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Whose business is it to create a sustainable agriculture? How will knowledge systems required to support such an agriculture be developed and implemented? These pragmatic questions are addressed by the 14 contributors to this book. If in fact the agricultural community is beyond the stage of understanding and internalizing the need for the concept of an agriculture that can be sustained, then this book offers concrete suggestions for the types of research objectives and social and political decisions that must be followed in order to make sustainable systems a reality.
The book contains the proceedings of a July 1991 conference, sponsored by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), that drew participants from academia and U S. government agencies. The proceedings have also been available since 1992 as volume 2, no. 3, of the Journal of Sustainable Agriculture (JSA). The publisher of this book, Haworth Press, also publishes the JSA, and the decision to make these proceedings available in both formats is understandable, since this book will be of value to an important audience that is larger than the readership of the journal. As the name of both the conference and the book reflects, the contributors represent various disciplinary perspectives and professional experiences, being primarily ecologists (7) and environmental policy makers (5), with the addition of a sociologist and an educator. The chapters cover a range of topics that can be grouped into structural issues (federal policies, EPA program priorities, information and education systems) and research issues (participatory research methods, identification and monitoring of indicators of sustainability, and theories and methods for the design of sustainable agricultural systems at the watershed, landscape and soil levels).
The authors are authoritative and succinct in exposing, analyzing and integrating the practical issues involved in fulfilling the objectives set forth over the past 15 years by various writers who can only be called "philosophers of agriculture." The thoughts of such individuals as Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson and Robert Rodale can be seen as passionate philosophizing by outsiders aiming to raise the level of consciousness of the scientific agricultural community about the unintended effects of their research paradigms and technologies. Such writing, while constituting a necessary initial component of the developing literature on sustainable agriculture, can be frustrating for those scientists accepting the need to address the environmental and sociological impact of agriculture, but less certain about how to do so.
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Editor Olson (an ecologist with extensive experience working with various facets of agricultural environmental impact, who at the time of the conference was an EPA contractor, but now pursues graduate studies at the Univ. of Nebraska-Lincoln) sets this tone at the outset by briefly reviewing the effect that current trends in human population growth, climate change and environmental degradation are likely to exert on natural resource availability and on agricultural systems (however they are labeled) over the next three decades. He concludes that "In spite of all the uncertainties, some statements can be made with confidence about the future context of agriculture. Human demands for food, fiber, and other natural resources will be much greater, while the natural resource base will be significantly diminished relative to the present." He argues that "because the future cannot be accurately predicted, sustainable agriculture must plan for uncertainty" and should be characterized by strategies that "seek to minimize the chances of a disastrous outcome."
Other authors are equally pragmatic, as when dealing with the obligatory subject of defining the concept of sustainable agriculture. Otto Doering of Purdue University states simply: "No specific definition of sustainable agriculture is embraced here. However, the implicit notion is that sustainable agriculture is a structurally different system from today's system," and so establishes the premise that today's agricultural management paradigms will not successfully help industrial societies confront the resource limitation dilemmas predicted by Olson. However, Olson points out that the necessary transformation of present agricultural systems need not be wholesale, that rather sustainable agriculture "is essentially a process of altering, where necessary, current management practices." Just what types of changes will be necessary is broached directly by North Carolina State's Deborah Neher, who points out that all definitions of sustainable agriculture are complex because they feature multiple goals, but she identifies three features common to most such definitions: 1) environmental quality and ecological soundness, 2) plant and animal productivity and 3) socioeconomic viability. This establishes the context for the book's focus on issues beyond traditional agricultural field-level measures of productivity and efficiency.
The twelve chapters of the book each begin with a useful representative summary (of varying length, from 8 lines to a whole page). Each chapter is a well edited and digestible unit, averaging about 13 pages each (the longest is 22 pages, and three have only 8 pages). Though this is not a "data-dense" volume, a judicious number of tables and figures support the ideas presented. I've found a number of the figures, where flowcharts and cycles predominate, to be useful teaching materials, particularly those from the chapters on soil nutrient cycling and landscape ecology. Pertinent information regarding authors' affiliation, credentials and experience is included in a footnote on the initial page of each chapter. References cited are listed at the end of the corresponding chapter, a convenient format for a multi-author volume such as this.
Missing from the book, however, is a summary of the discussions of the conference. Given the topics at hand and the authority of the contributors, one can only imagine the rich nature of such discussions. For instance, agricultural economist Doering presents a thoughtful analysis of the effect of federal policies on agricultural sustainability (he concludes that current mechanisms do well what they were designed to do: assure farm income and provide a reliable and inexpensive supply of basic commodity grains, but would be ineffectual to promote the large structural and attitudinal changes necessary for sustainable agriculture) and ends by posing a barrage of stimulating questions:
In order to meet environmental goals, will expensive command and control approaches be used extensively? Realistically the command and control approaches are almost precluded by both the level of knowledge and the intensity of administration necessary to make these approaches effective for the large number of dispersed and very different farming operations around the Nation. Will there be an effort to utilize some of the economic incentive and free market approaches like those set forth in the Clean Air Act? The question is: What new approaches and institutions can be developed that are not punitive, might be more effective than the current ones, and would bring about change?We are left only to wonder how the assembled experts responded to such relevant and timely quandaries.
Another curious feature of a book that covers such broad and open-ended subject matter is the lack of a closing chapter summarizing the outcomes and conclusions of the conference. Instead, editor Olson chose to include this information in his introductory chapter, a brief but comprehensive overview of both conference objectives and results. The outcome can be paraphrased as follows: 1) Sustainable agricultural systems are complex, multiple-goal systems. Agricultural systems are managed systems that can therefore be designed, and the models and principles for the design of sustainable agroecosystems should be based on thorough knowledge of ecological mechanisms. 2) Such ecological knowledge is currently incomplete or inaccessible to agriculturists (both theorists and practitioners), and should be developed, adapted and communicated, accordingly. 3) The necessary knowledge needs to be conducted on time-scales relevant to issues of sustainability, which is after all a concept intimately intertwined with the temporal dimension, and should be organized about valid measurable indicators of sustainability. Proposed examples of such indicators range from the conceptually basic (the ratio of soil erosion to soil formation) to the summary and complex (the trend in average age of farmers). 4) The knowledge should be researched and communicated by "transdisciplinary" teams, a term utilized independently by both Gary Barrett and Cornelia Butler Flora that I find much more satisfactory than the inadequate "multi-" or "inter-disciplinary," in that it appropriately implies collaboration whose product transcends the traditional, if oxymoronic, approach of subject matter specialists working in a group, but separately. As Cornelia Butler Flora (then Head of Sociology at Virginia Polytechnic and State University, now Director of the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development at Iowa State University) explains in her redefinition of the discipline of farming systems research and extension, transdisciplinary teams should be composed of:
"...advocates of the various goals [of sustainable agriculture], with the ability to negotiate priorities, [and] provide an important input into research and extension toward a sustainable agriculture. Further, farmer membership on these teams is particularly crucial, because a sustainable agriculture means that the farmer shifts from a user of technology to a producer of technology and a monitor of its impacts."
In synthesis, the book argues for the integration of four essential arenas in order to develop and implement sustainable agricultural systems:
Ecology. The natural environment is the source of the management principles that should be used to design sustainable agroecosystems, and these principles emphasize regeneration over extraction of resources.
Sociology. Since agriculture is practiced by humans for human purposes, the human context need always be paramount in agricultural research, and sociology provides the tools to analyze and interpret the needs and dynamics of human societies.
Economics. As the science of how humans make choices, a more fully developed economic system integrating environmental and social costs of agricultural practices is required in order to improve the accounting of such traditional but incomplete measures of production efficiency as are yield and profit.
Politics. As the mechanism for equitably arbitrating among the competing interests of various sectors of large and complex societies, the political process must be sensitive to the new environmental concerns and priorities of industrial societies, and advocates of such concerns must be effective participants in the process in order to ensure that the needs of society at large are not sacrificed for the transient benefit of the few.
Ultimately, success in pursuing the degree of conceptual, scientific and political integration proposed by these authors will depend on the level of ecological and economic sophistication of the citizens of industrial populations. Such a consciousness is best developed during the formative educational experience, argues Sandra Henderson, in what is fittingly the concluding chapter of the book: "Pre-college education provides the only formal education that the majority of the public receives. Most students who do go on to college receive little education at that level on agriculture and related topics. If an agriculturally literate populace is a goal, the precollege education must be the primary mechanism for achieving that goal." This is a significant challenge for the educational system, but one that clearly is important to meet if industrial societies are to be prepared adequately for the future. Sustainability, in the final analysis, will be determined on a comprehensive, social level. Olson makes this point powerfully: "It remains to be seen, however, whether society and policymakers are willing to make the hard choices and sacrifices required to attain sustainability. That is the greatest uncertainty."