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Balancing complexity and pragmatism to drive agricultural adaptation


Agricultural systems are highly complex, due to both inherent characteristics such as emergent processes and transient dynamics, and often high levels of ignorance and uncertainty regarding the relevant system components and interactions. Agricultural systems are also often targeted for change to increase various performance measures or decrease undesired social and environmental externalities. As a result, this complexity is not merely a theoretical issue, but also a practical one, and effective adaptation of these systems requires balancing an appreciation for complexity with the pragmatic goals and constraints of these efforts. This dissertation presents three related interdisciplinary studies that wrestle with this problem in three distinct contexts and for three often-distinct audiences. The first chapter focuses on the field of development studies, where academics, government officials, and members of non-government organizations discuss ways to bring about societal change, often relating to rural livelihoods and non-industrialized nations heavily dependent on agricultural systems. This chapter assesses the discussions among these diverse participants and provides a resolution for semantic entanglements so that the complexity of the problems does not undermine the practical efforts for change. The second chapter is directed towards land managers working in Mediterranean landscapes as they seek to influence land use changes and alternative agricultural practices to increase soil carbon storage. This chapter summarizes the relevant scientific literature and discusses related issues to both inform immediate action and direct future research. The third chapter is a multi-year study in Senegal and The Gambia that uses a network of farmer field trials to test alternative seed and soil management practices within a socially and spatially heterogeneous system. Rather than supporting the current recommendations or identifying alternative “best practices,” these trials identified a range of adaptive options that were comparably effective but varied widely in cost, risks, and availability. This finding encourages farmers to actively explore their alternatives rather then simply adopt official recommendations, and for researchers to support this through more collaboration and less prescription in agricultural research.

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