Are you a systems thinker?

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.

Issue of New Biotechnology – Transgenic Plant for Food Security

Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Agbiotech

November 30, 2010

The official scientific journal of the European Federation of Biotechnology (EFB) has published the proceedings of the Study Week on ‘Transgenic Plants for Food Security in the Context of Development’ held under the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at its headquarters in the Casina Pio IV in the Vatican from 15 to 19 May 2009. The Conference was attended by public scientists and was organized by Ingo Potrykus, ‘father’ of the Golden Rice, and Klaus Ammann (managing Editor).


The summary conclusions of the Study Week are very supportive of agriculture biotechnology to improve sustainable development:

1. More than 1 billion of the world population of 6.8 billion people are currently undernourished, a condition that urgently requires the development of new agricultural systems and technologies.

 2. The expected addition of 2-2.5 billion people to reach a total of approximately 9 billion people by 2050 adds urgency to this problem.

3. The predicted consequences of climate change and associated decreases in the availability of water for agriculture will also affect our ability to feed the increased world population.

4. Agriculture as currently practised is unsustainable, evidenced by the massive loss of topsoil and unacceptably high applications of pesticides throughout most of the world. 

5. The appropriate application of GE and other modern molecular techniques in agriculture is contributing toward addressing some of these challenges.

6. There is nothing intrinsic about the use of GE technologies for crop improvement that would cause the plants themselves or the resulting food products to be unsafe.

7. The scientific community should be responsible for research and development (R&D) leading to advances in agricultural productivity, and should also endeavour to see that the benefits associated with such advances accrue to the benefit of the poor as well as to those in developed countries who currently enjoy relatively high standards of living.

8. Special efforts should be made to provide poor farmers in the developing world with access to improved GE crop varieties adapted to their local conditions.

9. Research to develop such improved crops should pay particular attention to local needs and crop varieties and to the capacity of each country to adapt its traditions, social heritage and administrative practices to achieve the successful introduction of GE crops.

The New Biotechnology open source Volume 27, 5, p. 445 – 717

Transgenic Plants for Food Security in the Context of Development

– Proceedings of a Study Week invited by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Vatican City, May 15-19, 2009

A joint publication of the invited participants of the Study Week as an open source Volume of NEW BIOTECHNOLGY of Elsevier and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences

Food security – sufficient nutritious food at all times to live a healthy and productive life – is one of the prime challenges for mankind. On the background of the public debate about the potential contribution from transgenic plants and the interest of the Vatican in the this challenge, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences was inviting an interdisciplinary group of independent public sector scientists, known for their scientific rigor and their engagement in social justice, to analyze the peer- reviewed state of science about transgenic plants and to explore the conditions under which the obvious potential of this technology could be made available in a better way for public good and the poor.

In summary, the program of the study week was designed (a) to present the potential of plant genetic engineering to contribute to food security, (b) to analyze the causes for the obvious exclusion of the public sector and projects from the delivery of public goods and (c) to develop concepts how to improve the situation to the benefit of the poor. The participants represented a wide and interdisciplinary range of scientific disciplines including philosophy, theology, political science, economy, agricultural law, agricultural economics, development economics, intellectual property rights, botany, ecology, plant pathology, evolution, botany, microbiology, agriculture, crop science, biochemistry, molecular biology, biotechnology, food safety, biosafety, and regulation.

Against this background the program of the study week was organized into the following sections,

About the organizers and participants:

Prof. Dr. em. Ingo Potrykus was the organizer of the study week; Mons. Prof. Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences was inviting the 41 participants to Vatican City. Prof. Dr. em. Klaus Ammann was the editor of the proceedings, together with Prof. em. Ingo Potrykus

List of participants including email addresses of the contributors:

The program and scientific contributions of the Study Week

Program of the May 2009 meeting with abstracts, invitation by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences

Full bibliography (including open source links) of published papers and statements: NBT-20101130.pdf

This information was sourced through: AgBioView, November 30, 2010

A Third Way??? Biotechnology and Sustainability…

My contribution to the debate being hosted by The Economist.  [see my blog entry: “This house believes…”]

“Dear Sir,

Opinions are divided. I would like to refer to a similar debate that the New Yorker hosted online on this topic around this time last year – Can Biotech Cure World Hunger. Opinions were divided amongst experts there as well. However, I was particularly intrigued by the proposal that Johnathon Foley, director of the new Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, put forward. He expounds upon “The Third Way”…

“Currently, there are two paradigms of agriculture being widely promoted: local and organic systems versus globalized and industrialized agriculture. Each has fervent followers and critics. Genuine discourse has broken down: You’re either with Michael Pollan or you’re with Monsanto. But neither of these paradigms, standing alone, can fully meet our needs.”

Foley proposes a “hybrid” of the two: “…take ideas from both sides, [create] new, hybrid solutions that boost production, conserve resources and build a more sustainable and scalable agriculture.”

We need compromise. We need to explore the value, opportunities and gains that can be made through the employment of a variety of production practices including organics, GE, conventional, etc. The more time we spend fighting at the impasse, the less time we can put towards developing viable, practicable solutions – solutions that can benefit everyone.”






“This house believes…” The Economist facilitates debate on biotech & sustainability

GM and organics have, for the most part, been viewed as being at opposing ends of the farming production & practice debate. 

To that end, I was pleased to see that The Economist is hosting a debate on this very important matter.  The Economist puts forward the notion that biotechnology and sustainable agriculture are symbiotic and complementary, not at all contradictory.  Moderator, Tom Standage*, looks beyond the ‘crude stereotypes’ and observes that these opposing sides have something in common”

“Both camps are looking for new techniques to produce food sustainably: in other words, methods that minimise environmental impact, maximise farmers’ welfare, can cope with climate change and can be scaled across the developing world. The two camps agree on the ends, if not the means…the idea of a rapprochement between these two approaches is not totally out of the question.”

Professor Pamela Robert (UC Davis) defends the notion of symbiosis between GE and sustainability: “The number of people on Earth is expected to increase from the current 6.7 billion to 9 billion by 2050. How will we feed them? Genetically engineered crops will play an important role.”

Opposing the motion is Charles Benrock of the Organic Center: “Biotechnology is not a system of farming. It reflects no specific philosophy nor is it guided by a set of principles or performance criteria. It is a bag of tools than can be used for good or evil, and lots in between.”

The online forum (scheduled from November 2 to November 12) allows users to vote or provide input into the debate.  Here are a few of the viewpoints that have been put forward – some are the same ol’, same ol’ while others are thought-provoking and intriguing…

“‘…If we continue with current farming practices, [quoting P. Robert]..’, why does it have to be that we have to choose between one bad over the other? The type of farming that would be sustainable not only for the environment but also for the people would be traditional farming.”

“…when I hear about national research institutions that provide the government with information, allow me to have the benefit of the doubt regarding the truth of the scientists’ statements. When scientists are not independent and get paid from the government, (whose decision is lobbied by multinational companies,) how much trustworthy can the research institutions be?”

“…to increase agricultural output on the scale needed, not only must we rely on biotechnology for crop re-engineering and pest control, but we also need it for optimal fertilising…agricultural biotech therefore represents a key tool for smart feed and fertilising which by helping us to close the phosphate loop, will make an important contribution to sustainable agriculture.”

“The thing to be constantly vigilant about in this debate is stewardship. Modifying plants genetically is old hat, when level heads prevail we agree it’s something that requires a regulated environment. Creators of GM crops must act as good stewards of their products and ensure safety for people as well as the environmental.”

“What about the loss of bio-diversity in planted crops or that GM crops cross-pollinate with non GM crops then making them produce GM crops? Natural selection has worked for millions of years so why tamper with it. It is all about making corporations money not feeding the worlds hungry.”

“It is important to remember that GE seeds developed through biotechnology by itself won’t increase productivity. Its part of a technological package that includes the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and heavy machinery and the more vital of all, water. But is an expensive and brutal system that requires education and experience to be sustainable.”

“There is one simple fact about GMO that many politicians and some irresponsible scientists do not seem to be willing to accept: “GM crops cannot coexist with conventional crops.””

“If you ask what the value of the industrial food is, you must deduct the taxpayer money supporting it. We lose something whenever we artificially prop one company up with taxpayer dollars that destroys competition.”

“If the scientific knowledge required for the manipulation of plant genetics is available, then it would be foolish for us not to seek to employ that knowledge for the betterment of mankind simply because of slippery slope concerns.”

“The question is wrong. All sustainable farming is not ecological farming.Considering the limitations of organic farming, it could even be asked if organic farming is sustainable. A wholesale shift to organic farming would lower the world’s food output dramatically, causing famine on a large scale. I am not convinced that GM can make up for pesticide and especially fertilizers. Organic farming may be sustainable for the soil, but it is not sustainable for us.”

“Back in the 70’s, when the world’s population was 2 billion, we developed GM agriculture to prevent a growing problem of starvation. We suceeded so well that now we have more than 6 billion people. Now, faced with the threat of 9 billion people, we need to again step up the technology. When does it end? The term sustainability needs to incorporate population stablity to make any sense at all.

As of today (November 3rd) there were 60+ comments posted to The Economist’s online debate.  This is a very important dialogue – engage in it!

– – – –

*Tom Standage is a journalist and author from England. A graduate of Oxford University, he has worked as a science and technology writer for The Guardian, as the business editor at The Economist, has been published in WiredThe New York Times, and The Daily Telegraph, and has published five books, including The Victorian Internet.

New report out on GE & farm sustainability (US)

The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States (2010)

– National Research Council

Report Release and Public Briefing – Tuesday, April 13, 2010, 11:00 am-12:30 pm; Lecture Room, 2101 Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC

The National Research Council announces the public release of a new report on genetically engineered crops. The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States is the first comprehensive assessment of the environmental, economic, and social impacts of the GE-crop revolution on U.S. farms. It addresses how GE crops have affected U.S. farmers, both adopters and nonadopters of the technology, their incomes, agronomic practices, production decisions, environmental resources, and personal well-being. The report offers several new findings and recommendations that will be of interest to farmers, industry representatives, science organizations, policymakers, government representatives, and the public.

Members of the public are welcome to attend. Please RSVP to Kamo Mutu at The briefing will be streamed live at

Introduction by: Kara Laney, Study Director, National Research Council Featured speakers: * David E. Ervin (Chair), Professor of Environmental Management and Professor of Economics, Portland State University * L. LaReesa Wolfenbarger, Associate Professor of Biology, University of Nebraska, Omaha * Raymond A. Jussaume, Professor of Community and Rural Sociology, Washington State University