Much of the environmental degradation we are seeing across the world is not due to intentional or malicious behaviour by people.  It’s often with the best intentions that producers adopt new technology or quick fixes that carry hidden unintended consequences.  These impacts may extend well beyond the farm gate.

Often environmental impacts from agriculture are at a catchment or regional level and involve multiple stakeholders.  These are ‘complex’ or in scientific terms the ‘wicked’ problems, to which there is no silver bullet or simple fix to the rescue.  Modern agriculture treats agro-ecosystems as complicated structures, applying technology or simple chemistry to manage challenges. However agro-ecosystems are not complicated, nor are they simple; they’re complex.  Complex systems can be defined by the challenges involved in predicting outcomes, they have interconnected parts, and a change in one direction may unpredictably affect another, they also do not have one causal factor or one agent in control.  Think of health care systems, the “war on opioids”, epigenetics or climate change.

Baking a cake is simple, you can follow a recipe put ingredients together, and expect to get the same results (unless you’re like me in the kitchen!).  While complicated systems involve lots of moving parts and have a controlling factor, for instance, getting a shuttle to the moon.  Getting to the moon involves lots of technical aspects and factors to consider, however once we’ve worked out through everything, Houston (the agent in control), can expect a clear outcome.  Natural systems however are complex; moving parts are inter-connected and interrelated, and there is no one controlling agent.   A good example of complexity is raising a child; there is no one overarching control agent in the outcome, and not one method that works with all children, otherwise the entire child-raising book industry would be out of business!  Producers often ask me for a simple prescription, to be told ‘the answer’, but just as there is no one way to raise a child, there is not one silver bullet or answer here.  What is needed is a deeper understanding of natural systems, honing observations and asking the ‘why’ questions.

As humans we’ve been pretty clever at understanding complicated systems; such as machinery, technology and linear processes, however as ecological complexity thinkers, our current environment and state of human health is testament to our failings.  We treat complex biological living systems like a piece of machinery that we can manipulate and control, and that resources are infinite. Anytime we do this there are unintended consequences[i].

There have been undeniable increases in production; increases which do not account for costs from the decline in soil and carbon losses.  In many regions around the world these costs are now coming home to roost.  We have robbed Peter to pay Paul in our food production systems; for example by not accounting for the unintended costs of mining, cleaning up waterways or fossil fuel use in processing fertilizers.  As humans we’ve always believed there was somewhere “over there” that was out of sight and out of mind that we dump waste; first into the streets, then to landfill, now the sea and into space.  All of these places to dump are now under burgeoning pressure and our ‘over there’ is now catching up to us.  How can we address many of the complex and ‘wicked’ issues facing society and the planet today?  We need to do whole systems accounting on our resources, to value the cost of a mineral extracted from the earth or processed using fossil fuels.  Through a deepening of our relationship with nature’s dynamics and through using tools and knowledge we can enhance natural systems, reduce waste and reduce the need for external inputs.

I strongly believe it’s not farmers that should bear the brunt of the blame for declining environmental outcomes; they are doing the best with what advice they’re being given. There is a decent dollop of fear which is doled out through the media and by support organisations against those not following rank.  It’s these structures who provide guidance; research and support to farmers which need to stand up and take responsibility.  New Zealand was once the leader in innovation in Agriculture, performing research in the name of “public good” versus the shift towards corporate and big thinking interests in the early 1990’s. The delightful Prof. Fred Provenza, of the Behave livestock weed training program, commented a few years ago; “Whatever happened to New Zealand?  We used to hear about you guys all the time?”  I could share my 5 cents on this topic, but as I’m still researching this topic for my Masters thesis this year, I shall keep my hypothesis to myself.  For now.