Suicide Bean or Grain of Gold? Soybean in the New Green Revolution in Africa and Political Ecology of Conviviality

Authors: Serena Stein*, Princeton University
Topics: Agricultural Geography, Development, Human-Environment Geography
Keywords: Soybean, Farmers, Crop Commodities, Food Security, Africa
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/11/2021
Start / End Time: 11:10 AM / 12:25 PM
Room: Virtual 33
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

This paper draws upon ethnographic and archival analysis of the past decade of smallholder soybean cultivation across Sub-Saharan Africa, with particular attention to farmers in Mozambique amid the rising boom in small-scale soybean production taking place at the margins of a concerted 'big push' in soy in countries including Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, and Rwanda. While global histories of soybean focus on its rapid growth as a commodity monoculture for export on vast scales in the Americas, the re-imaging of soybean by the institutions, aid workers, and scientists mobilized in the New Green Revolution in Africa merits closer attention in anthropological and geographical literatures of recent agrarian change. This paper examines the complicated role of bilateral donor aid, multinational organizations, and philanthropic foundations - namely the CGIAR, Gates, Clinton, and Rockefeller Foundations - in 'making soybean belong' in African landscapes, as part of technological packets that represent familiar repetitions of past agricultural development interventions, and use soy as a crop that 'promises' to address poverty, food insecurity, and soil health. Drawing on participant-observation in northern Mozambique over two years of fieldwork, living and farming with smallholders, as well as shadowing foreign agronomists and seed breeders working in the capacity of development actors, I accompany the introduction of soy into local repertoires of cultivation. The paper argues that soy is adopted unevenly as part of competing narratives of commercialization, gender, and frameworks of practice, illustrating how women especially undertake invisible labor to reshape soy into a 'native' grain.

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