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Consultas electrónicas abiertas del HLPE

Re: HLPE consultation on the V0 draft of the Report: Agroecological approaches and other innovations for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition

Frédéric Goulet
Frédéric GouletCIRAD France

Dear colleagues,

Thank you for this very interesting v0 draft report "Agroecological approaches and other innovations for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition".

My comments focus on Chapter 2: innovation theory, innovation policies, innovation typology, with a perspective from the sociology of innovation and science and technology studies.

The agro-ecological transition is based on a clear specificity: while the Green Revolution and agricultural modernization have been based on the design and adoption of new technologies (pesticides, fertilizers, hybrid varieties, machinery), the first stage of greening is often linked to the problematization of these technologies adopted several decades ago. These technologies pose a problem, for their environmental or health effects, and opinions converge to consider that solutions must be found to produce without these technologies, or at least reduce their use: less pesticides, less chemical fertilizers, less tillage, etc. The starting point for greening is very often no longer to adopt new technologies, but to "de-adopt" certain technologies that have become problematic.

We conceptualized these processes with the notion of "innovation by withdrawal" (Goulet and Vinck, 2012, 2017), a category of innovations whose starting point is based on the need to remove something, rather than add something. By mobilizing actor-network theory (ANT), we studied the case of the diffusion of no-till in France, by reversing the traditional way of approaching the problem: we looked at how farmers adopted the no-till, by looking at how they disadopted tillage and ploughing, how they were made aware of the importance of detaching themselves from this practice, which is deeply rooted in their systems of standards and practices. We also studied how farmers were moving away from traditional chemical fertilizers and adopting alternative fertilizers to stimulate biological activity in the soil (Le Velly and Goulet, 2015).

The notion of innovation by withdrawal, and more broadly that of detachment, thus makes it possible to theorize and account for the originality of innovation processes related to ecological transition. In the field of innovation studies, much had been said about how users took ownership of innovations, how they integrated them into their practices, and how an entire socio-technical system was being rebuilt around the incorporation of a new technology. But in comparison, almost nothing had been said about how an existing system was deconstructed, how users were able to abandon certain technologies, whereas these processes are precisely crucial in the ecological transition. They also make it possible to describe the processes at work in other sectors: transport with cities without cars, cosmetics without paraben, energy without carbon sources, health with fewer antibiotics, plastics’ use reduction, etc. Symmetrically with the association/attachement processes described by the sociology of translation (Callon, 1986), they highlight the importance of characterizing dissociation/detachment mechanisms.

More recently, we have finally focused on how alternative technologies to problematic technologies emerge during the withdrawal processes, and how they are selected within innovation policies. Indeed, doing with less or doing without does not mean doing "with nothing". The pillar of abandoning a given technology or practice is to have a plan B, another technology that opens up an alternative pathways. We studied how in France, after 10 years of failed pesticide reduction policies that failed to identify effective alternatives, the French government suddenly decided to promote biocontrol as a technological promise to do without pesticides (Aulagnier and Goulet, 2017). We thus show that while placing the withdrawal of certain technologies on the public agenda is a complex process, which can sometimes take several decades, the selection of solutions and alternatives to these technologies is also the result of complex socio-technical processes and struggles for influence that go far beyond technological and scientific advances alone.

References :


Aulagnier A., Goulet F. (2017). Des technologies controversées et de leurs alternatives. Le cas des pesticides agricoles en France. Sociologie du travail, vol. 59, n°3, p. 1-22.

Callon, M. (1986) ‘Some elements of a sociology of translation. Domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen of St. Brieuc Bay’, in Power, Action and Belief. A New Sociology of Knowledge? ed. J. LAW, Routledge, London, pp. 196–223.

Goulet F., Vinck D. (2012). « Innovation through Withdrawal. Contribution to a Sociology of Detachment », Revue Française de Sociologie ENGLISH, vol. 53, n°2, p.117-146.

Le Velly R., Goulet F. (2015). Revisiting the importance of detachment in the dynamics of competition. Journal of Cultural Economy, vol. 8, n°6, p. 689-704.

Goulet F., Vinck D. (2017). Moving Towards Innovation through Withdrawal: the Neglect of Destruction, In : Godin B., Vinck D. (eds.) Critical Studies of Innovation: Alternative Approaches to the Pro-innovation Bias, Cheltenham, UK; Northampton, MA.: Edward Elgar Publishing, p. 97-114.


Please find attached some of these references.


Best regards,



Frédéric GOULET