI’s mycotoxin management efforts have worked to establish a foundation of evidence for the utility of participatory research in enhancing food safety. We have found that farmers’ pathways to innovation are incredibly nuanced—every farmer, household, and community experiences methods and technologies in unique ways. Sustainable, scalable adoption of food safety methods can only be achieved if each actor in a system benefits and is benefitted by the process of identifying challenges and articulating intervention options.

This ideology contrasts with more conventional systems of innovation in farming communities, which typically rely on sweeping, generalizable solutions diffused top-down across multiple—often disparate—environmental and sociocultural contexts. Top-down agricultural extension in India and elsewhere, while indeed necessary for knowledge transfer, is prone to delivering innovations that are not designed for or adapted to local contexts. Moreover, these systems often neglect vital grassroots capacity-building activities, which are necessary to ensure successful deployment, appropriate monitoring, and long-term sustainable adoption of improved methods.

An objective of our work was to equip farmer groups with the knowledge and tools required to detect unsafe food, identify probable causes, and take appropriate action to prevent consumption of molded or toxic produce.

A participatory research framework, on the other hand, positions end-users as key drivers of the innovation process. Doing so acknowledges that communities possess valuable, actionable knowledge relevant to their own environment, which can be a force for positive change. A fundamental component of this process is the systematic use of scientific inquiry to learn from the past, appraise the present, and plan for the future.

In our mycotoxin management project, we used this framework to identify grain spoilage as a major constraint to food and nutrition security, as well as the economic viability of smallholder farming operations in Unnao District, Uttar Pradesh. A suite of diagnostic tools identified hermetic grain storage as a tractable innovation to the already sack-based conventional practices. And mobilization of farmer groups in support of this technology resulted in the establishment of novel market supply chains for this and other food safety-promoting technologies in target localities.

Bridging gaps and re-imagining the scientific process

Food safety surveillance systems in India do not service smallholder communities, where a majority of food may be produced, circulated, and consumed without regulatory oversight. An objective of our work was to equip farmer groups with the knowledge and tools required to detect unsafe food, identify probable causes, and take appropriate action to prevent consumption of molded or toxic produce. In the spirit of co-learning, we developed a capacity-building program centered around farmers’ involvement in the surveillance of household grain stores. This process not only enabled us to collect comprehensive data, it also built quality control capacity.

Sacks of groundnuts
When stored in tradition burlap sacks, groundnuts can be contaminated with mycotoxins. (Photo by Anthony Wenndt/TCI)

Beyond surveillance, the participatory research approach has value for farmer organization—ultimately a key component of community resilience against environmental or socioeconomic shocks to the system. A process of gradual trust-building in target communities resulted in the establishment of a farmer research network comprising several Unnao villages, with shared needs but distinct backgrounds, all united with a common interest in reducing food grain spoilage.

These networks can serve as a nucleus of collective identity around shared values and needs, in this case, the goal of safer, more productive food systems. By shifting group focus toward a portfolio of food safety issues and solutions, and away from sociocultural barriers such as caste, class, and gender, we were able to bring together individuals from across these divides to uplift intervention processes that were mutually informed by the heterogeneous and equally valid priorities and needs within the local community.

Commitment to inclusivity and locally specific actions requires a fundamental transition of power in the research process. As opposed to conventional indicators, which empower professional researchers, prioritize scientific rigor, and are often intangible to end users, our participatory research approach yielded power to the farmers and enabled them to collaboratively develop metrics of success that were both scientifically valid and locally meaningful.

For example, the farmer research network co-developed controlled experimental evaluations of crop health and productivity based on qualitative visual scales (disease, pest pressure, plant height, yield, etc.) that could be ascertained by all members of the community without formal scientific training. In this process, farmers learned and performed the process of inquiry without deviating from endogenous traditions of knowledge acquisition and analysis, setting a precedent for systematic and evidence-based decision-making that can be built upon even beyond the tenure of a particular connection with a research agency, which tends to be ephemeral and often exit communities without conferring the tools and capacities necessary to effect lasting change.

Navigating diverse and dynamic priorities

A major challenge of participatory research lies within the very thing that gives this approach its power: the intentional respect for system complexities that complicate decision-making and influence adoption of innovative methods at the community scale and beyond. Unlike traditional frameworks of agricultural extension and research, participatory research advocates not for the identification of “silver bullet” solutions with broad applicability, but rather for the development of local processes of inquiry that are equipped to consider a range of efficacious alternatives and adapt them to match local circumstances.

Whereas hermetic grain storage sacks were undoubtedly effective in preventing grain spoilage in our target communities, farmers’ personal and group decision-making processes around this technology resulted in dramatic differences in household-by-household and village-by-village adoption results. The woman who saw the sacks more useful as a sewing machine cover is just one example of how variable priorities can be even across a relatively small geography.

Participatory research, thankfully, is an approach capable of tackling this heterogeneity and uplifting ranges of options specifically tailored, by and for local end-users, to meet local needs. Moreover, the farmer research network concept pioneered by TCI in the context of mycotoxin management shows that participatory methods can yield insights that are not only scholarly but can have lasting impacts on organizational, diagnostic, and problem-solving capacities in vulnerable populations.

Anthony Wenndt is a postdoctoral associate at the Tata-Cornell Institute. He is an alumnus of the TCI scholar program. As a TCI scholar, Wenndt earned his doctorate in the field of plant pathology and plant-microbe biology.