Show me the science

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I attended a regenerative agriculture presentation recently and some of the comments from the floor afterwards included an insistent “show me the science” and “this is not sound science.”  It occurred to me at that moment that all farmers and growers are scientists to some degree. Science is the intellectual and practical study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. This occurs on every farm, orchard, forest and garden where the practitioner is actively engaged in exploring cause and effect.

As regenerative agriculture coaches we operate on the front line of agriculture, and this is where we get to see that deep engagement in action – observation, experiment and action converting into results. The science we get to access is soil chemistry, soil biology, soil physics, entomology and integrated pest management, botany, plant selection and genetics, animal breeding, epigenetics, energy, ecology, nature as the model and nutrition as a problem solver.

The internet has made available vast resources on all these topics. The opportunity to go deep into any of these is now readily available.  Podcast presenters, each one with case studies and results, are many and varied. A little bit of digging will reward with 100s of links to “citizen science” with success stories for all types of crops, in all parts of the world. From grassroots observation and measurement, the momentum is growing for researchers to now bring forward verifiable data and statistical conclusions that gives credence to that which has been observed in the field for some time.

History shows us science isn’t always done in the same places at the same time, or solely by the same institutions of knowledge. Science is itself an ecosystem, various branches take the lead at different times.  And just because it may not be happening in an established institution, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. In agriculture, farmer-led innovation is a recognised phenomenon – and the collaboration of farmers and their active dissemination of the knowledge gained has been shown to have benefits in that innovation ecosystem[1].

Meanwhile, it appears many scientists and policy makers don’t currently only disagree on what regenerative agriculture can accomplish, they disagree on what it exactly is. It is as straightforward as measurably improving an ecosystem while remaining profitable.  Locations might be different but the hive mind is at work with regenerative agriculture now rapidly growing as a worldwide movement. If you want to see a simple demonstration of the start of a movement, how it gains traction, then gets on a roll take a look at this TedTalk by Derek Sivers

Innovation begins in the field, not a laboratory. Growers who want to regenerate their farms are not waiting for conventional science approaches to catch up, they’re creating their own results often using the 2 methodologies farmers are best at – observational and experiential science. Linear thinking has created unintended consequences for farmers to deal with. If grass isn’t growing, apply nitrogen. If weeds are an issue, spray them. 1 + 1 = 2. These actions never consider the cause of the problem or the consequence of that action and simply deal with the symptom.  As a result we have water quality problems, erosion and reducing quality of food. Nature doesn’t have straight lines nor does she divide everything into separate subjects. A systems approach enables growers to consider everything as part of the whole. Nothing stands alone and everything is plugged into everything else.

Agricultural systems are moving ahead in the capable hands of the regenerators.  Farmers are consciously and methodically creating their own success, asking questions, hanging out with like-minded people via on farm groups and on-line groups. Maybe a little fearful of taking on something new, but not limited or controlled by that fear, instead excited and fizzing about the future. And this is the place where innovation comes from.

I work with farmers who know the nutritional management required to lift Brix and as a result decrease problem pests, weeds, and disease. They are at varying stages of achieving this. Observation, experience, and being in tune with their own farms, they are walking the talk and showing the science. Goal by goal they’re successfully moving the farm to better condition than when they started, then setting even more audacious goals.

There are drawbacks to producers’ experimentations, as there are less stringent evaluations, controls or replication. Conclusions may be incorrectly drawn due to a lack of deep knowledge about chemistry, physiology or microbiology or climactic effects. On the other hand, hard science is hampered by the difficulties in capturing whole systems data and the confoundedness of the practical farming world. Neither can replace each other, however by working in a respectful tandem there is the potential for mutual and beneficial learning. It’s heartening to see that the science establishment is now sitting up and taking notice and what’s been accomplished to date and is beginning to get in behind farmers discoveries.

By Michael Cashmore.
Michael is available for coaching to help you achieve your landscape regeneration goals and can be contacted by phoning +64 0272751112 or emailing cashmore@integritysoils.co.nz

[1] Agricultural Science in the Wild: A Social Network Analysis of Farmer Knowledge Exchange.  Brennon A. Wood et al Published: August 14, 2014 https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0105203Responding to demands for transformed farming practices requires new forms of knowledge. Given their scale and complexity, agricultural problems can no longer be solved by linear transfers in which technology developed by specialists passes to farmers by way of extension intermediaries. Recent research on alternative approaches has focused on the innovation systems formed by interactions between heterogeneous actors. Rather than linear transfer, systems theory highlights network facilitation as a specialized function.

 

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