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Extension practice in creating a sustainable agriculture

Dan McLuskey

Department of Primary Industries, Mackay, Queensland


A sustainable agriculture consists of many farms and farmers behaving in a sustainable way. The farm is a system consisting of many subsystems and in turn is embedded in many higher level systems at regional, industry, state and national levels. Each system reflects the paradigm from which has arisen. It is impossible to create a major change in the behaviours and systems of primary producers without a commensurate change at the higher level systems within which they are embedded. There are several levels of intervention that can be implemented to change systems, but the most effective and permanent is to change the paradigm(s). To achieve this requires different types of extension practitioners, trained with different skills.

Short term and long term strategies are suggested to address the issue for extension practitioners.


This paper has arisen from a number of urgent imperatives and divergent streams of ideas concerning sustainability in agriculture. As such, it is an attempt to bring these streams together.

The Brundtland Report (1997), formed the basis for international and much national policy on sustainability. Among many other things, the report was very clear about the condition of sustainability. It declared that for a condition of sustainability to exist, it must meet four criteria: environmentally sustainable; economically sustainable; socially sustainable and societally sustainable. Ellyard (1999) maintains that the conservation lobby has captured the debate on sustainability, and has shifted the focus to environmental sustainability only, excluding the other elements. Meadows (1996) presents a global measure of sustainability, the “ecological footprint”. By this measure, Australian society behaves in a grossly unsustainable manner, second worst among nations, requiring enormous change in our national values and ethics to become sustainable. Rogers (1997) addresses the enormous changes needed to bring the modern city into a state of sustainability.

Checkland (1981), Patching (1990), Kim (1995) and Morecroft (1994) present the discipline of systems thinking and systems methodology as a way to firstly map a system, secondly to analyse and understand how the system works, thirdly to model the system so that it can be tested, and fourthly to identify points of leverage which enable the system to be improved significantly in proportion to the resources applied.

Roling and Wagemakers (1998) assert that sustainability is such a complex concept, that extension practitioners, and others in the sphere, may be incapable of bringing about, or facilitating the changes required. Ison and Russell (2000) conclude that “the existing practice of agricultural extension did not meet the needs of the agricultural communities there, and the research funding bodies were dissatisfied with the return on their investment”. Kuhn (1962) maintains that the systems in existence, which bring about the present condition of gross unsustainability, are reflections of individual, state, national and international paradigms, and that the most effective way to bring about changes in systems of the magnitude required is to change the paradigms. However experience shows that citizens will strongly resist change which will disadvantages them or leads to a reduction in standard of living, and politicians in democracies are unable to bring about change for fear of voter rejection.

The problem of extension in a sustainable agriculture

Extension practitioners world wide are engaged in the debate about a sustainable agriculture and how to bring it about. Some are presenting suggestions or recommendations for courses of action for farmers to follow which are intuitively believed to achieve a sustainable agriculture. However, these proposed changes have never been comprehensively analysed and modelled to ensure that they will actually lead to sustainability.

However, the topic of sustainability is an extremely complex issue, without any agreed understanding of what it means. The definition of sustainable development from the Bruntland report is “development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Yet there in no agreement as to what the definition may mean in practical or theoretical terms. There is not a common approach between governments or anybody else about what to do, or even in what direction to start to move. Yet many governments in developed countries have implemented legislation and policies which are intended to contribute to the attainment of a state of sustainability.

For almost two hundred years, until very recently, Australian governments and extension practitioners were recommending that farmers clear trees to increase productivity as worlds best practice. Indeed, it was often government policy that the sale of land to primary producers was on condition that the land be cleared. How could they have got it so wrong? Systems thinking shows us that intuitive solutions to problems are almost invariably exactly the opposite of what is required. It is suggested that current policies and extension practices are intuitive in nature and hence should be viewed with suspicion in that they may actually be exacerbating the problem.

Recent legislation in Australia restricting logging operations has been applauded as a victory for conservation and sustainability. Yet the Australian population has not changed its behaviour at all; the same amount of wood product is being consumed. All that has happened is that logging has been driven offshore, contributing to global forestry problems in other, mostly developing countries, and saddling the Australian economy with a multi billion dollar import bill.

There are enough warning signals available now to suggest that it is time for extension practitioners to reconsider their current strategies and activities intended to implement a sustainable agriculture. The stakes are getting higher, and there is less margin for error this time. There is an urgent need to set in place a coherent, comprehensive plan, using existing, known planning processes which will lead to the attainment of a sustainable agriculture at some time in the future. It is suggested that not only is there not a clearly defined plan in place, but that there is no clear understanding of the vision of what a sustainable agriculture looks like, nor do existing extension practitioners have the education, experience, knowledge and skills to adequately contribute to the solution of sustainability.

The purpose of this paper is to discuss the implications of a number of concepts in the debate about a sustainable agriculture, to reinforce the understanding that simplistic intuitive solutions will not bring about the type or magnitude of change needed, and to suggest descriptors of the type of extension practice and extension practitioner that is needed to bring about this change.

The essential elements of sustainability

The United Nations commissioned a study of sustainable development. The report, referred to as the Brundtland Report, was released in 1987. Among many other things, the report was very clear about the condition of sustainability and sustainable development. It declared that for a condition of sustainability to exist, four criteria must be satisfied simultaneously:

  • environmentally sustainable
  • economically sustainable
  • socially sustainable
  • societally sustainable.

This is a difficult set of criteria to meet, as it requires agreement from all of the stakeholders. But the UN is very clear that unless all four are met, the resulting condition cannot be regarded as being sustainable.

Peter Ellyard maintains that the conservation lobby has captured the debate on sustainability, and has shifted the focus to environmental sustainability only, excluding the other elements. This means that the present focus on environmentally sustainable development will not lead to a condition of sustainability, and is in itself unsustainable.

In trying to define the meaning of sustainability, we may ask the question "sustainable for how long?" - fifty years, a hundred years, a thousand years, a million years. The earth operates within geological time, and any discussion of sustainability must operate within the same time frame.

For example, it is not possible to consider sustainability in agriculture without considering issues such as energy reserves. Petroleum reserves are forecast to be exhausted in about 25 years, natural gas within about 40 years, and coal within about 200 years. It is irrelevant to argue that more will be found, because we know that it will end at some time. Current consumption of oil is about 3,ooo,ooo,ooo tons per year and is increasing rapidly as the economies of developing countries grow. This means that any consideration of a sustainable agriculture must include the impending end of high energy input agriculture. Indeed, it is claimed that more energy goes into the production of a motor vehicle that it will ever use in its working lifetime.

Similarly, the global population is projected to increase from 6 billion to 8 billion by 2025. This is well within our field of consideration in sustainability. This means that we will have to produce about twice as much food from the available or less land, with no increase in degradation, little increase in water or other inputs, and increasingly rigid legal constraints on farm operations. This means that it is futile to discuss sustainability under present conditions, but we must design system changes which "intercept" changes to the global condition at some time in the future. That is, any consideration must be in the form of a dynamic system rather than a static system, and dynamic at the global, national and local levels.

We may ask ourselves about the morality of introducing a "sustainable" or "regenerative" regime in agriculture, if it will restrict our ability to increase productivity to the point where the worlds increasing population can not be fed. That is, will agriculture be able to double production within the next 25 years?

It is immoral for us to think that not all people are entitled to enjoy the same standard of living as ourselves.

Societies will have to develop, and adjust to, trade-offs among potentially competing interests. We still have a long way to go in that respect. On the whole, the wasteful and unsustainable Australian way of life has so far remained politically non-negotiable.

The farm as a dynamic soft system

We all live and exist within systems, our body, our family, our community, region, city, state, nation. Systems are the manifestation of the paradigms within which they exist (Kuhn 1962). Paradigms at the national societal level are the origins of systems at the national level: paradigms at the industry level are the origins of systems operating within the industry, and paradigms at the farm level are the origins of the enterprise operating systems.

The farm is a system consisting of many subsystems and in turn is embedded in many higher level systems at regional, industry, state and national levels. It is impossible to create a major change in the behaviours and systems of farmers without a commensurate change at the higher levels within which they are embedded. There are several levels of intervention that can be implemented to change systems, but the most effective and permanent is to change the paradigm.

Systems methodology and systems thinking now provide managers with the tools needed to firstly “map” a system, and then to model it (Kim 1995), (Morecroft 1994). The farming system is a classical soft system which includes human systems, ecological systems, and financial/economic systems.

At the farm level, a manual system map (Kim 1995) can be used to analyse problems and test solutions, yet even this can become very complex. At a national level, it will probably be necessary to construct very complex models to adequately design and test the strategies and policies needed to achieve sustainability (Morecroft 1994).

Effective and permanent solutions to soft systems problems are usually counter intuitive. That is, our best intentions and efforts are often operating in exactly the opposite direction to that which is needed to solve the real problem. This is a major failing of the western reductionist model for solving complex problems. This warning should cause practitioners to think about the approaches currently being suggested, including revegetation, and reduced use of fertilisers and chemicals. These are basically intuitive responses to the problem, and a more rigorous analysis, or a modelling process using systems methodology tools may be more appropriate at this time.

Changing systems in a controlled manner to achieve a stated outcome is difficult (Kuhn 1962). The relationship between the producer and the farm is that of a human being dealing with bio-physical, human, financial and ecological soft systems. The relationship between the producer and the external world is equally as complex, as the external world itself consists of soft systems. Because the human systems in the farm reflect existing paradigms, to change systems will require changes in the paradigm. Similarly, to change the societal system to bring about sustainability at a national or global level, will require changes to the societal paradigms. Because the farming systems are embedded within national/societal systems, sustainable change in paradigms at the producer level can only occur within the context of comprehensive change in paradigms at the societal level.

The process needed to bring about this necessary change in behaviour requires mental processes which involves the transformation of data to information, then to knowledge and finally to understanding. Transformation of data to information is a mechanistic process, and extension practitioners have traditionally been expert at the delivery of data and information to their customers. But the transformation of information to knowledge involves emotional and intellectual activities, as does the transformation of knowledge to understanding. Very few extension practitioners are highly skilled in these processes, or in facilitating these processes. Most are recruited as technical specialists, and are not educated and trained in the emotional, intellectual and psychological processes needed to bring about understanding.

Furthermore, Kuhn maintains that paradigms act as filters to data and information. A person tends to “see” or accept only data that fits their paradigm. If the data does not fit the paradigm, it is often not visible, or is rejected out of hand, or causes great stress. This means that the average urban Australian, living in a grossly unsustainable way, will not be able to see or understand the changes to behaviour which will be needed to bring about a condition of sustainability.

The morality of a national sustainable agriculture

One global measure of national sustainable behaviour is the “ecological footprint” (Meadows 1996). The ecological footprint is defined for each nation in terms of the amount per capita of surface area on the planet needed to maintain the lifestyle of that nation. The USA has the largest ep, at 9.6 ha per capita, closely followed by Australia at 9.4 ha per capita. The next is Canada, at 7.2, and Singapore at 6.6. The remainder follow in close succession. The global average is 2.2 ha and is increasing as developing nations improve their standard of living.

For every person on the planet to have equal access to land resources, our ep would be about 1.5 ha each, and as the population increases, this will reduce to about 1.0 ha by 2040.

Our cities act as giant sinks for food, materials and energy. Rogers (1997) describes cities in this way “Today’s cities are consuming three-quarters of the world’s energy and causing at least three-quarters of global pollution. They are the places of production and consumption of most industrial goods. Cities have become parasites on the landscape – huge organisms draining the world for their sustenance and energy: relentless consumers, relentless polluters”.

Our behaviour as a nation is a reflection of our national values and beliefs. As the most highly urbanised society in the world, our cities are designed and behave in a manner which is grossly unsustainable. This means that to promote a sustainable agriculture is to insist on a set of behaviours, beliefs and values on the part of primary producers which is greatly different to those of the rest of the nation, and not supported by Australians as a whole. It could be argued that this is immoral in nature, and pragmatically impossible to achieve.

The transformation to a sustainable society potentially leads to as yet unimagined societal discontinuities, in terms of adapting human wants, needs and technology to perceived ecological imperatives, and in terms of restructuring institutions designed for production and productivity to also serve sustainability.

So ecologically sound agriculture requires change, not only at the level of the farm household, but also at the level of the institutions in which it is embedded. The Australian people in general tend to ignore ecological imperatives when these are incompatible with their own personal wants, needs and ambitions.

It is destructive and dishonest in the medium to long term for us to berate the primary producer for not behaving in a sustainable manner when our society refuses to think and act in the same way. That is "do as I say, not as I do". It is not possible to introduce the level of change needed to achieve sustainability without major changes in the paradigms of the population.

The role of Government policy

There is widespread distrust by primary producers of government agendas in the sustainability debate. Government and green groups are currently pressuring primary producers to adopt behaviours which are intuitively believed to constitute sustainability while being unable or unwilling to make the hard political decisions needed to bring the nation into a state of sustainable behaviour.

Because democratic governments look for the quick-fix solution to bring about ever increasing rates of economic growth, policies have addressed the symptoms of the problem and not the actual cause of the problem. However it is a truism that the most essential step in solving a problem is to accurately define and understand the problem. It is suggested that the present national and global condition of unsustainability is not the problem, but is a symptom of the problem. To define and address the true problem requires a change in the decision making process.

For example, for almost two hundred years, government officers and extension practitioners have advised primary producers to clear land to increase productivity. Indeed, Australian governments sold land to primary producers on the express condition that it be cleared. The lands titles office would not confer certificate of title until the land had been cleared. Present governments are now legislating to stop producers from clearing land, because so much degradation has occurred through clearing.

How could educated, professional extension practitioners have got it so wrong in the past? It could be argued that they should not have made these recommendations to clear until there was certainty that this was sustainable. The same argument may be presented now, in the debate about sustainability; that is, extension practitioners should not make recommendations to primary producers until there is certainty that these recommended practices will actually lead to a sustainable agriculture, and will not exacerbate the situation.

Similarly, arguments have been put forward that government policies in Europe, the USA and elsewhere have ensured that farmers can enjoy a moderate income in relation to the capital cost and uncertainty of farming while not degrading the land any further. The corollary of this approach is the argument that governments which remove support mechanisms in the face of subsidies by other countries are contributing to the run down of the land as farmers try to make short term returns to remain competitive and survive. Arguments have been put that governments that permit degradation of the resource base are actually indirectly subsidising agriculture in the short term.

Where governments rely on the market to send signals to managers, these signals are generally price dependent (Norman . Product substitution capability means that the consumer will generally not support sustainable agriculture, sending this very clear signal to the producer. The current market approach is to price goods by their cost of production, ignoring the effect on the environment of production methods, and ignoring the effect on the environment of their use.

The role of the extension officer in contributing to the solution of the problem

Roling (1998) maintains that sustainability is such a complex concept, that extension practitioners, and others in the sphere, may be incapable of bringing about, or facilitating the changes required. Ison (2000) concludes that “the existing practice of agricultural extension did not meet the needs of the agricultural communities there, and the research funding bodies were dissatisfied with the return on their investment”.

Woodhill (in Roling) suggests that the model which we use to solve problems, that is, the reductionist, experimental, empirical, quantitative method has worked very poorly in the solution of complex human problems, if at all. And sustainability is a human, social condition.

This suggests that the type of extension practitioner needed to trigger, and nurture the changes needed to bring about a sustainable agriculture, and to ultimately bring them to fruition, is very different to the type of practitioner that is currently delivering the message. They need to be trained in human behaviour, psychology, education and the promotion of learning. Alternatively, the recruitment process should be changed to move the focus away from technical specialists, and more towards educators.

Extension practitioners can positively contribute to the solution of the problem by working to develop a plan to bring about a sustainable agriculture using existing known processes. The planning and problem solving model delivered to producer groups can be used with effect. The process involves assessing the current state of the system, defining the problem, creating a vision of the desired sustainable condition, defining the objective, and determining a set of strategies and implementable goals which will achieve the objective.

The hardest part of this process is creation of a clear vision of the desired state. It can be argued that Australians have diverged from a sustainable way of life to such an extent that they can not conceive what sustainability really means, or looks like. This in turn suggests that extension practitioners themselves probably do not understand what sustainable farming systems look like. Roling suggests that creating a sustainable agriculture is a revolutionary task of such magnitude that present day extension practitioners working within their existing paradigms may be incapable of successfully bringing it about or significantly contributing to it.

The basic principles are in place already: futuring, scenario building, strategic planning, setting SMART goals, determining benchmarks and assessing progress against benchmarks.

Without these, any action to creating sustainability is ad hoc, at the best, and probably doomed to failure, frustration and dismay.


The issue of sustainability is very complex and poorly understood. Extension practitioners working in primary industries are currently poorly equipped to deliver a service, advice and facilitation which is certain to improve sustainability. Past experience has shown that extension practitioners can give well intentioned intuitive advice which later leads to major problems in sustainability (such as tree clearing and the use of fertilizers).

In the short term, there is a need for intensive, informed debate within the service on the issue of sustainability. This must lead to a clear, agreed definition of sustainability and a well defined vision of what a sustainable agriculture looks like, within the context of dynamic soft systems. There is an urgent need to train extension practitioners in the skills and knowledge needed to deliver the form of facilitation and extension service which can bring about the necessary changes in paradigms at the enterprise level, at the community level, at the state, national and societal levels. There is an urgent need to work through the known planning process to develop a comprehensive plan which will guide extension services through the process of facilitating a sustainable agriculture.

Until this has been done, it is strongly suggested that extension practitioners should abstain from offering any form of advice to primary producers about sustainability in agriculture.


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