How to change systems through research?

This seemed to be the leading question of the tenth European IFSA Symposium in Denmark, early July. Can researchers do more than observe and write articles?

 

The International Farming Systems Association meets every second year. It is a community of researchers working with a systems approach. To understand how farming practices evolve and develop over time, it is not enough to study the elements separately (eg. technology, market or culture). The system is more than the sum of its parts.

 

For a long time the discourse was dominated by sociologists who saw themselves as objective observers, on the fence. Increasing interest has shifted towards processes of change and how to induce it, giving action research a prominent place. Not surprisingly, several members of the ESEE community (European Society of Extension Education) also showed up here. This also appeals to me.

 

Some 280 participants from 30 countries attended, mainly European, but also from the USA, Australia and New Zealand. The Danish host did a wonderful job in creating an attractive programme and running it smoothly.

 

There were many interesting papers highlighting the connection between research and practice. Who can take on the position of the intermediary, the broker, in these days of privatised advisors and project driven research? Do policy makers take research seriously or are their decisions influenced by different factors? What role could researchers have? It was good to observe that many of my peers are struggling with the same issues, which have occupied me for quite some time.

 

 

During the field day I joined a visit to Årstiderne, a cooperative of farmers who have developed a food package delivery service direct to their customers’ doorsteps. All products are biological, seasonal, and traceable. “Food you can trust” is their motto. It has grown to 40,000 packages every week, delivered in every corner of Denmark and also part of Sweden. They have even contracted seven farmers in Spain who supply tomatoes, peppers and oranges. The internet makes it easy for clients to subscribe and adjust their orders. As an alternative to the supermarket (where every contact with the origins of daily food is lost), local food chains are an interesting concept. Although this could hardly be called “local”.

 

It was my fifth IFSA conference and for the first time I wasn’t presenting a paper of my own, as I had done little work in agriculture in the previous two years.  Yet it was rewarding to see that several people referred to work I had presented earlier on the FAN approach and the experiment with networks in the livestock sector. At the final meeting about organising the next conference, in Berlin, April 2014, I was even asked to be part of the steering committee, because of the importance of networks for the upcoming theme “Farming Systems and Climate Change”. It is probably time to convene a workshop on the role of researchers in action networks.