RURAL | Agriculture transitions

Posted on 01/12/2022


This work to date has not included much writing about theory. Thorbeck’s work has the sense of applied theory to develop a design thinking framework. Several references have been made to sustainable transitions and system transformation – both of these ideas have theoretical grounding and are embedded in theory building. Primarily, transitions theory and complex systems theory are central, but other theoretical encounters are possible such as rural studies being a locus for sociological, economic, governance, policy and environmental approaches.

In my broader work, my core interests are sustainable transitions and transformation, proposing that the foundational economy has a key role to play in both sustainable development and sustainable transitions in regional areas.

Much work is underway examining the agriculture transitions from socio-ecological, socio-technical and institutional perspectives. Given that much farming activity is path dependent – stuck in unsustainable pathways – there is a need to steer pathways in more sustainable approaches through innovation. Such innovations can be technological, social, governance, policy, nature-based etc. Path dependence or lock-in occurs because systems or regimes settle into and co-evolve into stable patterns that are mutually reinforcing, such as a policy supporting practices that are unsustainable, productivity as a measure rather than other indicators, subsidies support unsustainable practices, government land is made available for grazing rather than conservation. Lock-ins also constraint the choices of system actors. Vested interests often have the power to oppose and inhibit change despite increasing pressures and change in landscape dynamics (such as climate change). The land clearing example provided in the previous post develops through systemic approaches to land use and policy such the proliferation of suburban sprawl. It can’t be assumed that curbing suburban sprawl would curtail agri-sprawl given population growth and international demand for agricultural commodities. Regional towns and communities are reliant on the opportunities and work generated by agriculture due to geographic embeddedness as a dynamic of path dependence.

Agriculture is undergoing transitions, drawing on more dynamic systems oriented and nature-based approaches. Practices such as agro-ecology, nature-based solutions and regenerative agriculture are cited as niches that can potentially destabilise (or de-lock/unlock) regimes. The momentum these niches breakthrough and settling as a new regime which stabilises. However, the effect of lock-in is that it can lock-out potential disruptors except for those that support existing regime practices. The incremental nature of this kind of regime change is effectively business-as-usual. Innovation, particularly technological, still needs to be viewed with skepticism in relation to its impact on the critical issues of climate change and biodiversity loss. More importantly as we have seen in Australia, habitat destruction and land clearing can result in biosecurity issues such as zoonotic diseases eg Hendra Virus. Cautionary tales about maladaptation and misalignment prevail.

Path dependence has a narrative dimension. That is, the stories and discourses of industrial systems supports the other dimensions of path dependence or regime stability and power. Discourse, as we have learned from Foucault and many others, is power. The implications of this for rural design are immense because regional narratives and agriculture narratives (as well as other industrial narratives) are intertwined. Europe’s Green New Deal has resulted in a major shift across agriculture, not without resistance or conflict, but a new story gears towards more sustainable agri-food systems.

Agriculture is a complex system and no single solution will address the problems or transitions as agriculture is also comprised and part of multiple systems eg land, water, energy, food etc. Rather pathways are formed of a mix of relations comprised of policies, practices, technologies and mindsets that support change. Rural design can sit within a pathway as a critical process of framing and reframing at the regional scale. A challenge of that is to shift thinking away from exists and planning or designing for what is already here as this reinforces lock-in. Transitions need visions, scenarios, pathways.

Posted in: ruraldesign