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Systems approach allows long-term solutions rather than temporary fixes

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

“We tend to try to solve our problems primarily with technological fixes rather than looking at the systems, which are part of the way in which we do things,” states Frederick Kirschenmann, distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

“Consequently, we also tend to reduce problems to a single equation,” he adds.

Whole system

Kirschenmann cites pesticide use to illustrate his point, explaining that the goal is to target and abolish one particular pest.

“We not only harm the pest but we also harm some of the other biological organisms that previously helped to keep the pest in check,” he notes.

Instead of single-species management, he suggests producers consider what causes systems to function and what causes pests to emerge while approaching the problem with integrated pest management.

“Instead of asking, ‘How do I get rid of the pest?’ we should be asking, ‘Why is the pest a pest?’ That takes us in a different direction in terms of how we solve the problem,” he remarks.

In another example, Kirschenmann addresses the dilemma of food production in the year 2050 for an estimated population of over 9 billion people.

“The assumption behind that is we need to do one simple thing and that is to produce more food,” he says. “It isn’t just a problem of production. It’s a pattern of problems that includes poverty, entitlement, access and food waste.”

To solve the problem of hunger, he argues that the whole pattern of problems needs to be addressed.

Future changes

In addition to reviewing multiple causes of an issue, Kirschenmann brings attention to looking ahead and anticipating future conditions.

“If we are going to continue to operate assuming the way things were in the past is the way they will be in the future, we aren’t going to be successful because things change so rapidly,” he remarks.

Kirschenmann uses oil extraction to emphasize his point, noting that the first producing oil well in the United States was drilled in 1859.

“We’ve only been an oil economy for about a century. How much longer are we going to be able to be on an oil economy? I’m not trying to predict the future, but we do know at some point that oil is going to become too expensive to be practical to use or it will be gone and we aren’t going to have it anymore,” he says.

Kirschenmann questions how things will change when oil is no longer an available resource and adds that other minerals will be depleted as well, such as rock phosphate and potassium used for fertilizer.

He asks, “How are we going to design our future system when we don’t have all of those minerals?”

Natural systems

Applying his logic to the field, Kirschenmann notes that Mother Nature uses systems to ensure the future of thriving species.

“One of the things we need to think about is how we can diversify our systems so they become part of a system with self-renewing capacity,” he remarks.

Two of his suggestions include using cover crops and having a multi-crop rotation.

“Simply by thinking about how we can diversify our cropping systems, we can begin to address these systems changes that we are going to need in the future,” he states.

Marketing of products can also be viewed with consideration for the future and a whole systems approach.

Telling a story

“We can adopt the principle of memory, romance and trust,” Kirschenmann notes. “We want to have a food product that is so good, when our customer eats it they say, ‘Wow, where did that come from? I want to eat that again.’ That’s the memory part.”

Romance refers to the story associated with the product, such as where it came from and who produced it.

“Trust is all about relationship,” he adds. “Some people want to know that there was good environmental stewardship all the way from farm to table, some want to know the animals were treated appropriately and some want to know their farm workers were treated fairly.”

Kirschenmann describes how land health, animals, soil and water are all connected.

He says, “They are not isolated. These issues are all a part of the world we are going to be in as we move into the future.”

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at

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