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  • Arun Maira

Sustainable Transitions in Agriculture: Building the systems thinking paradigm

The blog elaborates the various system shifts that were discussed during the Managing Sustainable Transitions International Conference 2023, where not just academicians but people working in grassroots were also present. The blog explores what the words of veteran and pioneer farmers like Sarvdaman Patel and Bharat Bhushan Tyagi convey in terms of transitions while simultaneously capturing their own farming practices. In addition, it is also speaks on how Civil Society working in Agriculture can support the agroecological movement.

Recently, I had the pleasure of listening to a few speakers from a conference on Managing Sustainable Transitions (MST) in Agriculture hosted by IRMA and NRAS. I was immediately struck by the unconventional design of the conference as it actively made space for proponents of sustainable approaches to agriculture, unlike many other events where dominant, mainstream narratives continue to take centre stage and ‘expertise’ is reserved for formal accreditations. In contrast, the MST conference invited veteran farmers  Sarvadaman Patel and Bharat Bhushan Tyagi to deliver inaugural talks, along with senior development professional Apoorva Oza. Listening to them allowed me to distill many of my own ideas on sustainable systems.

Bharat Bhushan Tyagi, Sarvdaman Patel and Kapil Shah in conversation

Scope, Scale, and Productivity

Sarvadaman Patel is 75 years old, but his mind is very young. The title of his talk at the conference was, “Experiments and Innovations in Agroecology”. Even after 25 years of experience, he continues to experiment and learn on his 40-acre farm. Listening to him, I was reminded of the title of Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography, “The Journey of My Experiments in Truth”. I had the pleasure of walking with Sarvadaman Patel on his farm near Anand in 2021, when he explained his scientific approach to environmentally, and economically, sustainable farming. Biodynamic farming works on the principle of “economies of scope”. All elements in the system: the soil, water flows, air flows, vegetation, insects, birds, and animals, are included within the boundaries of the model of the farmer’s local system. By their interplay they enable the whole system to sustain itself.

“Productivity” in conventional economics is measured as the ratio of the quantum of a specific output and the input whose productivity is to be improved. Therefore, the productivity of a wheat farm is measured by the amount of wheat grain produced divided by the amount of land used. Such linear calculations are not suitable when dealing with complex systems.  A biodynamic farm is not designed for increasing the output of only one or two products. A biodynamic farm produces many useful and saleable products, all on smaller quantities than if the farm was dedicated to only one or two. On the input side, the farm must use diverse inputs to maintain its bio-viability. Therefore, selecting any one or two inputs, as the only critical ones, to measure the productivity of the farm, will not reveal the system’s “total factor” productivity.


A biodynamic system is sustainable because it produces multiple outputs and uses multiple inputs. “Scalable” organic farming, on the other hand, slips into conventional concepts of mono-product scale. It focuses on one or two organic products to scale up their marketing in wider markets.

A critical difference between modern scientific approaches to farming, and a biodynamic farmer’s “whole systems”, local, approach is that the former follows a reductive rationale, in which parts of the system are improved, each with specialized knowledge and inputs—such as insecticides, fertilizers, and seeds. A non-systemic approach enables growth on scale for each of the input providers (and marketers of products); but it breaks up the coherence of the system on the farm. This makes farming environmentally, as well as economically, unsustainable.


Biodynamic farming, as Sarvadaman Patel practices it, does not rely on external, industrial inputs to sustain itself. It frees the farmer from the economic power of large industrial sellers and gives him more control over the health of the farm.


Integrated environmental, economic, and social systems


Bharat Bhushan Tyagi, like Sarvadaman Patel, advocates for more production density with multi-cropping and a multi-layered output of the system. He is a great learner too. Like Gandhiji, he asks why are things the way they are?


Tyagi grew up in a small, 8-acre, family farm which he continues to nurture with his family. He says a farmer has a lot of knowledge but does not know what he knows until he can write it and reflect on what he has learned. Therefore, farmers must learn to write and reflect scientifically on what they are learning, he says. While advocating for the value of traditional farming knowledge, he is clear that he is not recommending a return to the past. He wants farmers to build on what they know and fit their knowledge into modern contexts. He urges academics to learn from and with farmers, so that a more sustainable paradigm of farming can be scaled up (rather than scaling up individual farms, which is the conventional approach for improving agriculture productivity). 

Tyagi says the Economy, Environment, and Society form an integrated socio-economic-environmental system. The forms of institutions within all three sub-systems must be compatible to maintain the health of the whole system. He advocates the “family” form of social enterprise, which, he explains is better for a holistic approach to farming, than the “corporate” form of enterprise, which is suitable for industrial activities on scale. He says an “intergenerational family” form of enterprise also enables longer term experimentation and learning, and easier internal transmission of knowledge.


A Learning System

Tyagi highlights three components of a learning system: Samajhana (understanding), seekhna (skills), and karna (implementation). Implementation requires skills and is essential to produce results. Therefore, vocational skills for whatever must be done are necessary. However, an understanding of the realities of the system, and why it is in the state in which it is, is essential before determining what skills are required and what is to be implemented.


Tyagi urges policymakers and academics for more samajhana before solutions. Presently, there is a great concentration at policy levels on skills and implementation to get things done in industry, agriculture, and administration. However, there is insufficient understanding of the inter-connection of the economic, environmental, and social components of systems. Thus, plans become divorced from their contextual reality.


With philosophical reflexivity, he explains the need for “complementarity” amongst the systems’ constituents, and the tensions of competition and cooperation amongst them, especially within socio-economic systems. Natural systems evolve. They learn and adjust their own structures to suit changing contexts. Farmers, and other stakeholders in the state of nature who are multiplying with concerns of environmental sustainability and climate change, must work with nature’s systems, not against them. Tyagi says that when natural agroecology joins the modern (industrial) economy, the farmer realizes that khaiti main nahi karta hoon, bazaar karta hai (I am not farming, the market is.)*

Tyagi supports the promotion of Food Producer Organizations. However, he cautions that they are slipping into the requirements of “Company Act” type of thinking and structures, rather than a farmer-centric view. A cooperative FPO’s decision-making systems must be based on dialogue and consensus rather than voting. He says the worldview of the CEO and board members of an FPO is critical. They must have a holistic, systems view; and they must be clear about the purpose of the cooperative organization, which is to strength the agency of the farmer producers.


Connecting the old and new paradigms

Transitioning towards an agroecological paradigm requires research that goes beyond conventional academic disciplinary boundaries. Engaged forms of multi- and transdisciplinary inquiry require investing in participatory and co-evolved processes. There is thus an urgent need to deepen conversations across disciplines and actors on various processes and practices to enable better articulation of a new paradigm for agrarian change in India that is both socially just and ecologically viable.


On this note, Apoorva Oza, with the Aga Khan Foundation, discusses the role of civil society in “scaling agro-ecology”. He says transformations are journeys along a continuum and cannot be implemented with binary views of “this” versus “that”. He says competition amongst advocates of their own definitions of the new farming—regenerative farming, natural farming, organic farming—has become a problem.

 Scaling requires a systems approach. Ideology and the economy are the drivers of change, he explains, and “incentives” are the instruments to drive it. Subsidies for inputs as incentives are instruments of the prevalent policy paradigm. They make farmers more dependent on the establishment in the present paradigm, and therefore less able to change the paradigm towards a new, more systemic paradigm of farming.


He says that civil society’s role for bringing about a change in the paradigm is to take an “unpopular” path. Civil society must partner with markets and the state during the transition, but it must not succumb to them. It must support solutions emerging from the ground, with evidence, rather than becoming an “extension” of the established system to convey its own scientific ideas to farmers.


*I resonate with Tyagi’s exposition of the spatial and temporal structures of evolutionary systems. I have explained them in my book, Shaping the Future: How to Be, Think, and Act in the New World (A Guide for Systems Leaders).


Arun Maira is a management consultant and former member of Planning Commission of India. He is also a former Chairman of Boston Consulting Group, India.


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