Nature, food and people: there’s no magic bean for sustainable agriculture


If you believe your Twitter feed, every Jack and his beanstalk has the quick-fix solution we need to beat the sustainable food challenge. ‘If you want to eat meat, switch to pigs, birds & fish to generate fewer emissions’. That’s convenient, because ‘lettuce is three times worse than bacon for the environment’.

These solutions all sound pretty sexy. But reducing the environmental impact of food production is not as simple as choosing one crop or livestock type over another.

Food production is a social-ecological system. That means it’s a system based on a mutual relationship between nature and humans. The ecosystem (i.e. the farm) influences human lives and actions, via ecosystem services. And humans influence the ecosystem’s structure and function, through direct management and indirect drivers like regulations, subsidies, financial markets and consumer demand.

Here’s a diagram from one of our recent papers on how trade-offs between all these factors contribute to the production cycle. It’s specifically looking at trade-offs relevant to wild animal activities in crop systems, but a similar model can be applied more broadly. Simplified good vs. bad labels don’t fit into this system.

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Pretty much everywhere on earth is a social-ecological system. Your backyard, your local park, Antarctica, the Grand Canyon…anywhere that humans interact with nature, gain benefits from the ecosystem, and make choices on how that natural space is used or managed is a social-ecological system.

So whenever we talk about land management, food prices, agricultural industries, insect pests, or crop pollinators, we’re talking about people + nature. We can’t separate the natural system from the human system, or try to meaningfully quantify components of each in isolation from the rest of the system. Nor can we make broad, globally generalised claims about what is the ‘best’ or ‘right’ way to produce and consume food.

Take the recent Australian dairy debacle. It took unfair price cuts before most of the milk-consuming public realised that milk comes from families, animals and landscapes, not just udders on a production line.

So what’s the solution? Traditionally, most of us have assumed that organic agriculture is the way to go if you care about the environmental impacts of your food. But the proliferation of industrial organics, as well as restrictive certification systems, have muddied the organic vs. conventional argument.

Compare these two hypothetical systems: 1) a certified organic system that grows a single annual crop in monoculture, operates under unfair employment conditions, and pre-packages all produce in plastic wrap to ship it long distances; 2) a small-scale conventional family farm that produces diversified crops and livestock, employs local people, sells produce mostly to local retailers, uses minimal chemical inputs, but can’t get organic certification because of spray drift from a neighbouring farm.

If we focus on the simplified organic vs. conventional label to compare these two farms, we’re glossing over some very complex issues that affect people and nature.

Agroecology addresses these issues by moving beyond simplistic labels.  It’s an academic discipline and a land management philosophy that views food production as a holistic social-ecological system, not an industry. Every component of the system from the soil microbes on the farm to the citizen who eats the final product is part of the system and can influence how it works.

The goal of agroecology is to encourage people to think about what they’re eating, where it came from, and how it was produced. It encourages constructive communication between producers, scientists, governments, retailers and consumers. It encourages us to think about contexts, rather than follow standardised norms. And it champions traditional knowledge, fairness and diversity – biological diversity on the farms and socio-cultural diversity within the system itself.

It’s not a new concept. The discipline was formalised in the 1980s-1990s, but the principles of agroecology are almost as old as the first agricultural civilisations. These principles see farms as functioning ecosystems, not closed-loop, high-input, standardised systems that aim to separate humans from nature.

Contrary to what the pessimists say, yes, agroecology can feed the world. And no, it isn’t just something for farmers, philosophers and scientists to think about.

Thinking like an agroecologist helps us be more thoughtful citizens (i.e. consumers). It helps us think beyond the food product and also consider the farmer that produced it and the ecosystem it was produced in. It also helps us realise that it’s impossible to choose a ‘best’ option based on one component of the system. Arguing about beef vs. pigs, corn vs. wheat, lettuce vs. bacon, or vegetarian vs. omnivore isn’t useful.

Many of the scientific studies we hear about in the news that quantify differences in food products or diets only compare particular components of the systems, often greenhouse gas emissions. But this doesn’t tell us anything about how those commodities or diets compare across other components of the system, like biodiversity and soil quality, or the well-being of the farmer and his/her family. For example, GM crops might be completely ‘safe’ for humans to eat, but that doesn’t help us answer most of the ethical questions about how commercial GM crop technology impacts farming families and communities.

Some studies only compare foods within particular regions or production types. For example, a recent media claim that ‘beef’ was bad for the environment arose from a study that only looked at impacts of intensively-farmed feedlot beef in the United States.

These kind of studies aren’t bad science, because it’s pretty hard to compare absolutely everything, especially under the time and funding pressures most scientists face. But it is misleading when media outlets and individuals present those findings as a silver bullet answer for the whole world without explaining the boundaries and limitations of those results.

We need to think about the whole system, every single part of it, not just the label we put on our plate.

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© Manu Saunders 2016

9 thoughts on “Nature, food and people: there’s no magic bean for sustainable agriculture

  1. The Snail of Happiness May 27, 2016 / 6:36 PM

    What a great post – I despair of the simplistic statements that appear so often on social media, but I guess it is in our nature to look for easy solutions.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. charleshamilton78732732 May 27, 2016 / 7:22 PM

    Totally agree with “The Snail of Happiness” Excellent post and thank you very much.

    The statement “it’s not a new concept. The discipline was formalised in the 1980s-1990s, but the principles of agroecology are almost as old as the first agricultural civilisations. These principles see farms as functioning ecosystems, not closed-loop, high-input, standardised systems that aim to separate humans from nature.” reflects in total the approach taken by Holistic Management as a management and decision making system.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Subin Rajendran June 1, 2016 / 8:36 AM

    As a food researcher, I agree with the fact that media outlets tend to narrow down the perspective in science. The again aren’t we all on twitter, considering micro-blogging as a thing.

    But as researchers, we do look at different sources/regions considering only certain parameters, as that is the question we are/want to addressing/address. I feel that you will agree with me when I say that research of this form is not in any way less important. But then, we do collaborate with researchers in every field and try to address the broader question.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Manu Saunders June 1, 2016 / 9:25 AM

      Thanks Subin. Agree, research looking at particular questions or components is important. But in this post I am thinking of the situation from the other side of the story, where media &/or individuals then extrapolate those single-component findings into broad generalised claims.

      Liked by 1 person

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