Sustainable thinking for sustainable agricultural systems.
This week, I was part of an organized symposium at the 10th International IPM Conference in Denver, Colorado. The session was organized by my friend and colleague, Amy LeMay, from Brock University in Canada. Our session brought together scientists and social scientists from public and private settings to explore and challenge traditional thought and processes by validating the role of human, social, and cultural dimensions of IPM and other sustainability-driven programs.
Sounds a bit ‘social sciency’, right? As you may have already guessed, I kind of love 🧡 it.
My contribution to our lively discussion was on the topic of “systems thinking”. Systems thinking is a way of viewing the world and to problem-solve around complex issues. It is a manner of thinking that is self-reflective with goals to improve upon what would be currently considered the “status quo”.
People who are systems thinkers…
- have an ability to view a problem from different perspectives; to understand all the moving parts;
- the capacity to problem solve while thinking long term;
- an ability to be adaptive to change; to be responsive, flexible and willing to both recognize and push back on personal biases, and;
- a willingness to try new things in new ways and with people who may think a whole lot differently than you do.
What does systems thinking mean for sustainable agriculture?
The research tells us that early adopters of on-farm sustainable practices are frequently considered systems thinkers. Example: farmers who adopt cover crops are more likely to be systems thinkers.
The research also indicates that mid west farmers in the US are less likely to be systems thinkers. [Yep. Crossed out. Stay tuned for the story behind this]
How do we encourage systems thinking?
(and, as one might hypothesize, increase adoption of sustainable practices)?
Networks & partnerships! We all know that farming can be a socially isolating vocation. Farmers trust other farmers and farmers talk to other farmers. Community and close personal networks are really important spaces farmers convene for conversation and for sharing on-farm problems and solutions. Partnerships are key. Partnerships or networks that bring together diverse actors and organizations (public, private, NGO, others); those that are willing to honor and recognize the complex factors that define our agricultural system(s). The goal here is not only collectively identify and solve problems, but to learn and evolve as well.
Differentiated communication and engagement strategies! We also know that farmers and farming practices aren’t homogeneous. Many factors shape decisions and on farm adoption behaviors. Any kind of new technology or way of managing operations represents both risks and opportunities. It’s about change and change can be hard. Technologies and practices can’t be applied writ large. Practices will vary, region to region, jurisdiction to jurisdiction, soil type to soil type, and farmer to farmer. This means that differentiated communication strategies and messaging are important! This is less about trying to influence on-farm adoption and more about the message itself … AND the channel(s) and the messenger, too!
Build and sustain trust! Systems thinking becomes a way to understand the complexities of a given system and to proactively manage and be responsive to change. Cultivating trust and trusted relationships are an inherent part of the process. This isn’t just about “changing on farm behavior”. In fact, that is probably a wrong-headed way to approach this. Actually, if we really want to seek ways to optimize, encourage and support on-farm adoption of sustainable production practices like IPM, we would do well to see the ‘bigger picture’ too; Find ways to encourage systems thinking across the value chain – corporate actors, government agencies, NGOs, and universities. There is need for learning and action for all of us. Modeling systems thinking might be a great first step!
Check out my blog post on The Social Side of Sustainable Agriculture on the MidWest Row Crop Collaborative (MRCC) website.
Cabrera, D. and L. Cabrera (2015). Systems thinking made simple: new hope for solving wicked problems.
Church, S. P., et al. (2020). “The role of systems thinking in cover crop adoption: Implications for conservation communication.” Land Use Policy 94: 104508.
Palmberg, I., et al. (2017). “Systems thinking for understanding sustainability? Nordic student teachers’ views on the relationship between species identification, biodiversity and sustainable development.” Education Sciences 7(3): 72.
Stave, K. and M. Hopper (2007). “What constitutes systems thinking? A proposed taxonomy.” 25th International Conference of the System Dynamics Society, Citeseer.