Since there are no currently active contests, we have switched Climate CoLab to read-only mode.
Learn more at
Skip navigation
Share via:


How does different forms of technology transfer in agriculture affect the resilience of thus created agricultural systems?



I am suggesting a research project, on how different forms of technology transfer in agriculture affects the resilience of thus created agricultural systems. Are full technological packets more resilient that just new plants like potato inserted in existing agricultural systems? Does the speed or distance of transfer affect resilience? Do gradual local or regional transfers lead to more resilient systems than global transfers? In some cases also the direction of transfer could matter. For example, the swede being more frost resistant than the common turnip can be attributed to its northern origin. This direction of advantage might though be reversed due to climate change, although it does not bring us a uniform warming of the climate. 

Furthermore, I hypothesize that the mode of transfer also affects the attitude towards plants transferred and landscapes thus created. Plants revived and landscapes created trough a gradual regional transfer are more likely to be considered “domestic” plants and cultural landscapes worth protecting. As long as resilience and valuation goes hand in hand this creates no conflicts.

Category of the action

Mitigation/Adaptation, Changing public attitudes about climate change

What actions do you propose?

At least since Alfred W. Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (1972), environmental historians have been fascinated by the widespread exchange of animals, plants and communicable diseases between the American and Afro-Eurasian hemispheres following the voyage to the Americas by Christopher Columbus. In earnest this can be considered as the start of Anthropocene, instead of the industrial revolution, if we do not date it back to the Neolithic Revolution, the rise of agriculture. The Columbian exchange was facilitated by a global movement of human actors, technology and ideas. But there was also ongoing more subtle movements on a local or regional scale.

The starting point for this comparison is my own research on traversal technology transfer between the peripheries in the north facilitated by local people. This research was more focused on the process of technology transfer itself, including also plants and animals. It was centered on two case studies: The first case examined the transfer of Finnish slash-and-burn cultivation know-how to the forest region between Sweden and Norway and finally to North-America in the 17th century; and the second the transfer of peatland cultivation practices across the Bothnian Gulf from Ostrobothnia to Västerbotten in Sweden in the 18th and 19th century. Especially, in the case of slash-and-burn cultivation a full technological packet was transferred, as it included swidden rye, a special variety of turnip (Brassica rapa var. rapa) the so called swidden turnip (kaskinauris), a plow (finnplog) that was especially suitable for cultivation on stony soils, and the East-Finnish cow considered particularly appropriate for woodland areas. Not only the societies adopting new technology changed, but also the technology itself had to adapt to new environments.

Within the scope of this suggestion, technology refers to new and better ways of achieving economic ends that contribute to economic growth. Whether the technology used originates from scientific theory or not does not matter. As the focus is on agriculture, it means here the ability to feed more people (extensive growth) or to provide a better level of nutrition (intensive growth) either trough higher yields per hectare or by opening new areas for cultivation. With technology transfer, I mean the “utilization of an existing technique in an instance where it has not previously been used”.

I claim that the technology thus transferred was well adapted to the surrounding environment – soil types, climate and ecosystems. Northern populations as in my earlier research, or population all over the planet, are thus not just the product of their environment; on the contrary, they were actively making their northern environments. This co-inhabit between the people and the plants and animals they brought with them created landscapes that are nowadays considered culturally and environmentally valuable. Does this mean that this local and regional transfer was less intrusive than the abrupt Columbian exchange, or was its effects just more diluted over time?

For this research suggestion a perhaps even more important question is whether it makes them more resilient to Climate change and other unintentional consequences of human actions in the anthropocene. A comparison of two important plants will bring more insight to this question. In the 18th century, the rutabaga or swede (Brassica napobrassica) was introduced from Sweden to Scotland. From there it spread to the rest of Great Britain, and became an essential part of the advanced Norfolk-four-course cultivation method, as it was more frost-resistant than the common turnip used in cropped fallow. The other plant is potato (Solanum tuberosum) brought to the Afro-Eurasian hemisphere trough the Columbian exchange. As a high-yielding plant it helped to feed large populations, but crop failure due to potato blight brought also the Great Famine in Ireland between 1845 and 1852. Using plants adapted to local conditions over generations was though no guarantee against large crop failures, as the 1866–1868 famine in Finland shows.

Note: The plants mentioned above are just two examples taken from my own research. More plants could be added depending on the size of the research project and countries/regions involved.

The technology transfer, described above, was often done through the movement of people in possession of certain knowledge or through other non-literary means. We can, however, through careful archival research find also written accounts of these reversal technology transfers, although the main means of transfer itself seldom were literary. The most difficult task will be to verify whether an agricultural practice or method mentioned in the texts is actually taken into practice. The knowledge on the existence of a particular method does not constitute technology transfer if it is not taken into practice. To solve this question, a symmetrical treatment of textual and material sources, aiming to incorporate the study of agricultural tools, methods, and plants is needed.

Who will take these actions?

This is an suggestion for a research project involving scientists from various fields: history, ecology, agricultural sciences etc. and the local population in the areas of study.

Where will these actions be taken?

The research proposal is not restricted to any particular place.

What are other key benefits?

A sophisticated and multifaceted analysis of transfer of agricultural technology and the environmental consequences of this could contribute significantly to the discussion about technology transfer as a means to development. In recent years, technology transfer from industrialized countries to developing countries has been put forward as one possible remedy for global climate change. Certainly, we should even here put a bigger attention on traversal technology transfer between developing countries themselves. Their technology is perhaps not so” sophisticated”, but as David Edgerton shows, the usefulness and suitability of technology is more important than its level of sophistication.

For best outcomes, it is important that not only the societies adopting new technology changes, but that also the technology itself adapts to new environments. A better understanding of past adaptations will help to reach this goal.


What are the proposal’s costs?

Scalable accordingly to the funds available.

Time line

Rough time line (scalable according to funds available).

Years 0-3 basic research testing the above hypothesis of the resilience of different agricultural systems.

Years 3-4 writing policy recommendations based on previous research

Years 4 and onwards implementation and follow-up.

Related proposals

It is related to the proposal  Incentivize climate-suitable crops as both are discussing the suitability of crops to their surroundings

Trough both's historical approach it is related to China's rural intensification...

The thought of the importance of the mode of technology transfer can also be applied to built environments, and thus it complements suggestions related to housing and other built environments.




Jan Kunnas, “Traversal Technology Transfer: The Transfer of Agricultural Knowledge Between Periferias in the North”, in Dolly Jørgensen and Sverker Sörlin, (eds.) Northscapes: History, Technology, and the Making of Northern Environments. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, November 2013.

Jan Kunnas, “A Dense and Sickly Mist From Thousands of Bog Fires: An Attempt to Compare the Energy Consumption in Slash-and-Burn Cultivation and Burning Cultivation of Peatlands in Finland in 1820-1920.” Environment and History, Vol. 11 No. 4, 2005, pp. 431–446. 

Timo Myllyntaus, Minna Hares & Jan Kunnas, Sustainability in Danger? Slash-and-Burn Cultivation in Nineteenth-Century Finland and Twentieth-Century Southeast Asia” Environmental History, Vol. 7 No. 2, 2002, pp. 267–302. 

David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.