Monday, October 24, 2011

The Nature of Science in Sustainable Agriculture

Science inhabits an important niche in sustainable agriculture. This niche functions in several related ways.

Firstly, science produces measurements and provides demonstration. We may observe that carrots and tomatoes, squash and corn, lettuce and walnut husks, grow better together, or that polyculture is more productive than monoculture, but a scientific approach quantifies the increase in yield and the benefit to the system as a whole. In this way, science conducts tests in the particularity of each agroecosystem.

Secondly, science can offer credibility and argumentation. Many in Western societies, from skeptics to the disinterested, will more likely believe statistical analysis of a formal experiment than cultural tradition or experiential observation. By offering tested data, science serves to convince a public predisposed to quantification by illuminating the credibility of sustainable agriculture. Furthermore, accepted mainstream science has endorsed the agricultural status quo, so one role of science in sustainable agriculture is argumentation in the arena of hypotheses. Also, case studies from other countries in which sustainable practices have been employed for centuries are given credibility by measurements and demonstrations.

Thirdly, science deepens understandings and of ecological rhythms which sustainable agriculture strives to imitate. In this way, different fields of science establish a mosaic of knowledge which undergirds sustainable agricultural practices. Rather than preoccupation with universality, this deepened understanding focuses on the local context, therefore encouraging participation in bioregional processes. Science therefore enables the farmer to partner with the natural processes of a certain place in order to maximize yield and to preserve the place’s health into the foreseeable future.

As such, sustainable farmers practice numerous kinds of science, including (among many others) ecology, agronomy, biology, climatology, physiology, hydrology, and even nutrition. Extensive training in all these fields is not required for a farmer to be sustainable, but aspects and insights from each will be present in the work itself. Also, sustainable farmers will literally be involved in field work as opposed to laboratories and test-tube experiments: their work will be exposed to and incorporate natural disturbances. Because of this, sustainable farmers will not employ some universal step-by-step scientific method because each agroecosystem is distinct and requires intentional and contextual interaction that cannot be achieved through prepackaged methodologies. However, farmers will utilize different scientific methods depending on their context, even depending on different locations within their farms. An assortment of methods will emerge based on the needs and the gifts of the particular place. Observation and context are pivotal in scientific methods.

These methods of science in sustainable agriculture will be the same as the nature of science. Agricultural science will be empirical, based on observations of and experiences in the ecosystems on the farm and the ecosystems in which the farm is located. It will be inferential, which means it will make claims about those observations. For instance, a farmer may observe that certain crops are no longer wilted and may then infer that this is due to efficient distribution of rainwater collection or to the addition of mulching that retains moisture content in the topsoil. Agricultural science will also be theory-laden; nothing occurs in a vacuum and so farmers will be biased by values and training. A farmer with an agronomic background may posit everything as a soil management problem, while a farmer with education in physiology may first look to the individual plant as the most important factor. Because this is inevitable (and not altogether bad), diversifying the disciplines by recognizing their interdependence becomes vital. Additionally, agricultural will be socially and culturally conditioned. All scientists are partially determined by the values, practices, and perceptions of their own culture. Agricultural scientists will grow certain types of crops, employ certain types of technology, conduct certain types of experiments, and respond with certain types of native techniques depending on their culture’s standards and ethics. In another way, sustainable agricultural science will be socially bound by recognizing its connection to other social practices such as economics, politics, and religion. Agricultural science will also be socially and culturally conditioned because it will take seriously the health of human and nonhuman communities in that place, as well as learning from the folly and wisdom embedded in cultural traditions.

And agricultural science will be tentative and therefore subject to evolution. Ecosystems exhibit a dynamic equilibrium and so agricultural science must embrace and adapt to that dynamism. Agricultural science will also be tentative because it will be open to knowledge from the plurality of other places in the world.

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