Understanding farming as systems acknowledges interconnections and dependencies among its many human and non-human dimensions. As changes in farming systems take place all the time, at levels ranging from individual to farm level, to the environments of farming and from local to global, understanding the nature of these interconnections and dependencies can be challenging. IFSA's 2016 symposium focused on particular kinds of change – social and technological transformation - and considered not only what is changing in terms of these dimensions and their contexts, but how they related to each other and how purposeful social and technological transformation of farming systems in different parts of the world were realized and how they could be brought about in the future.
The concept of 'transformation' rather than just change is at the core of several different ‘applied’ systems traditions so this was a particularly appropriate focus for IFSA. It is relevant to learning, methodology, sustainability, innovation, institutions and governance which all featured in the themes of the symposium. Our focus on the social and technological was, however, not exclusive. Interconnections and dependencies with other dimensions of change (e.g. environmental, economic or political) were also fully acknowledged.
The relationship between social and technological dimensions of farming systems is particularly relevant to our current times with different communities responding to these dimensions in a range of ways – on diverging and converging pathways in relation to culture, values and purpose, capital intensity and to scales and nature of operation. As we entered 2016, farming in Europe faced many issues associated with climate change, food security, food quality and safety, water and soil security, wastes, energy, biodiversity conservation, resilience of communities, multi-functionality, farm restructuring, competition and innovation. Agri-policy changes were also influential. For instance, what were the implications of new CAP rules and the ways in which they were interpreted in different countries? How individuals and groups respond to these issues and policy changes, including their social and technological dimensions, varies both with purpose and with worldviews. For instance, conventional, organic and integrated approaches to farming are influenced by different values, policies, events and circumstances. How do those working on, say, community agroforestry systems and precision farming view the transformations they are trying to achieve? Do they have any shared purposes and systems of interest? Are they on diverging or converging pathways? What might be learnt in comparing and contrasting their influences and responses? What also is the effect of scale? Is it only large scale commercial farmers who seek efficiencies and smart farming (eg sustainable intensification)? Do only smaller scale farmers/smallholders follow a different ‘social’ model (e.g. community supported agriculture or agro ecological)? Or are these becoming stereotypes that might constrain how we move forward? Analysis of farming systems changes in less developed countries or emerging countries may provide relevant insights to better understand the diversity of pathways. This plurality of conceptions of farming (within and between national agriculture frameworks) opens new agendas both for research and for public decision. How can we derive or collectively derive the agronomic knowledge to fit with various paradigms of farming? Do institutions and political frameworks support a plurality of paradigms, or do they tend to select and enforce specific ones? For instance, how do the new tenure arrangements (contract farming, cooperative land movements, joint ventures) affect or contribute to transformations?
In order to address such questions and deepen our understanding of social and technological transformation, we welcomed a diversity of perspectives on farming systems and different narratives of pathways. We encouraged researchers and practitioners from both natural and social science backgrounds who were new to systems thinking and who were able to contribute constructively to debates on how we can design and deliver more sustainable farming and livelihood systems for the future.
The sub themes for the Symposium were:
A three volume set of the 12th European IFSA Symposium held at Harper Adams University can be found here.