Saturday, November 11, 2006


With these words Martin Luther started the Reformation that broke the stranglehold of the Popes and changed Christianity forever. In this extract* from a paper given to an organics conference in July Dr Maarten Stapper seems to be attempting to reform Science.



Understanding the functioning of ecosystems requires a ‘big picture’ holistic approach. The knowledge of different groups in the living world and how they interact with other groups is here more important than in-depth knowledge of individual species. Studying the latter, however, and single issues in general, seems to be more popular and advanced. Unfortunately, we can’t understand a system by combining available knowledge of component single issues. That is, the holistic ‘whole’ is not the sum of reductionist ‘detail’. This also needs to be recognised in simulation modelling of systems...

Current specialisation in agricultural science has resulted in research within very narrow boundaries. This has induced linear, mechanistic thinking, which doesn’t allow room for synergies, and results in confusion between cause and effect. Soils, for example, have become partitioned into separate isolated fields of chemistry, physics and biology, with further specialisation within each. Unfortunately, soil degradation and the issue of how to restore healthy soils cannot be solved with many individual research projects conducted by various specialists. It needs a big-picture approach. In nature everything is linked with everything else. These circular, web-of-life phenomena have to guide our applied field research.
Much current ‘sustainability’ research is fiddling at the margins of entrenched methods, working on symptoms rather than the primary cause of problems – as evidenced by appearance of new problems after implementing ‘solutions. It is not simply a matter of doing better what we do. ‘Best practice’ locks us in status quo which is still not good enough!
If agricultural research is to deliver anything approaching sustainability, therefore, we need to change the science paradigm (Jackson 1985). Or as Dr Albert Einstein said: “No problem will be solved with the same level of thinking that created it in the first place”. Over generations research has become increasingly “reductionist”, that is, reducing and outlining systematically the area of interest to be studied and the disciplines to be used. While this approach of fragmentation has delivered a lot of knowledge about the workings of particular crops, pastures, livestock, insect pests, chemicals, etc, focussing too intensely on closed systems with narrow boundaries – on single, isolated components of the bigger “real-world” system – means we are blind to larger cycles and patterns within which component parts exist (Stapper 2002). In this way, the biological sciences themselves fragment our understanding by creating false divisions that break the cycle of life.
New problems keep emerging as each of them are dealt with as single issues, resulting in partial solutions that don’t necessarily solve the problem, for example, acidity (with lime) and salinity (with lowering ground water). Partial solutions tend to equate a single solution with the cause of the problem but lime and ground water, for example, are not always directly related with acidity (Anderson 2000) and dryland salinity (Jones 2001, 2006), respectively. Soil management related causes for dryland salinity have been derived from practical experiences in, for example, New South Wales (Wagner 2005), Victoria (Nathan 1999) and Western Australia (Paulin 2002).
Experimental results dealing with isolated individual components are thus difficult to apply to paddocks, which are complex systems in time and space. What does an ‘average’ mean in a paddock? Other management factors are likely to be working against the application of individual research results, thereby inhibiting change. Hence, problems continue to emerge in agricultural production systems. Science is now proposing genetic engineering as ‘the’ solution for many of these problems – risking yet another oversimplification in our fragmented agricultural science (Stapper 2002), a ‘techno-fix’ with more band-aids over the real cause of our problems – degrading soils.
The standard multi-factorial research methodology seems ill-suited to studying complex biological systems where everything is linked with everything else. To obtain functional outcomes, no factors may be considered ‘constant’ in trials while varying a few ‘important’ factors to quantify their impact. Also the boundary conditions of research objects chosen by specialists (e.g. pots and small plots in a growth chamber, green house or research station) are often not appropriately representative of real ecosystems (especially microclimate) and generate results not transferable to the farming-system level. Comparative analysis is needed on a commercial production scale. Questions arising from such studies then need answers through reductionist science.
New methodologies and directions of research are required in the search for resilience, to achieve reproducible and predictable outcomes in farming systems across agroecological zones. Such research needs to be planned, executed and analysed by a transdisciplinary team working across ecosystems at representative scales, that is, in agroecology (Gliessman 2000, Altieri 2006). This is to allow observation and measurement of expressions of the multitude of interacting components within and between different scales of the farming system. Plant health (Anderson 2000) and animal health (Voison 1958), for example, are dependent on availability in the right balance of minerals, but this is still regarded as ‘alternative’ thinking.
To reach sustainability in agriculture we have to look at the whole system and develop holistic tools within agricultural science that bring together, from across disciplines, the knowledge obtained through analytic reductionism, without getting lost in small component details of ‘what single factor? – the how? and why?’ Such tools are unlikely to be quantitative, hard systems, as dynamic interactions by soil organisms are too complex and too affected by small spatial and temporal changes in management and climate. Therefore, a soft systems approach is required, synthesising knowledge into management guidelines for sustainable land use combined with careful monitoring of status.
Australia’s public R&D in this direction is minimal, and seems to be one of the lowest of OECD countries as was evident at the recent International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements Congress in Adelaide (ISOFAR 2005). Nevertheless, we must search for productive agricultural systems with reduced usage of petrochemicals and energy, and not rely on ‘Techno-Fantasy’ to help us out. As we face a future without cheap oil, science must play a role in dealing with the profound socioeconomic change now gathering momentum around us (Heij 2006).

EXTRACT FROM PAPER: Soil Fertility Management –
Towards Sustainable Farming Systems and Landscapes
AUTHOR:Dr Maarten Stapper – – is a farming systems agronomist with CSIRO Plant Industry. He has lived, studied and worked in the Netherlands, Canada, USA, Iraq, Syria, and since 1982 in Australia. Maarten has an agricultural engineering degree in agriculture and catchment management in the semi-arid tropics, and a PhD in wheat production systems, linking crop physiology with agronomy and daily weather in simulation modeling. Quantifying production in dryland and irrigation wheat paddocks in southeastern Australia made him aware that most problems start with the soil, and thus solutions should commence there. Maarten is passionate about discovering and using the power of nature in food production systems – and the connections between soil biology, soil health, and the overall functioning of agro-ecosystems, and sees many opportunities for Australian agriculture to reverse soil degradation and regenerate soils. This feature in the CSIRO Sustainability Network Update ( is adapted from a presentation to the 3rd National Organic Conference of the Organic Federation of Australia (OFA) in Sydney July 2006.


"A paradigm is what the members of a scientific community share, and, conversely, a scientific community consists of men* who share a paradigm," according to scientist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn in his book 'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions'.

"A scientific community consists of the practitioners of a scientific speciality. To an extent unparalleled in most other fields, they have undergone similar educations and professional initiations; in the process they have absorbed the same technical literature and drawn many of the same lessons from it... The members of a scientific community see themselves and are seen by others as the men* uniquely responsible for the pursuit of a set of shared goals, including the training of their successors. Within such groups communication is relatively full and professional judgements relatively unanimous."

"The study of paradigms... is what mainly prepares the student for membership in the particular scientific community with which he will later practice. Because he there joins men* who learned the bases of their field from the same concrete models, his subsequent practice will seldom evoke overt disagreement over fundamentals. Men* whose research is based on shared paradigms are committed to the same rules and standards for scientific practice. That commitment and the apparent consensus it produces are the prerequisites for normal science, ie. for the genesis and continuation of a particular research tradition."

The shared values and norms of the scientific community form a barrier to out-of-paradigm phenomena and concepts. Kuhn says normal science aims to 'force nature into the preformed and relatively inflexible box that the paradigm supplies. No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena; indeed those that will not fit the box are often not seen at all.'

All this suggests that Integrative Scientific Method will meet staunch resistance from the scientific establishment because it is out-of-paradigm. In the face of this resistance we should be 'unreasonable'. In the words of George Bernard Shaw,
"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

*Kuhn's paradigm of the gender structure of science is a reflection of the date at which he was writing.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


Comments on Maarten Stapper's paper

• From a retired CSIRO Research Fellow:

“Maarten, I have just caught up with your paper in the Sustainability #61 newsletter, it is absolutely right! I think not enough effort has been put into soil biology and in particular as a means to manipulate soil organic matter and carbon storage. I have expressed many times that the solution to the salinity problem lies in building up soil carbon – what we are doing is reducing soil carbon, so our catchments are getting drier rather than healthier. Part of the folly is in widespread tree planting – this does not help build organic matter on a farm. “

• From a producer just registered as organic after starting with biological agriculture 7 years ago:

“My wife and I set out on the biological road to organic transition. The biological farming advice was "grow your livestock and crops (potatoes and maize in our case) organically but tailor your production costs to make a profit on the conventional market.” This has been very difficult especially with a farm so addicted to destructive inputs! Anyway, I have just completed our Organic Management Plan for NASAA and commented to my wife that 7 years ago, knowing what to do to confidently head into pre-certification would have been way too scary. So it is serendipitous to read your paper to see how someone can so eloquently describe the vision and process. It`s also a great checklist for us when we feel we have wandered or lost control or worse still fallen into the "trusted" advice group of biological snake-oil salespeople.”

• From a business management consultant:

“I've just read your article in CSIRO Sustainability Network's newsletter. The first comprehensive article on this topic I've read. Thanks for that!”

• From a grazier:

“I just read your article on sustainable agriculture in the latest CSIRO sustainability network newsletter on sustainable agriculture. It was very interesting and helps my thinking in relation to our farm that we are trying to improve by managing remnant native grasses, planting more trees, renovating paddocks with native grasses and controlling weeds better.”

• From a farmer with off-farm income:

“Maarten, I very much enjoyed your article and wish you good luck in your research. I suspect our property may be one of the "dots" mentioned in your article. We live in Central Victoria and have been actively restoring (revegetating) a degraded landscape for about 10 years. In a broad sense we are revegetating about 100 acres of granite outcrop with aim of getting close to the original herb rich granite woodlands, while the remainder (about 60 acres) is being grazed. I'm a reader of Albrecht, Pat Colby, Holmgren and many others and try to incorporate the learnings into our management. It is my experience that their are lots (maybe even the majority) of farmers who are keen to the best possible for their farm and that it is the responsibility of CSIRO to do the research and trail blazing that enables them to follow. So, best of luck, you’re doing vitally important work.”

• From a farmer and water resource manager:

“’Modern’ high-input factory farming systems are far too brittle and require far too much energy input to try to keep them ‘stable’. And of course they aren’t kept stable – the soil and other resource bases on which the systems depend are degrading because their critical role in the complex agroecosystem was not recognized.”

•From an ex-officer in a State Department of Agriculture:

"I only hope that those institutions which have a heavy base in analytical scientific thinking can recognise the situation and respond in time. Unfortunately, it has been my experience that within such institutions the reductionist point of view seems very effective in blindfolding many decision makers to the big picture situation. It is easy to buck-pass decisions if you break situations up into ‘component’ parts and claim it is not your part that is failing – it’s someone else’s responsibility! This is exacerbated by the tendency to promote specialists to managerial and policy positions – when I believe it is generalists, who see the big picture, who should be setting the directions…. but analytical science, like economics, has an enormous grip on our thinking and institutional behaviour.”

A Radical View by a CSIRO Scientist

The following is an extract* from a paper published in the CSIRO Newsletter "Sustainability" No. 61

“Soil Fertility Management – Towards Sustainable Farming Systems and Landscapes” by Dr Maarten Stapper CSIRO

In a nutshell: Soil fertility is the capacity to receive, store and transmit energy to support plant growth. These processes require healthy soils – living, self-organising systems with physical, chemical and biological components all functioning and in balance. Continuous use of acidic or salty synthetic fertilisers, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides disrupts this delicate balance. Organic Farming has recognised this, but needs to follow its leaders to active soil fertility management. Carbon, in particular, is of critical importance and needs to be maximised through capture with solar energy through photosynthesis by green plants, and optimum storage and use in the soil. Before we can hope to improve systems, however, we need to understand (1) why they are the way they are, and then (2) how science and practice can help to actively manage soil biology to improve and maintain soil fertility, and achieve more sustainable, healthy and productive farming systems – even on our fragile Australian soils in a highly variable and changing climate.

The road to sustainability: In most districts today, there are properties applying sustainable practices as outlined above. These practices have been achieved with persistence by the manager – through trial and error, under financial pressure, and on fragile soils in our highly variable climate. It is now the task of science, using participatory research, to connect up these ‘dots’ in the landscape using appropriate concepts and principles. A typical agricultural manager is both time poor and cash poor – thereby, of necessity, readily following advise from (trusted) outsiders. Action research is needed to develop indicators that conceptualise farmer knowledge of natural resource management. This, in turn, will feed the required information-exchange networks, allowing knowledge to be transferred in time and space to achieve and maintain soil health, optimise production and minimise risk to achieving profitable farms in sustainable rural communities.

*The full paper can be found in the LIBRARY section of this Blog, titled "Stapper on Soil Fertility"

A soil scientist on pixel power

"Your statement from pixel to picture focus is a powerful analogy! All those detailed pixels of science can never fit together if scientists don’t know what the picture looks like. Nobody is allowed to be in charge of the picture as it is not seen as scientific."

Maarten Stapper, Farming Systems agronomist with CSIRO Plant Industry

Why do scientists say that soil carbon can't be traded?

"We focus on a level of precision and accuracy that may not have any relevance to the real world..."

The Case for Averaging Soil C Sample Values to Enable Trading

Flux and soil variability are thrown in our faces whenever we ask for trading units of soil carbon. But one important US scientist has broken ranks with his colleagues to argue for sanity to prevail: "It is often pointed out that soils have a large amount of variability, but with knowledge of soil sciences and landscapes, variability can be described and sampling protocols can be developed to deal with this," writes Dr John Kimble in a paper published this year*. "One reason I feel people say that soils vary and SOC cannot be measured is that we soil scientists focus on showing variability, not on showing what we know about the variability. In soils we can go to a 100m2 field and sample every square meter and look at the differences we find. But if you sample every tree in a large area you would see a similar variability." Dr Kimble works for the US Department of Agriculture, National Resources Conservation Service, National Soil Survey Centre, Lincoln, Nebraska. "We too often focus on this [variability], worry about laboratory precision and field variation and do not look at the real world where most things are based on averages and estimated data. We tend to focus on finding variation and not on using our knowledge of soil science to describe what we know. All systems vary, but in soils we focus on a level of precision and accuracy that may not have any relevance to the real world because we can take so many samples and look at the variation."

*Kimble, J., "Advances In Models To Measure Soil Carbon: Can Soil Carbon Really Be Measured?", in Lal, R., Cerri, C., Bernoux, M., Etchevers, J., and Cerri, E., eds., Carbon Sequestration in Soils in Latin America, Food Products Press, Birmingham, NY, 2006

A Pixel Is Not A Picture

By Michael Kiely, Director, The Institute of Land Ethics

The title of this post and this blog - "A Pixel Is Not A Picture" - is a plea for a new approach to agricultural science. A picture is made up of pixels in the same way a cropping or grazing system is made up of parts. Modern agricultural science is conducted under the basic principle that, by isolating and studying individual elements of a system, the scientist can solve a problem involving those elements. A weed becomes prevalent. It is grown in planter boxes in scientific isolation from the context in which it occurs and various substances are applied to it until one is identified that effectively kills the weed. The substance becomes a product that is widely applied and it works. The weeds die. But new species of weeds take their place. And other unintended consequences occur, such as the death of microflora in the soil that are important to its fertility. Clearly, science is efffective when it focuses on the isolated elements or pixels. But just as clearly, science could be even more beneficial if, instead of a pure 'isolationist' approach, it used an 'integrated' approach. Move from trusting that knowledge of the pixel will explain the picture.

Aristotle's concept that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, has no place in modern scientific enquiry because it cannot be reduced to a single variable to be studied.

In the 50 years in which a science-driven industrial model of agriculture has dominated, the following phenomena have been observed: the natural resource base has been degraded to the point it is considered by governments as a national crisis; soil fertility has collapsed, with half the soil carbon lost in the last 20 years; thousands of farm families have been forced off the land under a 'get big or get out' regime; profits have not flowed to growers but to chemical and equipment companies. It is unfair to blame science (as a pixel) for this state of affairs. But scientific method, which demands that the scientist operate in a contextural vacuum, has played an important part in painting the entire picture.

Agriculture is the single largest human interaction with the environment.

This blog is a plea for a more integrative approach to scientific methodology. To the scientific community, we say: stop expelling those in your ranks who adopt the heresy of Holism. Start a conversation across the divide to bridge the gap. There is no time to squabble. A new paradigm of land management and production is needed for agriculture to survive and thrive in the new climate conditions.

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