SToward a Frameworkr for an
"Integrated Approach to Sustainable Agricultural Systems"
Charles II Wood
Toarud a Ft~raeor
An excerpt from the draft of the executive summary emphasizes the point that
"an integrated systems approach (whether formally or informally defined as such) is
essential to all research projects funded under this program." The statement goes on to
say that: "Research projects shall seek to understand how environmental, biological,
economic, and social factors interact and must be balanced to manage agroecosystems
in a sustainable manner." What follows is a first stab at such an "informal" systems
approach, which I refer to as a conceptual framework.
The Methodological Status of a Framework
The objective is to come up with a conceptual framework that offers a holistic
image of the bio-Dhysical and socioeconomic system. The purpose of the framework is
to provide a "map" of the main elements of the system. In contrast to a "theory" (a
deductive set of propositions), a framework offers nothing more than an orientation to
the subject, indicating in broad terms the most important elements to be taken into
account, and positing a way of thinking about their relationship to one another.
A framework can be likened to a blueprint of a building. It permits a
researcher working on one corner of the problem to have an appreciation for the
larger picture of which that corner is a part. Its utility lies, not in denying the critical
importance of specialized skills and narrowly defined research topics, but in its ability
to situate those efforts within a conceptualization of the larger whole. To belabor the
analogy, the point is not that a plumber should have the skills of an electrician, or the
other way around. Only that, in laying pipe or wiring the building, some grasp of the
totality (however rudimentary) is essential.
If we accept this definition of a framework, we then face the formidable task of
deciding which concepts and relationships will make up that orientation. The choices
must be made in a fashion that charts an intermediate course between two potential
At one extreme is the danger of making statements that are so general as to be
vacuous. Nothing could be simpler than to assert that People interact with Nature. Or
to say that reality is the product of complex interactions between systems that are
natural, social, demographic, economic and political. Truisms of this sort are about as
unhelpful as committing an error in the oDposite direction -- that is, of positing a
framework that addresses only a specific domain of issues. The effect of the latter
would be to constrain vision rather illuminate the road to truly interdisciplinary
A solution to this problem is to think constructing several frameworks, each
with differing degrees of specificity. The first would be very general in scope,
composed only of a handful of concepts and relationships about which all of us can
more or less agree. With this overall conceptualization as a starting point, more
detailed ones can be constructed to address particular parts of the "building" (in the
same way that, say, the electrician's diagrams differ from the plumber's, yet they ali fit
into the overall design).
Elements of a Framework
In its most general form, the framework proposes that we think of the
productive behavior carried out by small farmers (or family firms) as the outcome of
decisions they make as they interact with the opportunities and constraints and the
incentives and disincentives that are presented to them by two different environments.
One set of opportunities and constraints is presented to them by the bio-physical
environment. It is defined by the interaction of such factors as: climate, soils and the
type and prevalence of plants and animals.
The other decision environment concerns the opportunites/constraints and
incentives/disincentives that have their origin in the socioeconomic and political
system. In this case, I refer to the interaction of culture, public policy, the market
signals that reach the farm gate, as well as the character of off-farm employment.
A step further up on the level of abstraction emphasizes the point that all of
these relationships take place within a world economic and climatological system. And
the relationships work in both directions. For example, it is not difficult to show how,
say, the high international price of mohogany affects the market signals that reach
the farm, compelling people to engage in deforestation. By the same token, the current
Dreocupation with "global warming" is premised on the idea that, when the farmer puts
an ax to a tree, the collective effect of such actions is felt at a planetary level.
The point is that the framework offers a map that assembles the focal points of
different disciplines into a conceptualization of the whole. For example: forestry (the
existence of the tree; the consequences of its destruction); soil sciences, agronomy,
wildlife (the opportunities and constraints on alternative agricultural and hunting
activities); agricultural economics (market signals); sociology and political science (the
interplay of political groups that mold public policy); anthropology (the norms, values,
and belief systems that influence production and household organization); demography
(familize size, migration); and so on.
What Does Sustainability Mean?
We are now in a position attach a definition to the slippery concept of
"sustainability" and "sustainable development." I begin with the idea that lies at the
heart of the proposed framework. Namely, that:
The productive activities that people perform are the outcome of
decisions that they make when they confront the opportunities
and constraints, and the incentives and disincentives, that are
presented to them by the socioeconomic and the bio-physical
We can go to say that:
Sustainability obtains when these decisions ensure the daily and
generational replenishment of the conditions of production. The
conditions of production encompass the (1) viability and quality
of the ecosystem on which production depends; (2) the physical
and mental well-being of the people who carry out Droductive
tasks; and (3) social environment within which production takes
But it would appear that the CRSP executive summary has much more than this
in mind. The document states that "The goal over time is to increase per capital
productivity of farming systems and long-ters ability of the farmer to meet family,
local, and regional agricultural and economic goals." Hence, in contrast to the question
of simple sustainability, we are talking about "sustainable development," which would
Sustainability development obtains when the decisions that
farmers make increase their material well-being through
productive activities that ensure the daily and generational
replenishment of the conditions of production.
iii~ / INor ms, val ues,
about productbei y t ion,
Public Policy household org'n, Markret Signals
Price supports; Cost of i nputs;
subsidized credit; price of outputs;
ii nfrast ruct ure; trans portation;
extension services Employment fi nancial markets
Q uanti t y/q ual it y
: of labor demand/
(age, sex, skills)
Socioeconomic and Political
O ppo rt unities /co nst rai nts
.. Farm/firm :::::::::::::::::::'
O ppo rt unities /co nst rai nts
Plants,~---t-- Ani mals .
i i i t i t i Soils