“If I need to put more armor on, I can’t carry more guns”: the collective action problem of breeding for productivity in the California strawberry industry
Facing the appearance of novel soil-borne plant diseases as well as increasing restrictions of the chemical fumigants that have long been used to treat them, developing disease resistant cultivars is one strategy among several that the California strawberry industry is supporting. Yet, under the assumption that growers most desire high yielding varieties, university strawberry breeders continue to emphasize productivity, despite knowing the difficulty of breeding for many different qualities. They make this assumption even as the industry’s per acre productivity reached an all-time high in 2018 while prices continued to slip, a dynamic predicted by Willard Cochrane’s famous technology treadmill. This paper explores if and why growers want yield over disease resistant varieties to assess if there are ways to slow or stop the treadmill. Based on twenty in-depth interviews with strawberry growers, we found that growers want yield to remain individually competitive even as they largely recognize that prioritizing yield over other qualities can be self-defeating for the industry. We additionally found that this desire is being augmented by buyer-grower contractual relationships, conditions of land access and rising land values, and practices of labor remuneration not heretofore theorized as playing into the treadmill. Given that those structural forces are not easily addressed, we also consider the role that university scientists play in constructing this desire for yield. On this question we draw on work in science and technology studies as it relates to university agricultural science to suggest that farmers’ needs and desires are a reflection of what university research and extension can offer and conclude that university breeders are best positioned to level the playing field by ceasing to breed for productivity.
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