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The need for a system approach to sustainable agriculture

Differences between conventional and sustainable paradigms of agriculture are much more a matter of differences in farming philosophy than of farming practices or methods. The conventional model of agriculture is fundamentally an industrial development model which views farms as factories and considers fields, plants, and animals as production units. The goal of industrial development is to increase human well-being by increasing production of material goods and services and simultaneously increasing aggregate employment and incomes. The underlying assumption of the industrial model is that a higher quality of life can be derived from increases in income and consumption of goods and services. A fundamental strategy for industrial development has been to specialize, routinize, and mechanize agricultural production in order to achieve the economic effeciencies that are inherent in large-scale industrial production. New technologies are designed to remove physical and biological constraints to production and, thus, make unlimited progress possible. Sustainable agriculture, on the other hand, is based on a holistic paradigm or model of development which views production units as organisms that consist of many complex interrelated suborganisms, all of which have distinct physical, biological, and social limits. People are viewed as part of the organisms or systems from which they derive their well-being. Quality of life is considered to be a consequence of interrelationships among people and between people and the other physical and biological elements of their environment. Fundamental strategies for sustainable development include diversification, integration, and synthesis. Whole systems have qualities and characteristics that are not contained in their individual parts or components. The same set of components or parts may be rearranged spatially or sequentially resulting in a unique system or whole for each new arrangement. People increase their well-being by using information and knowledge to manage or rearrange the components of systems, resources, processes, and technologies in ways that enhance the productivity or ‘well-being’ of those systems. Human progress is limited only by our ability to enhance the social, biological, and physical systems of which we are a part. Sustainable agriculture requires a holistic systems approach to farm resource management. A component approach focusing on individual farming practices, methods, and enterprises may have been appropriate for the era of agricultural industrialization. However, a systems approach which focuses on knowledge-based development of whole farms and communities will be required to address the environmental, economic, and social challenges of the post-industrial era of agricultural sustainability.
Domains-Issue Area: 
Industry Focus: 
Food & Agriculture