Converging Insecurities - a Berlin keynote

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Converging Insecurities - a Berlin keynote

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Humboldt University

The imposing facade of the city campus of Humboldt University is the backdrop for the IFSA Symposium banner

I was delighted in mid-2013 to receive an invitation from the European division of the International Farming Systems Association to give a keynote presentation at their 11th Annual Symposium, held in Berlin during the first week of April this year.
Delighted for several reasons – to catch up with international colleagues including my former supervisor at Wageningen, Professor Niels Röling, to re-engage with current international thinking in farming systems research, and finally because I’d never been to Berlin, a fascinating city with an amazing history. All of these expectations were richly met.

Andrew Campbell, Emeritus Professor Niels Röling, Professor Janice Jiggins and Dr Jeff Coutts

Andrew Campbell, Emeritus Professor Niels Röling, Professor Janice Jiggins and Dr Jeff Coutts

You can download my presentation here » 
It’s best viewed as a powerpoint show, as the transitions don’t work in pdf. If you don’t have time for that, the key points of my keynote were as follows: 

on stage

  1. Food, water, land and energy are intricately interconnected
  2. Long-term security concerns, amplified by climate change, affect all
  3. These ‘converging insecurities’ interact and compound each other
  4. The world needs to improve food production, distribution & consumption, but resource constraints mean that for the first time in human history we need to do so without enlarging the agricultural footprint
  5. Farming systems will be key determinants of human quality of life for the foreseeable future
  6. There is no ‘magic bullet’, but some key elements of farming system design are emerging
  7. Farming systems must be nested within much better integrated approaches to food, water and energy at a landscape scale than we’ve ever achieved or even tried before
  8. But we need more than just clever integration, we need genuine innovation to deliver quantum leaps in resource use efficiency, sustainability and resilience
  9. Incremental tweaks to current systems are incapable of getting us where we need to go
  10. This poses major challenges for farming systems policy, research, extension, education and human resources

delegates at the symposium during the keynotes

delegates at the symposium during the keynotes

I’ve been developing my arguments around these points for several years, beginning with a consultancy report analyzing the sustainability of the Victorian food system (Campbell 2008a), followed up by a paper in the US Journal of Soil and Water Conservation (Campbell 2008b) that was the genesis of my invitation to Berlin, refined and expanded over many conference talks and discussions since. I hope to find the time over the next year or so to consolidate these ideas into a book.

The Berlin conference was held at Humboldt University, Berlin’s oldest university, dating from 1810. There were more than 300 delegates from 35 countries. The university has just undergone a major restructure, which has seen its agriculture and horticulture department brought together with biology and psychology to form a Faculty of Life Sciences with more than 1,000 PhD students. Across the Humboldt faculty structure it also has a number of graduate schools and three Integrative Research Institutes. The IRIs have an explicit mission to develop interdisciplinary research, scientific excellence and international collaboration.

One IRI is focused on transformations in the human-environment system THESys, with research themes around the dynamics of coupled human-environment systems under global change, how these play out spatially and the tools needed to understand this, and how we can best communicate science in a contested space so that society can learn its way through very difficult challenges.

Professor Thomas Aenis and Andrew Campbell

Professor Thomas Aenis and Andrew Campbell

Professor Thomas Aenis, the convenor/host of IFSA 2014, is former head of the agriculture department, and now head of the new Faculty of Life Sciences, and a key player in the development of the IRI on human-environment system transformation.  Thomas was an active participant in the whole symposium and was very enthusiastic about my keynote from the perspective of THESys as well as his new faculty.  Without prior knowledge of Humboldt’s IRIs, my talk wove together the three research themes of THESys in ways that Thomas found very helpful.  Prof Aenis was impressed with the RIEL focus on livelihoods and the relationships between people and their environments, and also that we include a spatial sciences group and host TERN-funded observing infrastructure.  We agreed to follow up to look at ways we might engage RIEL with THESys research at Humboldt and its partner universities.

Professors Niels Röling and Richard Bawden, eminent thought leaders in agricultural research, extension and education for more than thirty years, share a joke at the conference dinner.

Professors Niels Röling and Richard Bawden, eminent thought leaders in agricultural research, extension and education for more than thirty years, share a joke at the conference dinner.

Getting back to the symposium itself, reading the abstracts prior to the event I was disappointed that farming systems research (at least within the IFSA networks) has not moved as far as I thought it could have over the last twenty years or so.  My fellow keynote speaker Dr Janice Jiggins did a fine job reminding delegates about the contributions that IFSA has made in farming systems research, stimulating increasing focus applying soft systems thinking (vizCheckland 1999) in research and extension on farms as units within wider agro-ecological systems, watersheds and the food system as a whole;  in highlighting the role of smallholder agriculture and women farmers in the developing world;  in the move away from linear, one-way technology transfer modes of extension to recognise farmers’ roles in knowledge production;  and in spotlighting the importance of complexity, urgency and risk in farming system design.  A landmark publication led by several IFSA leaders was the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report funded by the UNEP.  However after attending a number of the workshop sessions during the symposium, I remain underwhelmed by the amount of influence (or lack of it) that systems thinking appears to be having on agriculture around the world.

It was a bit depressing in one sense that some of the more challenging thinking presented at the symposium came from Professor Richard Bawden of UWS, who has been an innovator in agricultural systems thinking and education for more than thirty years, and Professor Ray Ison of Monash and the Open University (UK), who like Bawden, Röling and Jiggins, has been a thought leader in farming systems research and extension for thirty years.  I guess I was hoping to meet a new crop of younger researchers with exciting new concepts, case studies and evidence from practice that would herald a new era in farming systems design.  The workshops I attended fell short of exemplifying a paradigm shift, notwithstanding some very committed and talented people doing excellent research and extension work in interesting contexts around the world.

The symposium gala dinner

The symposium gala dinner was held at Clärchens Ballhaus, a 100 year old dance hall/restaurant that was apparently a favourite of senior GDR officials during the Berlin Wall era. The faded opulence of its upstairs Spiegelsaal, with cracked ceiling mirrors and dim lighting, was an evocative setting for a conference dinner, reminding us of the colourful and at times tragic history of Berlin.

Nevertheless, for the reasons outlined in my own presentation about the ‘converging insecurities’ of climate, water, energy and food, I still believe that we need to be analysing these issues in a systemic way, and designing responses that work at the level of whole systems (for food, energy, land and water simultaneously), while enabling and encouraging individual enterprises at a farm business level to respond to markets and other forces in ways that improve resource use efficiency, sustainability and resilience at higher scales.

While I was mildly disappointed with some of the technical content of the symposium, I loved Berlin the city.  We were staying east of the infamous former Berlin Wall, in what is now a very cosmopolitan mix of communities and businesses, art and culture within finely proportioned streetscapes, grand boulevards and generous parks.  No doubt there has been enormous investment east of the wall since it was demolished in 1990, but it seems to have been sensitively done, mainly focused on refurbishing gracious old buildings rather than wholescale replacement with generic modern glass and concrete blocks and towers.  Public transport is superb and affordable, bike paths are ubiquitous and generous, drivers respect cyclists, and from our experience after a week in each city, Berlin is noticeably cheaper than Paris and radically cheaper than London in terms of the cost of accommodation, food and transport.  There are many construction projects still underway and the place has a buzz about it, without giving any impression of wanting to erase its history or build over its heritage.  I’m not sure what metrics go into those ‘most livable city’ ratings, but from our experience Berlin would rate highly.

EV's

A number of car hire firms in Berlin offer the option of renting small, zero emission, fully electric cars (EVs), but this scheme goes a step further. You swipe your credit card at the blue charging station, which enables you to access the car keys, then you disconnect the charging cord and take the car for as long as you like (charge permitting) returning it or dropping it off at another charging station at your leisure. Presumably the system extracts a sufficient deposit from the credit card to discourage you from stealing the vehicle.  It’s like the bike share schemes operating in many cities (the Paris Vélib system is the best I’ve yet encountered), except with EVs instead of bikes.  Incidentally, the vehicles here are a Peugeot-badged version of the Mitsubishi i-Miev, of which CDU owns an earlier model.

References

  • Campbell, Andrew (2008a) Paddock to Plate: Food, Farming & Victoria’s Progress to Sustainability Australian Conservation Foundation, Melbourne.
  • Campbell, Andrew (2008b) “Food, energy, water: conflicting insecurities (and the rare win-wins offered by soil stewardship)” Journal of Soil and Water Conservation Iowa USA. 63:5 pp149-151
  • Checkland, Peter (1999) Systems Thinking, Systems Practice Wiley, London. [New revised edition of title by the same name first published by Wiley in 1982.]
  • McIntyre, Beverly D., Hans R. Herren, Judi Wakhungu and Robert T. Watson (Eds) (2009) Agriculture at the Crossroads. International assessment of agricultural knowledge, science and technology for development (IAASTD) : synthesis report with executive summary. Island Press, Washington.