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 ES Home > Vol. 6, No. 2 > Art. 8

Copyright © 2002 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance.

The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Blann, K. 2002. Röling, N. G., And M. A. E. Wagemakers, editors. 1998. Facilitating sustainable agriculture: participatory learning and adaptive management in times of environmental uncertainty. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, New York, USA. Conservation Ecology 6(2): 8. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol6/iss2/art8/

Book Review

Röling, N. G., and M. A. E. Wagemakers, editors. 1998. Facilitating Sustainable Agriculture: Participatory Learning and Adaptive Management in Times of Environmental Uncertainty. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, New York, USA

Kristen Blann

Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology, University of Minnesota

Published: October 24, 2002

Agriculture is one of the oldest ways in which humans modify ecosystems to produce the goods and services they desire. As a major global land use, agriculture plays a leading role in issues of land degradation, habitat loss, ecosystem loss, water scarcity, pollution, energy, and climate modification. Developing more sustainable agroecosystems is thus one of the main challenges humanity faces in achieving sustainability in the coming decades. Röling and Wagemakers’ edited volume, published in 1998, brings together chapters covering case studies from around the world to support a central tenet that the transition to sustainable agriculture must be viewed and approached fundamentally as a collective process of individual and social learning. Röling and Wagemakers reject characterizations of the challenge of developing sustainable agroecosystems as primarily technical or scientific, e.g., developing new technologies or disease-resistant or ecologically friendly crop varieties. Nor do they believe it to be merely an analytical challenge of developing appropriate policy and economic instruments. Rather, they place agroecosystems squarely within the postmodern problem domain of complex adaptive social–ecological systems, where multiple perspectives, values, and ecological complexity defy reductionism. What is required, in fact, is an adaptive, soft-systems approach to analyzing the dialectical process of institutional innovation, the interactions of different social actors involved in agriculture, and the scientific experimentation involved in sustainable agriculture research and practice.

The preliminary chapters lay out the analytical framework. Social learning is defined as a framework for thinking about knowledge generation that underlies societal adaptation and innovative change, and that succeeds in linking action-oriented community participation theory with interdisciplinary scientific approaches. Meaningful change is seen to occur only as an organic outcome of an interactive and iterative process that engages social actors at all levels and addresses all the interdependent dimensions of complex resource problems. Pretty’s chapter, one of the most policy relevant, criticizes conventional policy approaches that focus on narrow targets and top-down regulatory approaches. Instead, he suggests developing a hierarchy of enabling policies for sustainable agriculture, including encouraging resource-conserving technologies and practices, supporting local groups for community action, and reforming external institutions and professional approaches. He concludes by evaluating a number of recent policy initiatives, in both developed and developing country contexts, that attempt to implement sustainable agriculture on a broad scale.

Case studies from around the world are presented to support the book’s main themes. Various chapters explore the spread of ecofarming in Germany, integrated arable farming and nature farming in the Netherlands, Landcare in Australia, integrated farming systems in the US, and agricultural research and extension in Asia. The Australian cases are especially readable and useful. Early chapters profile case studies drawing lessons from specific efforts around the world to adopt more ecologically sound agricultural practices, both on individual farms and at regional scales. Case-study authors advocate explicitly constructivist approaches to understanding how learning takes place in farming systems research and development. Rather than on agronomic or economic techniques, the focus is on how learning occurs, and how developing new, more ecological practices appropriate for specific areas can be facilitated through policy, appropriate institutions, experiential learning, and participatory extension and outreach efforts. The focus on contextual learning emerges from the recognition of the complexity of farming systems, the multitude of variables interacting in each unique ecological and social environment, and the need for farmers to experiment and adapt new methods and tools to their own ecological settings.

A number of the authors use case histories of environmental agricultural policy development to illustrate the failures of conventional instrumental policy models compared with the difficult but ultimately more robust process of more collaborative action-oriented methods. Several chapters reflect the contributors’ extensive experience with multiple sustainability initiatives in the Netherlands and Europe, from rural and consumer-driven initiatives toward more ecological agriculture, to regional and national land-use and nature-conservation policy efforts. Roux and Blum review the lessons of a successful agriculture policy development process in Switzerland, in which participatory workshops with farmers were conducted to develop ecological criteria for an incentive-based system of direct government payments. Farmer-developed criteria recognizing the multifunctional non-market benefits of farms, such as the cultural value of the rural landscape, were subsequently accepted by government and environmental groups. A number of case studies from south and southeast Asia profile the lessons learned from successful local-knowledge-oriented, participatory and systems-oriented agricultural research and delivery mechanisms, notably the adoption of integrated pest management in Indonesia.

Later chapters address the challenge of mismatch between the scale of environmental issues, human institutions, and social networks. The basic proposition of these cases, drawn largely from the experience with Landcare in Australia, is that to address complex environmental challenge in (post)modern societies, affected and involved people must come together to build platforms for shared learning, exploring multiple perspectives on the problem or system, and negotiating a collective path forward to more sustainable outcomes. This vision of social learning emerges directly out of the post-normal science of Funtowicz and Ravetz (1993), participatory approaches to agricultural extension, and farmer-first methodologies (Chambers et al. 1989, Scoones and Thompson 1994, Checkland and Scholes 1990), integrating these methodologies with lessons learned from regional natural-resource management and crises (Gunderson et al. 1995).

The final chapter attempts to synthesize the lessons learned, which include offering practical guidance for facilitation, the role of university extension, institutional design, and building social platforms for negotiating resource use. In the spirit of acknowledging the evolving nature of thinking on sustainable agriculture and complex adaptive systems, the book concludes with few specific prescriptions. As Dennis Keeney writes in an online review for the Leopold Center (1999), the book “probes, tries to answer, probes again and often admits lack of conclusions because sustainable agriculture is, after all, about people.”

Facilitating Sustainable Agriculture offers readers an expanded set of integrated ideas and tools for a wide range of settings, from agricultural extension in both developed and developing country contexts, to participants in complex, multi-actor natural-resource-management dilemmas, such as watershed restoration. The focus on social learning and institutions means that most chapters are applicable beyond agriculture. Chapters coauthored by Röling, especially, are broadly theoretical, synthesizing emerging themes from across the natural-resource-management literature. Chapters on ecofarming in Germany, integrated arable farming in the Netherlands, and farmer attitudes in Greece are perhaps of more narrow appeal. On the whole, the book represents a welcome departure from much of the technical literature on sustainable agriculture and is refreshingly frank about the social nature of environmental dilemmas and the range of uncertainties inherent in the challenge of achieving sustainable agriculture, but is fundamentally optimistic in placing the challenge at the heart of the human experience.


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Chambers, R., A. Pacey, and L. A. Thrupp. 1989. Farmer first: farmer innovation and agricultural research. Intermediate Technology Publications, London, UK.

Checkland, P., and J. Scholes. 1990. Soft systems methodology in action. John Wiley, New York, New York, USA.

Funtowicz, S. O., and J. Ravetz. 1993. Science for the post-normal age. Futures 25(7):740.

Gunderson, L., C. S. Holling, and S. S. Light, editors. 1995. Barriers and bridges to the renewal of ecosystems and institutions. Columbia University Press, New York, New York, USA.

Keeney, D. 1999. Book review: Don't forget people in sustainable agriculture. Leopold Letter, Summer 1999. Available online at http://www.ag.iastate.edu/centers/leopold/newsletter/99-2leoletter/99-2bkrev.html

Scoones, I., and J. Thompson. 1994. Beyond farmer first: rural people’s knowledge, agricultural research, and extension practice. Intermediate Technology Publications, London, UK.

Address of Correspondent:
Kristen Blann
Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology,
University of Minnesota
200 Hodson Hall,
1980 Folwell Avenue,
Saint Paul, Minnesota 55108 USA
Phone: (218) 829-3053
Fax: (218) 829-5239

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