Beyond Productivity: Reimagining Futures of Agriculture and Bioeconomy

A recent workshop brought together scholars, agricultural practitioners, and activists from the degrowth and the critical agrarian studies communities to discuss visions of agriculture which do not rely on growing productivity. Stefan Ouma, Eugen Pissarskoi, Kerstin Schopp and Leiyo Singo summarise some insights from a vital discussion.

By Stefan Ouma, Eugen Pissarskoi, Kerstin Schopp and Leiyo Singo

The transformation of the fossil-fuel based economies to a “bioeconomy” – an economy whose raw materials come mainly from renewable sources – as envisioned in the early industrialized societies of the Global North will make biomass the bottleneck resource of the 21st century. Visions of bioeconomy and agriculture which dominate debates both in the Global South and the Global North share the belief that the best means to alleviate the resulting challenges consists in increasing agricultural productivity. Critical agrarian studies scholars and activists have often flagged the negative impacts of capitalist visions of bioeconomy and agriculture, calling into questions the dominant and often capital-driven paradigms that seek to envision and implement particular agricultural futures. Interventions on and in the journal have powerfully contributed to those debates.

Many of these interventions have had a focus on Africa or the Global South more generally. But what are the visions of agriculture of those who are not in a position of political or economic power both in the Global North and the Global South? Does there exist a shared vision among them? Also, many of these interventions in one way or another are against ‘modern’ forms of agriculture, which often implies being against the industrial productivity paradigm that underpins capital-driven agricultural futures. While this paradigm has a long history, going back to the work of 18th century philosopher John Locke, and resurfacing during both colonial and post-colonial attempts to ‘modernize’ African agriculture (as Andrew Coulson shows here), it is often not clear what role ‘productivity’ would play in alternative visions of agriculture. What would make an agriculture without productivity growth attractive to small producers such as smallholder farmers and livestock keepers? Do indigenous communities and the degrowth movement (which lately has received more attention by critical agrarian studies scholars, see here and here) have their own conception of productivity or an own attitude to it? Given the recent calls that we need a deeper dialogue between degrowth and decoloniality scholars, how could decolonized conceptions of productivity capture more space in public debates and policy circles? These questions foregrounded the reflections and conversations of the workshop aptly named: Beyond Productivity: Reimagining Futures of Agriculture and Bioeconomy, held as a digital event on 8 October, 2021.

The workshop drew about 40 scholars, agricultural practitioners and policy activists from different countries including Germany, Ghana, France, India, South Africa, Tanzania, United Kingdom, and the United States. We deliberately wanted to span boundaries and gather diversely positioned scholars and activists, many of whom would normally not share the same space. This diversity, we believe, influenced the contributions and deliberations during the workshop. Of course, the theme of the workshop itself – the role of productivity for a radically sustainable agriculture and bioeconomy – constitutes a puzzle. There are contradictory attitudes towards it, even within more critical academic circles, as well as among grassroots movements representing peasant farmers and livestock keepers.

In the following, we present some insights from the discussions about this “productivity puzzle”. A lengthier documentation of the workshop’s debates can be found here.

Part 1: Role of Productivity in Agricultural Visions

The first session brought together visions of agricultural practices, which do not strive for further increase in land or labour productivity. The contributions were made by Henryk Alff and Michael Spies (Eberswalde University for Applied Sciences), Theodora Pius and Lina Andrew (Mtandao wa Vikundi vya Wakulima Wadogo Tanzania (MVIWATA), member of La Via Campesina), Christina Mfanga (Tanzania Socialist Forum), Gaël Plumecocq (French National Institute for Agriculture, Food, and Environment Toulouse), Leiyo Singo (University of Bayreuth), Paula Gioia (Arbeitsgemeinschaft bäuerliche Landwirtschaft (AbL), Germany, member of La Via Campesina), Richard Mbunda (University of Dar es Salaam), and Divya Sharma (University of Sussex). The discussions took part in parallel breakout rooms addressing the differences and similarities of the visions presented in the session.

It is incontestable that a rise in productivity can improve people’s livelihoods. However, the established notions of “productivity” are strongly influenced by capitalist imperatives. They contribute to class differentiation and uneven capital accumulation in countries such as Tanzania as several participants pointed out. These notions of productivity have been exported to Africa.Meanwhile, the idea of productivist agriculture has become deeply entrenched in farmers’ own reasoning. Due to that, they consider productivity increases as a means to rising incomes which, in turn, they need since a growing number of needs cannot be satisfied without cash.

Most participants agreed that mainstream notions of productivity need to be adjusted by recognition of additional values, for instance, frugality (or simplicity) and the well-being of the future generations. Given that we already have reached a planetary state of climate breakdown, visions that do not envision productivity rise are deemed more realistic compared to what is formulated within the conventional productivity paradigm. Agro-ecology is an option to increase productivity in quality, not quantity. Qualitative productivity improvements rest on incorporating a wide range of social and ecological values and not merely economic ones. Additionally, legal, and political frameworks that are formulated in a deliberate, collective manner could help to develop a commonly shared vision of a future agriculture and the role of productivity in it.

Some participants mentioned that the allegation of low productivity is used to continue the alienation of farmers from their means of production (seeds/land) across Tanzania. It is used to help “modern seeds” penetrate rural areas. While it is true that many farmers, especially young ones, increasingly consider agriculture as a dead-end, agriculture has rather been made to be not rewarding. Additionally, the role of brokers at the interface between farmers and markets should be critically scrutinized.

Another key question is that of political power. How can other visions of agriculture become effective? Recent policy dynamics in Tanzania provide a vital example. Despite some of well-known shortcomings, the previous regime under late-President Joseph Pombe  Magufuli shared certain visions with small-scale farmers, e.g., banning trials on genetically modified organisms. Magufuli also took away land from investors that had been obtained under questionable circumstances. The current regime, however, supports investors. “For the government, investors are business partners, but for the majority these are enemies, not development partners.”, argued Christina Mfanga.

The session ended with a paradox. While we can raise several critical points about the thrust for productivity, it can be patronizing to say that small-scale farmers don’t want productivity. If asked, many farmers would probably agree that anything reducing their workload is good. At the same time, this does not mean to go down the corporate road to productivity. Another question that emerged was: “Who are the people”? How do we account for social differentiation, and potentially differentiated interests, among the peasantry and livestock keepers?

Part 2: Towards Decolonization of Productivity?

Introducing the second round of the workshop, Stefan Ouma raised the linkage between productivity and coloniality, emphasizing that notions of productivity cannot be understood without considering the colonial experience. Colonial administrators already promoted modernisationist discourses on raising productivity among ‘backward’ African producers, a rhetoric that still shines through the contemporary productivity gospel. Endorsement of economic prerogatives such as efficiency, labour productivity, and the coupling of private property and the ideology of “improvement” have European origins and buttressed colonial expansion.

Two keynote addresses were presented by Julien-François Gerber and Emmanuel Sulle followed by the commentary by Wendy Wilson-Fall. Subsequently, participants discussed in three groups the following questions:

What would make an agriculture without productivity growth attractive to smallholder producers?

Some participants suggested focusing on the plurality of productivities instead of abandoning the notion of productivity at all. This plurality should integrate social and environmental forms of productivity, such as the freedom for smallholder farmers to decide which crops they cultivate when and which crop quality they want to achieve, which is an important issue for smallholder farmers.

Other participants, however, pointed out, that the established political-economic rules make an agriculture decoupled from productivity growth unattractive. It is unrealistic to make a beyond-productivity-agriculture attractive to a young generation within the existing economic systems. The macro-level is vital since the dominant economic framing of agriculture in politics and business makes agro-industrial notions of productivity (in the narrow sense) a prerequisite. As a consequence, these participants called for a paradigm shift towards a decommodification of agriculture. This decommodification will have implications on the decolonization of agriculture since the redistributive and alienating dimensions of capitalist markets are central issues for both political projects.

Do indigenous communities and the degrowth movement have an own conception of productivity or an own attitude to it? How does it look like?

In his plenary presentation, Julien-François Gerber pointed out that the degrowth movement stresses a plurality of values among which an agricultural system must balance: well-being, meaningful work, resilience to shocks, land and labour productivity among others. Land/labour productivity (and the resulting monetary income) constitute only a part of the valuable properties of agricultural systems.

This picture of a plurality of values which need to be adequately balanced actually represents the realities of indigenous farmers and pastoralists in sub-Sahara Africa and Latin America. These groups balance the productivity of ecosystems and non-human organisms (“livestock”) with the productivity of social bonds and relationships in a different manner than the industrial farmers in the Global North. The latter put more weight on the land and labour productivity and less weight on livestock’s well-being and intensity of social bonds.

A remarkable difference lies in the fact that while the degrowth vision is largely aspirational, the pastoralist economies of provisioning are an already existing reality. Their common point – the requirement of balance amid a plurality of values – is far from being recognized by the political mainstream in the Global South or North.

How could decolonized conceptions of productivity capture more space in public debates and policy circles?

Taking the case of Tanzania, a largely agrarian society, discussants acknowledged that the country’s politics are dominated by urban elites. Therefore, without a broader movement taking on the existing ruling class, nothing will change. Those working with grassroot movements pointed out that the “people are there, but funding is the issue”. Christina Mfanga came across a lot of struggles among farmers which are “extra-organizational” (outside of organized farmer groups and movements) and thus less visible. Most of the movements she mentioned are not donor dependent. The involvement of donor funds is often a setback for radical struggles.

Researchers need to get closer to the grassroots to learn about the real struggles of the poor. Richard Mbunda emphasized the need for research that is strongly grounded in decolonial conceptions of agriculture. Data is helping the proponents of hegemonic models of productivity to speak, so alternatives need data, too. We need to have a larger discussion about decolonizing productivity and associated research. We should turn the Global North-South axis upside down; “we” in the Global North can learn a lot from the Global South in terms of human-environment relations.


The debates at the workshop have demonstrated that there are similar objections raised against the dominant, capital-driven visions of agricultural futures (see here and here) and the bioeconomy (see here and here) by scholars and activists from different parts of the world. The dominant visions both in the Global North and the Global South endorse the goal of productivity growth. In light of mainstream economic theories, the socio-economic institutions established in the early industrialized societies of the Global North, and their values – which have been exported to other parts of the world- productivity growth seems to be an indispensable condition for a flourishing life.

However, as the workshop debates stated, there are grassroot movements in the Global North – which are small and politically unrepresented – who object to the pursuit of further increases in land or labour productivity and who search for socio-economic models which  do not depend on growth of economic aggregates yet enables life to truly flourish. There are also communities in the Global South – often politically marginalized and currently in existential crisis such as the Maasai in Tanzania – which have preserved and still realize ways of life in which growth of productivity does not play a significant role.

As such, there is fertile ground for fruitful exchange and mutual learning between critical agrarian studies researchers and activists studying these marginalized communities and grassroot movements and activists striving for recognition of their values from the Global North and the Global South. Such an exchange should avoid the temptation to romanticize these communities and movements, taking their internal contradictions and struggles around cultural values and practices seriously, as Andrew Coulson reminded us in the aftermath of the workshop.

Eugen Pissarskoi is researcher at the Ethics-Center of the University of Tübingen. In his research, he analyses normative disagreements about socio-ecological transformations to Sustainable Development. More on his research can be found here.

Kerstin Schopp is a research associate at the International Ethics Center (IZEW) at the University of Tübingen. Her research focuses on Tanzanian smallholder farmers’ conceptions and ideas of sustainable land use, sustainable bioeconomy, and a good life. You can learn more about her work here.

Stefan Ouma is a Professor of Economic Geography at the University of Bayreuth, Germany. He has published widely on global commodity chains, agrarian change, the financialization of food and agriculture, and African political economy. He has been a recurrent contributor to You can learn more about his work here.

Leiyo Singo is a PhD candidate at Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies (BIGSAS), University of Bayreuth, Germany. His research combines interests in critical agrarian studies, degrowth and decoloniality. He is particularly interested in seeking to understand how pastoralists (one of the most marginalized groups in Tanzania) articulate their own imaginaries for sustainable economic and ecological futures (“seeing like a pastoralist”). He is a frequent blogger here.


The workshop was a collaborative effort by researchers from the International Centre for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities (IZEW), Tubingen University, and the Chair of Economic Geography, University of Bayreuth, within the research project “BATATA – Whose Bioeconomy? Tracing Visions of Socio-ecological Transformation and their Ethical Deliberation in Tanzania. Bioeconomy as societal change, Module 2(2)”, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

The organizers are highly indebted to the following participants who have provided us their minutes of the breakout rooms for the preparation of the workshop’s documentation: Leonie Bellina, Nikola Blaschke, Frédéric Kilcher, Thomas Potthast, Norbert Steinhaus, Gideon Tups, and Thomas Vogelpohl. We thank Andrew Coulson for his comments of the workshop and of the first draft of its full report.


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