Systems thinking and sustainable agriculture

One of the most important changes affecting agriculture today is the growing influence of systems thinking. 20th century innovations were highly successful in feeding a booming population, but were conceived in a linear, piecemeal fashion, which created a number of unintended consequences. That has gradually been changing, and the move toward more sustainable forms of agriculture is, in my view, largely one of shifting from thinking about isolated functions, like crop nutrition or crop protection, to more holistic concepts like soil fertility and crop health. Although there are separate labels for these latter two, they also overlap and interact.


There are many such synergies in agriculture, and our understanding of them is growing. However, it is probably wise to be humble. These systems are so intricate and dynamic that I doubt we will ever perfectly master them. Instead, our management of agricultural landscapes will gradually get better, but sustainable agriculture is probably an asymptote, a destination to which we get ever closer without ever fully achieving.

To get the total picture, we need to think of agricultural systems vertically as well as horizontally. In addition to understanding and working with the synergies between different functions at a given level of management, it’s important to understand the ways that different levels fit together, from the most focused to the broadest. The diagram below shows how crop nutrition is embedded in a number of systems up to the level of the ecosystem (and that is just the end of the drawing, not the end of the interconnectedness).


The challenge, of course, is to balance holistic management with the need to work with “bite-sized” pieces of the system. You have to start somewhere. On the practictioner side, that means learning (and remembering) to switch back and forth between a specific task (such as crop nutrition) and the bigger picture (ecosystem management).

With regard to policy, it means crafting broader policies that foster the right kind of enlightened farming practices. Not surprisingly, policy making has been lagging somewhat behind…such is the nature of democratic politics. But there are signs that things are changing. In the US, conservation measures have been integrated into the Farm Bill and there is an ongoing “greening” of the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy. Some critics say these steps are inadequate.

That may be true, but such criticisms ignore the historical context in which the original policies were formulated and the gradual process of societal change that must occur for policies to move further towards a holistic perspective. After all, while some people say the policies don’t go far enough, others complain about farmers being paid not to farm. This latter attitude shows how outdated views of farming are: they are stuck in an era when farming meant “producing food’ and the sole measure of success was short-term yields. To be fair, food shortages were so endemic in Europe up to World War II that one of the four primary objectives listed in the European Economic Community’s Treaty of Rome was raising agricultural production.

Today, however, our evaluations need to be more comprehensive and consider the ability of farming systems to deliver other benefits besides food and other produce. And that means grappling with the tension between general approaches at the collective level and the need to adapt to local on-farm conditions. Critically, though, we need to make sure that a broader, softer focus does not distract from making sure people have enough to eat for a decent life; despite all the great work of farmers over the past century, far too many people still suffer from hunger and malnutrition. And that does not fit in any definition of sustainable agriculture.



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