Framing agriculture

Abut 2 weeks ago, I had a conversation on Twitter with Liz of Hyperlocavore about whether biotechnology could possibly fit into sustainable agriculture. I wrote a forum post about it on Biofortified but the ideas hadn’t quite come to full fruition. Well, I’ve had a little time to mull the ideas over and the motivation of achieving a decent grade in Foundations in Sustainable Agriculture. The result is the following paper about framing agriculture in different ways, and how those frames might hold us back from achieving a truly sustainable agriculture. Let me know what you think!

New ways of looking at agriculture

Analytical frameworks can be helpful in putting peoples’ ideas about agriculture, and indeed many other things, into context. In “Integrating Sustainability into Agricultural Education”,  Wals and Bawden (2005, p. 30-32) describe dichotomous ways to see the world. Academics like Wals and Bawden and their predecessors and successors invent and use analytical frameworks to help describe ways of thinking. These frameworks, based on philosophical theory, are artificial divisions. No single one of them is “right” or “correct”, they’re just different ways to describe the same things. Nonetheless, it can be very helpful to categorize the ways that people frame the world around them. If we work to understand the frameworks that people use to view agricultural problems and solutions, we might be better able to communicate with people that have frameworks that differ from our own. Improved communication and collaboration between academics and activists, scientists and farmers in sustainable and conventional agriculture would be of great use to each person involved, to consumers, and to the environment.
While understanding these conceptual divisions can be very helpful, they are also holding each of us back. In order to achieve truly sustainable agriculture, we must all learn how to look past the frameworks that we impose on ourselves and look for ways that nature can guide us instead. For example, conventional farmers are often unwilling to make changes that might make their farms more sustainable. Part of the resistance is financial, because some changes require the purchase of new equipment, but part of the resistance is also emotional and tied to the mental frameworks that they have about agriculture. Similarly, organic farmers and other non-conventional farmers are more likely to take advice from non-conventional sources because their mental frameworks are often quite different from those of conventional sources such as extension agents (Eckert, 2005).
In this paper, I will examine two sets of opposing frameworks as described by Wals and Bawden (2005, p. 30-32): relativism and objectivism, and holism and reductionism. Specifically, I’ll apply these frameworks to agriculture, with the goal of showing that a better understanding of how these concepts frame our thinking and the thinking of those around us might result in a better, more sustainable, agriculture. Finally, I’ll show how better understanding of the different frameworks people might have towards a specific method can affect whether the method is considered sustainable.

Relativism and Objectivism: How do we know what we know?

Relativism and objectivism are both epistemologies, or ways of knowing knowledge. In the case of agriculture, the knowledge in question is knowledge of nature. Relativism is the idea that we understand reality only in the context of our own consciousness (Wals and Bawden, 2005). Taken a step further, relativism is a way of knowing that depends on our past or current experiences, and that depends on things that we are made aware of through our own senses. Objectivism is the idea that reality exists and can be understood separately from our own consciousness (Wals and Bawden, 2005).  In other words, knowledge in an objectivist epistemology contains universal truths that are unaffected by our personal experiences or sensory input, even though these are often the methods through which we understand reality.
Epistemology is closely related to methodology, the methods we use to gain knowledge about the world around us (Trochim, 2006a). In agriculture, there are many ways, or methods, to gain knowledge about a farm. Soil quality can be determined by feeling its texture in your hand and smelling its earthy richness. Its quality could also be determined by collecting soil samples and sending them to a lab to have various properties analyzed. The well-being of animals can be measured by how many offspring they produce. Their well-being can also be determined by how friendly they are, or by how frequently they play with their siblings. These different methods of gaining knowledge may be characterized as either qualitative or quantitative.
Qualitative methods look at a phenomenon in its greater context while quantitative methods examine distinct parts of a phenomenon (Trochim, 2006b). In many ways, qualitative methods depend on a relativist worldview; a qualitative researcher may become immersed in the phenomenon of study, examining a phenomenon through their own experiences and senses. Quantitative methods and researchers are more aligned with an objectivist worldview, in that they begin with the assumption that there is an ultimate reality that may be broken down into parts and studied. An example within agriculture might be the study of agricultural workers on different types of farms. A qualitative study might examine in depth the life histories of selected groups of workers and use this information to tell a story about their working conditions within the greater context of the workers’ lives. A quantitative study might involve a questionnaire that asked employers of farm workers to report quantitative characters, such as how many employees they have, how much the employees are paid, and so on.
Relativism, as in contextual and personal ways of knowing, and qualitative study, as in information gathering that considers the larger system, are generally associated with sustainable agriculture. Meadows explains her idea of relativism, which she calls systems thinking, as an acknowledgement of the uncertainty inherent in systems. An objectivist point of view implies that all knowledge is knowable, if we know how to measure it. Uncertainty is simply due to inaccuracy in measurement. The relativist point of view, on the other hand, implies that there is no essential knowledge to know, because reality is always changing based on the context in which we view things. This changing, or dancing, as Meadows calls it, can only be examined through flexible models that are constantly redesigned as the system changes.

Holism and Reductionism: What is the Nature of Nature?

Along with epistemology, ontology can provide useful distinctions in the way we frame the world around us (Wals and Bawden, 2005). Ontology is the study of the nature of reality, including the ways that reality might be divided or grouped. A holist perspective claims that an entity (concept, phenomenon, process, etc.) can not be divided into parts. If an entity is divided into parts, those parts do not in sum have all the properties that existed in the whole entity. Properties that are present in the entity but not in the parts are called emergent properties. A reductionist perspective claims that an entity can be divided into parts and that the properties of an entity are simply the sum of the properties of the parts.
Sustainable agriculture is generally considered to be holistic in that it considers whole entities.  Leopold (1949), one of the most well known figures in sustainable agriculture, shares his opinion of holism and reductionism in his allegory “Thinking like a Mountain”. Reductionist thinking led many states to enact programs to remove wolves from hunting ranges in an effort to encourage larger deer herds. The result was too-large herds that overgrazed the land to the point that it would no longer sustain deer. Leopold (1949, p. 132) says of the situation that man “has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.” Instead of this reductionist thinking, sustainable agriculture would encourage holist thinking that includes the soil, foliage, deer, and wolves as part of the entity that is the mountain’s ecosystem. Any desired changes to the system must work with the system in its entirety. This holism in sustainable agriculture lends itself well to interdisciplinary study. One can not effectively consider the workings of an entire system by examining only one part of it.
Conventional agriculture is often associated with productionism, a form of reductionism. Productionist agriculture focuses exclusively on yield, and improvements in yield are achieved by manipulation of individual factors within an agricultural system. Individual changes within the system have been extremely successful in increasing agricultural production.  Increased yields were “driven by technological developments in five areas: increased use of chemical fertilizers; high-yield crop varieties with a stronger response to those fertilizers; chemical pesticides for controlling insects, weeds, and diseases that depressed yields; greater use of irrigation; and increased mechanization” (Phelan, 2009, p. 2). Reductionism in agriculture does not require interdisciplinary work except at the most shallow level. It is typical for conventional agricultural research to focus on a narrow subject area within one discipline. Phelan (2009, p. 4) states that reductionism in agriculture “is reflected in the structure of agricultural colleges of U.S. and European universities, which are almost universally divided into disciplines, if not departments, of soil science, agronomy, horticulture, weed science, entomology, and plant pathology.”

Defining Sustainability: Using frameworks to describe what we mean

Understanding the analytical frameworks of relativism and objectivism and holism and reductionism can help us to better communicate about sustainability. Keller and Brummer (2002), Leibman et. al (2008), and many others make a case for moving conventional agriculture away from objectivist and reductionist thinking and towards relativist and holist thinking. I agree, and humbly suggest that sustainable agriculture must meet conventional agriculture somewhere in the middle, if not for any other reason than the fact that an entirely relativist or entirely holist frame makes it difficult to communicate with the objectivists and reductionists that make up the majority of farmers and agricultural researchers.
We may be better able to achieve a more sustainable agriculture if we recognize that both relativist/qualitative/holist/interdisciplinary and objectivist/quantitative/reductionist/individual ways of knowing, measuring, and studying are valuable. In fact, these ideas are most useful in combination. We must at minimum work to understand views that are different from our own. Doing so will allow us to communicate with more people that have diverse viewpoints. It will allow us to understand information that is collected in ways that are different from the ones we are used to, and potentially allow us to use these different methods in our own exploration of the reality that is a farm. It will also help us to evaluate farming methods to determine if each has a role to play in sustainable agriculture.
However, we must be careful to not give too much weight to epistemological or ontological distinctions. In practice, there are few if any farmers or agricultural researchers that apply any of the frames to exclusion of the others. There is no such thing as “sustainable farming” or as “conventional farming” if we define them as “holistic farming” and “reductionist farming” respectively. In reality, there is a gradient between particularly sustainable/holistic methods and particularly conventional/reductionist farming methods, with many methods in-between. Even the most reductionist farmer uses some practices that rely on the farm as an ecological system to achieve a goal. Crop rotation and cover crops are both methods that are associated with sustainability and a holist way of thinking about agriculture, but they are used by conventional farmers to some degree, and the majority of conventional farmers are interested in adopting these methods (Singer and Nusser, 2007). Similarly, a truly holistic farmer shouldn’t make any individual responses to specific problems, instead they should modify the system as a whole. All good farmers, sustainable or otherwise, carefully observe their fields and react as needed, whether their reactions include are synthetic nitrogen and organophosphates, or blood meal and neem. All of these are reductionist responses, though the second two consider secondary effects within the system more than the first two.  A more holistic farming system can be achieved, but not a truly holistic farming system. The key to a more sustainable, if not more holistic, agriculture is to evaluate each method individually on its own merits. In short, we can use the analytical frameworks as a guide, as long as we don’t use them dogmatically.

Bringing the Concepts together: Does Biotechnology have a role in sustainable agriculture?

It has been argued that biotechnology is just one more reductionist solution in the body of reductionist solutions that make up conventional agriculture. Krimsky (2005) argues that the reductionism in biotechnology began in 1975 and has not changed since. This is true of some traits created with biotechnology, but other traits can be seen as providing a solution that works within the greater context of the system. Conventional agriculture faces its biggest problems when looking outside of systems for solutions to problems within the system. Ronald and Adamchak (2008) argue that biotechnology is inherently compatible with sustainable farming because biotechnology allows us to find biological solutions for biological problems. Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are chemical solutions for biological problems, and many of these have significant unintended effects both inside and outside of the system. Traits like herbicide resistance do not work with biology to solve problems because they encourage chemical use, even though they may encourage farmers to use a less toxic herbicide than the ones currently in use. Upcoming traits like drought tolerance, nitrogen use efficiency, and so on are reductionist in nature, because they address individual problems like scarcity of water and nitrogen runoff. However, these traits allow a farmer to reduce other inputs into the system which is a major goal of sustainable agriculture.
In my own research, I am developing nutritionally enhanced crops through breeding and biotechnology. Some traits are best manipulated with selection while other traits are best introduced with biotechnology. Each is a tool that can be used to achieve goals that may or may not fit into the different analytical frameworks. The nutritional quality of crops is in itself a reductionist goal. Krimsky (2005, p. 322) sums up his pessimistic view of biotechnology thusly: “rather than seeing the problem of vitamin A deficiency in terms of loss of crop bio-diversity, poor access to seeds, water resources, farming machinery, and arable land, it is seen as one of nature’s failings, namely that its rice lacks beta carotene – something that can be easily fixed through biotechnology and provided through a global seed cartel.” This view is only accurate if the analytical frameworks are kept rigid. In reality, the frameworks are flexible and we may find a variety of solutions that are appropriate for a given system. Few, if any, proponents of biotechnology would embrace a solution to nutritional deficiency that includes only biotech crops. Instead, proponents would suggest nutritionally enhanced crops that fit in the current system, but only in combination with solutions that would improve the system overall, such as poverty reduction. Each solution, whether holist or reductionist, relativist or objectivist in nature, may be part of a more sustainable agriculture, if only we are able creatively view the merits and faults of each solution in the context in which it will be applied.

Works Cited

Eckert, Eileen and Alexandra Bell. (2005) Invisible force: Farmers’ mental models and how they influence learning and actions. Journal of Extension Vol. 43 No. 3.
Keller, David R. and E. Charles Brummer. (2002) Putting Food Production in Context: Toward a Postmechanistic Agricultural Ethic. BioScience Vol. 52 No. 3.
Krimsky, Sheldon. (2005) From Asilomar to industrial biotechnology: Risks, reductionism and regulation. Science as Culture Vol. 14 No. 4.
Liebman, Matt, Fred Kirschenmann, Rich Pirog, and Jerry DeWitt. (2008) Sustainable agriculture in the United States: Maturation and new directions.
Leopold, Aldo. (1949) Thinking Like a Mountain. A Sand County almanac: And sketches here and there. Oxford University Press.
Meadows, Donella. Dancing with systems.
Phelan, P. Larry. (2009) Ecology-based agriculture and the next green revolution: Is modern agriculture exempt from the laws of ecology? Agroecosystem management for ecological, social, and economic stability. CRC Press.
Ronald, Pamela and Raoul Adamchak. (2008) Tomorrow’s table: Organic farming, genetics, and the future of food. Oxford University Press.
Singer, J. W. and S. M. Nusser. Are cover crops being used in the US corn belt? Journal of Soil and Water Conservation Vol. 62 Issue 5.
Trochim, William M. K. (2006a) Positivism and post-positivism.
Trochim, William M. K. (2006b) The qualitative-quantitative debate.
Wals, Arjen E. J. and Richard Bawden. (2005) Part 1: Integrating sustainability into agricultural education; Dealing with complexity, uncertainty, and diverging worldviews. Curriculum innovations on higher education. Elsevier Overheid: The Hague, Netherlands.


  1. Nice article Anastasia. One problem I brought up in the forum: How would you define sustainable? Is it self sustaining with no inputs. Minimal input? Renewable inputs? Can we pin this beast down?
    Some other thoughts:
    Anastasia said:

    Reductionism in agriculture does not require interdisciplinary work except at the most shallow level. It is typical for conventional agricultural research to focus on a narrow subject area within one discipline. Phelan (2009, p. 4) states that reductionism in agriculture “is reflected in the structure of agricultural colleges of U.S. and European universities, which are almost universally divided into disciplines, if not departments, of soil science, agronomy, horticulture, weed science, entomology, and plant pathology.”

    I’d have to disagree here. It may have been typical when Leopold was writing in 1949, but it is definitely not now. For most researchers, a narrow focus is simply not feasible given the reality of obtaining grant moneys. Large interdisciplinary studies are what commonly gets the funding in ag. Academic administrators also now push for this, as it makes them look good to be cooperating within and between institutions.
    Phelan, as quoted, is evidently still living in that 1949 past. Colleges are broken up mainly for administrative and efficiency purposes. Would you, as a geneticist, want your research and program to be judged and managed by an ag economist? It just doesn’t make sense in many ways. And in my somewhat long experience in such colleges, I can’t think of any undergraduate or graduate programs that don’t have cross-discipline training. Does he really think that the pathologist can teach about a disease without delving into the life cycles and biology of alternative plant hosts or potential invertebrate vectors, for example? Courses in ecology and ecosystems are also now common in agricultural colleges.
    Anastasia said:

    Understanding the analytical frameworks of relativism and objectivism and holism and reductionism can help us to better communicate about sustainability.

    This is perhaps true, but, IMO, not entirely accurate. The so called “conventional” agricultural system of the west may be based on simplistic interpretations of objectivism and reductionism, but that is not what drives it. For that, I would say you have to look to capitalism. The Monsantos of the world don’t focus on single parts such as a fertilizer or herbicide or seed because of a reductionist philosophy. They do so because those are things they can sell. If you came up with a way to sell the mythical “holistic” method in a nice neat package, they would jump on it and abandon the “reductionist” methods with looking back.
    On the other side, such companies worry about and investigate the affects of those single input methods more than people realize. But they don’t do it because of any loyalty to the holistic ideal. They do it out of legal, regulatory, and liability concerns.
    My point is that, while your framing may help in the discussion, the only real change will come from understanding and adapting to the underlying motivations of modern agriculture. It is not enough to simply identify conventional ag as reductionist. We must understand why it is so. That way we can either gear the holistic, “sustainable” approach toward the capitalistic system, or coerce that system using it’s motivations to better fit the sustainable approach.

  2. Nice article, yes.
    BTW, why new design of your own blog (Genetic Maize) is so impossible to read? You did it specially to turn your readers to Biofortified, yes?:)

  3. Sergy, I was trying something new with the black background but that obviously didn’t work so well. I’m back to the cream/brown/green that Genetic Maize was before, which does suit me better. Thanks for the input! I’m still working on the appearance as I have time.
    pdiff, thanks for your comments.
    The definition of sustainable is pretty hard to pin down, but I do like Gordon Conway’s definition: “Sustainability is the intersection of high resilience, stability, productivity, and equity.” I decided not to tackle the definition in this paper 🙂
    Interdisciplinarity, according to the things we read in my sus ag class, means that you mix humanities and science – so really almost no one is interdisciplinary by this standard. Many departments do have interdisciplinarity to some degree, such as soil scientists working with agronomists, etc.
    I totally agree that reductionism and capitalism go hand in hand. I often find that people’s complaints against so-called conventional ag are really complaints about capitalism.

  4. I got my paper back from my professor yesterday. It had a sticky note saying “Good Job!” which is a good sign 🙂 Not too many comments on the pages, which makes me happy because my last one had a lot of editorial comments!
    The most detailed comment was about farmers’ resistance to change. In the paper I said “Part of the resistance is financial, because some changes require the purchase of new equipment”. The comment added that farmers may have already purchased costly equipment so they might be reluctant to change to a system that requires less equipment. It’s an interesting point when considering farmer likelihood to accept a less tech-centric approach.

  5. Hey Anastasia!
    I don’t know how I missed this! I’ve skimmed but think I will read it tomorrow morning – with coffee!
    Congratulations on the kudos from your prof. First impression – is great!
    Take care,

  6. Yep, this is all your fault 🙂
    I got a B, so it seems that my efforts were ok. It was my 1st effort at writing social science after many years of only using my hard science muscles, so it’s not awesome. I just finished a public policy class (literally, I just got out of the exam) and I think I could probably be more clear if I tried to rewrite it. I hope it’s clear enough the way it is now.

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