“Agricultural research must shift from measuring farm ‘performance’ by single indicators such as yield and profit, to evaluating success using a multidimensional approach that incorporates the three dimensions of sustainability: environmental, social and economic.”

That’s what Dr. Laurie Drinkwater argues in Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE)’s recently released report. The report, called “Systems Research for Agriculture,” highlights the importance of treating agriculture as a cohesive system in research rather than attempting to divide the system into various separate components.

Moving Beyond the Individual Farm

Drinkwater shows in the report that approaching agricultural research through systems thinking can allow that research to incorporate broader economic and environmental concerns. This involves including stakeholders at multiple levels as well as a variety of disciplines in the research process and in proposing solutions. Recommendations for solutions that only consider one aspect of farming systems—like those that suggest practices for maximizing outputs without considering the environmental or social costs—are less likely to be implemented successfully than holistic solutions.

Agriculture must therefore be considered as a system, one which includes the “social, political, and economic components” of farming. Agricultural systems research analyzes how the various components of the system interact with each other, as well as how the whole system operates. This method of research assumes that the individual system components affect each other in complex ways and cannot be analyzed independent of each other.

Agricultural Systems Research in the Government

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has an Agricultural Systems Research Unit (ASRU) as part of the Agricultural Research Service. This unit has a broad mission of agricultural goals, focused on improving environmental and water quality, reducing dependence on chemicals, promoting innovative technologies, creating partnerships, and improving the diversity of agricultural systems. The project is focused on the Upper Missouri River Basin.

As an example of the types of diverse stakeholders that should be included in systems research, the ASRU project includes physical scientists, soil scientists, weed ecologists, agronomists, biologists, ecologists, and entomologists. Having this wide variety of backgrounds involved with the research helps to ensure holistic solutions. More and more agencies, universities, and foundations are shifting to systems research for agriculture, a trend that SARE hopes will continue in the coming years.


Author: Rebecca Chillrud

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