Why Agricultural Systems Thinking?

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domino-effect2My favorite class to teach at UMass is Agricultural Systems Thinking.  In this class we learn how to think about the many problems created by modern industrial agriculture. This post is written for the students who will join me in what I consider to be an exciting exploration into a way of thinking that might just “save the world.

Let me explain….

First, the class is called “agricultural” systems thinking simply because I get paid to think about food and farming stuff by the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture.  The systems thinking tools I teach can be used to better understand any complex system.  Although it is critical to advancing our sustainability agenda, classes in systems thinking are missing from most university programs today.

As I wrote in “Learn to Think Like a Mountain”….

Our educational system trains students to think in a linear, logical, analytical way at best, or simply to memorize disconnected facts at worst.  Graduates are well-prepared to take exams and write papers, but not to think creatively and systemically about climate change, war, poverty, hunger, environmental degradation etc.

sustainMost students are ill-prepared to understand the complex problems we have created by our single-minded focus on economic viability, which we pursue at the expense of environmental integrity and social justice.  Industrial agricultural systems, which are found everywhere on the planet, damage the environment, exploit humans, and manipulate other species to benefit the short term interests of those who have money and power.  In doing so, we produce tons of food and fiber!  And in the United States, food is relatively cheap (we expend less than 10% of our income on food in the U.S.) but industrial agriculture is not sustainable if we consider all three critical objectives of the economic vitality, environmental integrity, and social justice.

Our short term success growing food for the past 50 years has made us overly confident.  We think we know what we are doing!  We bend Mother Nature to do our will – but we lack the capacity to control the unintended consequences of our actions.  The results produced by the industrial agricultural system are many and complex, both positive and negative:

  1. lots of cheap food
  2. radical global climate change
  3. the convenience of food available every day
  4. environmental degradation and energy depletion
  5. a tremendous diversity of food products available on the shelves
  6. low wages and poor or no health benefits for most food system workers
  7. record profits for food corporations like PepsiCo and food retailers like Walmart

Is industrial agriculture successful?

The industrialized agricultural system is VERY successful at its primary purpose (result #7 above) making rich people richer.  Some of the other socially positive outcomes of the industrial system (1, 3 & 5) are necessary “side effects” of the primary purpose.  And clearly the socially and environmentally negative consequences (2, 4, 6) are not intentional.  Since they are “external” to our single-minded vision and linear understanding of the situation, they are unseen even though they are a “built in” part of the design.

Agricultural Systems Thinking can help us to:

  • discover the root causes of our most perplexing agricultural problems,
  • learn how to build resilience into food and farming systems,
  • see how our linear thinking creates our problems and unintended consequences, and
  • ultimately how to manage complex systems for multiple objectives (economic, environmental AND social) and thus move us toward a more sustainable and truly successful agriculture .

The “ah-hah” moment

When we learn how to use causal loop diagrams (one of the systems tools) to examine why our “fixes” to a particular problem are not working – and in fact may be making the problem worse – we can see that an unseen feedback loop is at work.  For example, those people who have an investment in the status quo often cite the global corporate food system as the OBVIOUS solution to hunger and malnutrition.  However, the “fix that fails systems archetype” helps us see that corporate control of the food supply is a root cause not the solution to global hunger.

At first, systems-based solutions appear counter-intuitive (because we are so well-trained at linear, simple cause and effect, thinking).  But when we practice using these tools, we can begin to have the big “ah-hah” moments of deep understanding of complex problems.  Then – just maybe – we will have a chance of improving problematic situations that have plagued us for centuries.

How do we learn to think about complex systems?

Our disciplinary-focused educational system does not prepare us to understand complexity or manage for multiple objectives very effectively.  Again, from “Learn to Think Like a Mountain“:

Systems thinking tools are needed to begin to understand why these systemic problems are so resistant to our efforts.  Systems thinking is a way of understanding complex real-world situations such as those often encountered in sustainable food and farming careers.

Industrial agriculture represents a very complex global system of producers, shippers, manufacturers, retailers, processors, and financiers.  The linear and logical analysis process taught in most universities is simply not adequate to understand this system.  Systems Thinking tools such as the Mind Map of the food system pictured below are needed.


 So where do we look for a solution?

In STOCKSCH 379 – Agricultural Systems Thinking, I introduce students to a toolbox of thinking skills that allow them to integrate knowledge across multiple disciplines.  This class fulfills a General Education requirement at the University of Massachusetts Amherst called “Integrative Experience.”  According to a statement on Integrative Learning from the Association for American Colleges and Universities & the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, March 2004;

“Integrative learning comes in many varieties: connecting skills and knowledge from multiple sources and experiences; applying theory to practice in various settings; utilizing diverse and even contradictory points of view; and, understanding issues and positions contextually.”

Systems Thinking is a form of “integrative learning”…….

There will be no sustainable agriculture until we become more skilled at systems thinking!


Warning!  Systems Thinking is like the “red pill” that Morpheus offered Neo (remember the Matrix)…..  once you take it, you will not be able to sleepwalk your way through life.  If you prefer to ignore deeply rooted problems like climate change, institutional racism, hunger and poverty, then  suggest you “take the blue pill” and don’t take this class.

If you have thoughts or questions, please post them to the Comments Box.

2 thoughts on “Why Agricultural Systems Thinking?

    Rebecca Larris said:
    July 22, 2014 at 2:21 pm

    This class opened my eyes. Not only is John Gerber a leader, he is a believer. I was able to see that my frustration in the world is because when I got down to the root problems, I needed to look for solutions. Not short-term, band-aid, fix that fails. I am talking about thinking for the long term. We talk about all scales of food and farm from the root to the end result. Not only food and farming but social equity and the economy. Anything that you see as a “reinforcing feedback loop” can become a topic for ag. systems thinking. Generally people do not love their IE requirement, with this class I believe you will.


    Ellie said:
    July 23, 2014 at 8:23 am

    Taking this class last fall with John was my first introduction to systems thinking. Since then, I’ve taught these specific systems tools to 100+ educators who were interested in working to implement nature-based/sustainability education in urban preschool classrooms. My experience with systems thinking is that it transcends agriculture and any one discipline- we live in a system, everything we do is informed by our communities, our micro and macro environments, the processes that support these structures and the stories we tell ourselves about all of this- the “mental models”. Learning about systems thinking and becoming comfortable with the tools gives an opportunity to identify points of change, not just in a career or in a social setting, but even in our own lives. This class was transformative for me- not only does it impart a deeper awareness of how structures begin and remain in place, but it provides real, practical ways of identifying, creating and implementing concrete strategies to shift specific patterns to a higher level of performance and efficacy. Thanks John!


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