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Food Systems Leadership Institute ____________________________________________________________________________________________________ “Resilience and Complexity: A Sustainable Food Systems Landscape” Presented at the University of Vermont Burlington, VT June 8, 2009

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Fred fs landscape

Food Systems Leadership Institute


“Resilience and Complexity: A Sustainable Food Systems Landscape”

Presented at the

University of Vermont

Burlington, VT

June 8, 2009

Fred Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow

Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

Iowa State University and, President

Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture

[email protected]

Our modern industrial agriculture paradigm

Our Modern, Industrial, Agriculture Paradigm

  • Beginning around 1930 we decided that the best way to maximize productivity and achieve short term economic returns in our food and agriculture system was to apply industrial principles---specialization, simplification and economies of scale---to agriculture . ---Based on Frederick Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management, 1911.

  • Adoption of industrialization on a large scale in agriculture began after World War II.

The modern farm

The Modern Farm

  • So now a farm is similar to a factory---a mechanistic arrangement designed to maximize the production of raw materials for food stuff, with little attention to ecological context or function.

  • And it has been largely successful in achieving its singular goal---maximizing production within specialized mono-cultures, and dependent on exogenous, energy intensive inputs

Fred fs landscape

Hansen, MN Exp Sta

Success of any industrial economy is dependent on two resources

Success of any Industrial Economy is Dependent on Two Resources

1. Abundant Natural Inputs:

cheap energy

fresh water

stable climates

free ecosystem services

2. Natural Sinks to Absorb Waste

Key assumptions of the industrial economy

Key Assumptions of the Industrial Economy

Human Economy:

A Bubble in Space

Unlimited Natural Resources in Nature

Unlimited sinks for Wastes in Nature

---Herman Daly

Daly s warning 30 years ago

Daly’s warning 30 years Ago

  • Natural Resources are in a State of Depletion

  • The Sinks Are Full

  • We now need to design a human economy that functions as a subsystem of the ecosystem, and operates within ecosystem limits.

A new paradigm for a new sustainable agriculture

A New Paradigm for a New Sustainable Agriculture

  • Old paradigm: Steady State Sustainability or “Engineering resilience”--- greening a system and/or using command and control strategies to maintain a system in a steady state situation---assumes we can anticipate and resist disruptions and that necessary resources will continue to be available.

  • New paradigm: Resilient Sustainability or “Ecological resilience”— design systems to increase inherent resilience, adaptive capacity, designing systems that can absorb perturbations and/or transform to another desirable domain.

    ----Holling, Gunderson, Walker, Salt, Fiksel

Defining resilience

Defining Resilience

  • “The capacity of a system to tolerate disturbances while retaining its structure and function.” --- Fiksel

Where to start

Where to Start?

  • “the world faces a myriad of critical sustainability issues, all whose potential solution may lie right beneath our feet” ---Ohio State University Extension

  • Restoring the biological health of our soils is the essential ingredient.

  • Rattan Lal’s “10 Principles of Sustainable Soil Management” [email protected]

Strategies for enhancing resilience

Strategies for Enhancing Resilience

  • Redundancy

  • Perennialization

  • Diversity

  • Flexibility

  • Ecological Cohesion, integration---mimicking nature

Example the role of perennials

Example: The Role of Perennials

  • “Look to nature”

  • “Mixtures of Perennial plants rule”

  • “Perennials hold on for the long haul, protect the soil, and manage nutrients and water to fine degree” ---Wes Jackson, Conservation Biology

  • “Putting 10% of row crops into perennials could reduce erosion by 80%---even in flood years like 2008.” --Kendall Lamkey

Fred fs landscape

Perennial wheatgrass

Annual wheat

1 m


2 m

Photo by Jim Richardson

Long term strategies

Long term strategies

  • Perennializing annual crops

  • Enhancing Food producing capacity of perennial plants

  • Fully implementing “the Law of Return”

Are such paradigm changes possible

Are Such Paradigm Changes Possible?

“Only a crisis---actual or perceived---produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

---Milton Friedman

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste”

---Hazel Henderson

Challenges for the research community

Challenges for the Research Community

  • Make the Restoration of Soil Health top priority

  • Incorporating research from ecology and evolutionary biology into agriculture

  • Explore options for multi-species production systems to replace mono-cultures

  • Support the new generation of ecologically-minded young farmers

  • Explore options to replace current technologies based on fossil energy with proper interactions operating between crop/livestock and other

    organisms to enhance agricultural production.

New rule 4 laws of ecology

New Rule: 4 Laws of Ecology

  • 1. Everything is Connected to Everything Else

  • 2. Everything Must Go Somewhere (There is no “Away”.)

  • 3. Nature Knows Best

  • 4. There is no Such Thing as a Free Lunch ---Barry Commoner

Needed new ways of thinking

Needed: New Ways of Thinking

  • Joshua Cooper Ramo, The Age of the Unthinkable. Little Brown, 2009

  • We now live in a world of change, unpredictability and perpetual surprises, consequently our old command and control strategies, based on the assumption that our “pretence of knowledge” would serve us well are increasingly dysfunctional.

New ways of thinking con t

New ways of thinking con’t

  • Ramo argues that this “involves changing the role we imagine for ourselves, from architects of a system we can control and manage, to gardeners in a living, shifting ecosystem.”

  • Ramo also suggests that these new realities provide us with unprecedented opportunities to bring about change.

Bounded capabilities

“Bounded Capabilities”

  • A new report suggests that our entrance into our new world places at least two kinds of limits upon us which provides us with unprecedented opportunities to re-conceptualize “prosperity”---this will require us to create a new vision replete with “ a range of ‘bounded capabilities’ to live well---within certain clearly defined limits.” This suggests a new ethical imperative!

The two limits we can no longer ignore

The Two Limits We Can No Longer Ignore

  • 1. “the finite nature of the ecological resources within which life on earth is possible. These resources include the obvious material ones: fossil fuels, minerals, timber, water, land---and so on---they also include the regenerative capacity of ecosystems, the diversity of species and the integrity of the atmosphere, the soils and the oceans.”

The two limits con t

The Two Limits, con’t

  • 2. “the scale of the global population . . . there is only so much in the way of resources. This basic tenet of systems ecology is the reality of life for every other species on the planet.”

    ---”Prosperity Without Growth?”, UK Sustainable Development Commission

Some ethical values reflections

Some Ethical/Values Reflections

  • “A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this is turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.” ---Aldo Leopold

Contemporary restatements

Contemporary Restatements

  • Life’s essence is relationship; the living earth pulsates with relationship. The notion that earth is merely a big rock in empty space---and that life is nothing more than complex mechanics involving electrical impulses and things called “atoms”---has been a logical outgrowth of the Industrial Revolution. ---Christopher Uhl

  • The earth is a “communion of subjects” not a “collection of objects.” ---Thomas Berry

Practical requirements of a sustainable agriculture

Practical Requirements of a Sustainable Agriculture

  • “if agriculture is to remain productive it must preserve the land, and the fertility and ecological health of the land; the land, that is, must be used well. A further requirement, therefore, is that if the land is to be used well, the people who use it must . . .

Fred fs landscape

  • Know it well,

  • Must be highly motivated to use it well

  • Must know how to use it well

  • Must have time to use it well, and

  • Must be able to afford to use it well.”

    • --Wendell Berry, 1990



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