Achieving farm and food system sustainability: incremental vs. transformational pathways?

September 18, 2012
By Chad Kruger

While the general concept of “sustainability” has largely gained acceptance in mainstream society, there remain significant differences in what people mean when they use it. Perhaps the most fundamental difference of opinion is whether sustainability can be achieved (if it can be achieved at all) through incremental changes or whether it requires societal transformation. For farm and food system sustainability, is it possible to shift our existing system in the right direction with small, positive changes or do we actually need to completely redesign our farm and food systems?

This is not only an important philosophical question to consider in a general sense, it is a critical operational question scientists wrestle with on a day-to-day basis in designing and implementing relevant agricultural research and extension programs. If we focus on making “incremental” improvements to the existing system, are we merely postponing the inevitable and ultimately failing to prepare farmers and society for the magnitude of changes that may be forced on us? In contrast, if we focus on designing novel, new systems, are we running the risk of being irrelevant to farmers today or even “guessing wrong” about what transformations we will need?

I have asked several of my scientific colleagues to respond to this question in a series of postings to create an on-going conversation over the next several weeks about how many of us are responding to this issue in the context of scientific support for improving the sustainability of farm and food systems. I have not provided any boundaries, definitions or instructions in the development of articles, so I am looking forward to reading what others have to say.

My own perspective on this question is extremely pragmatic (surprise!). The focus of our science should be on developing meaningful solutions to both current and future challenges while limiting the scope and magnitude of new problems we create in the process (probably easier said than done). Ultimately, this requires both incremental and transformational pathways –as defined by the specific, identified challenge. The following are a few, specific considerations I think are important:

1)      Improvements, whether incremental or transformational, must be measurable if we are to evaluate whether they are meaningful in achieving sustainability. While there is a lot of nuance to the dialogue of a healthy environment, economy and community, the ultimate role of science is to bring robustness to the discussion by articulating “to what extent” we can or have improved a condition.

2)      We can always and will continue to make incremental improvements. The idea that we can “achieve” sustainability is really not accurate – sustainability is a process where new knowledge and understanding will always inform “the next challenge” to overcome.

3)      Focusing on transformative pathways is “high risk” if also “high reward”. In spite of a growing consensus that there are significant challenges to farm and food systems sustainability on the horizon, there is virtually no consensus on the priority or magnitude of any given challenge. One thing we often learn from scientific studies is that there is a substantial amount of adaptability within “managed ecosystems” like agriculture (natural and human combined) that is often hard to foresee in the absence of rigorous scientific assessment. Many of the concerns we, as society, articulate ultimately don’t emerge in the way or intensity that we feared, precisely because articulating those concerns enables society to adapt to the way that natural systems respond to the challenge of concern. In many cases, this makes transformational investments a gamble.

4)      Scientists should be thinking about and providing rigorous assessment of the long-term challenges that we face, precisely so that we have a better understanding of where incremental versus transformational pathways are needed – and hopefully how to identify and reduce unintended consequences. For instance, significant reductions in the use of toxic chemicals in food production today (versus 30 years ago) have resulted from a combination of incremental and transformational changes … but only occurred because of scientific discoveries that have enabled farmers to respond to societal concerns expressed decades ago that are still only partially understood.

I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the challenges we face to farm and food systems sustainability. And while some of these challenges seem insurmountable at this time, I find that I am not nearly as anxious about the future as many others. I think this is due to the a combination of factors, not the least of which is an appreciation for the incredible adaptability of managed ecosystems and an increasing understanding and articulation of what these challenges actually mean to us. This is not to say that some of these challenges won’t be extremely disruptive (I think they will), but more so to say that we don’t do ourselves any favors by allowing uncertainty about the future to paralyze our carefully considered investment and action today – whether it is incremental or transformational in nature.



5 comments on “Achieving farm and food system sustainability: incremental vs. transformational pathways?”

  1. Maurice Robinette said on September 19, 2012:

    I see the biggest obstacle to change are the multitude of vested interests that provide the bulk of funds for research. Very little true innovation is happening and usually on the margins of academia. Academia itself is one of these interests.
    Whether change is incremental or transformational won’t matter when oil is gone. It will have to be transformational at that point. The vested interests won’t allow any transformation until it is too late. This is a pattern of human behavior that has been observed forever. We don’t learn, even if we know better.

  2. Peter Bockenthien said on September 21, 2012:

    What Maurice said. I state it like this:
    If we don’t eat organic veggies and fruits, then the time is coming where that might not even be possible…

    If we don’t transition to organic now, we might not have that chance due to the ongoing soil collapse. No studies are needed; the evidence is right in front of our eyes.

  3. Pingback:Stepping, rather than jumping, towards sustainability - Organics | Washington State University

  4. Pingback:Another take on achieving sustainability - Organics | Washington State University

  5. Chuck Benbrook said on December 18, 2012:

    It is tricky to predict what might become transformational. Take Roundup Ready technology for weed management in corn, soybeans, and cotton. Some weed scientists consider RR technology the most significant technological advance in ag in the modern era, and clearly transformational, while others consider it just another way to rely on glyphosate in controlling weeds (and a potentially unsustainable one if relied on too heavily). Given that RR technology is not likely to last much longer because of resistance, it seems a poor candidate for the title “transformative.”
    Another example — the shift from sow gestation crates to open pen housing that is underway. Will this be transformative? It likely depends on what else happens as this change unfolds. Will farmers retain production levels, and incrementally reduce antibiotic use? Will animal welfare be substantially improved? If all goes well and the change leads to significant progress in 2-3 areas, and no slippage in others, then maybe this change deserves to be called transformational. Given that so much is always changing in ag, it seems prudent to not label ANY change transformational until it has displayed staying power.

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