Lessons in Ag Systems Thinking


This is an introduction to my class, STOCKSCH 379 Agricultural Systems Thinking.   The course satisfies the Integrated Experience General Education requirement for Sustainable Food and Farming majors at UMass.


Our modern educational system trains students to think in a linear, analytical way (at best) or simply to memorize disparate facts (at worst).  College graduates are well-prepared to take exams and write term papers, but often not to think creatively and systemically about big agricultural problems (many of which I’ve written about in the past) like climate change, loss of biological diversity, peak oil, the threat of global pandemic, democracy, economic collapse, globalization, hunger, and food security, safety and quality.

Albert Einstein reminds us that…..

“Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”

My class in Agricultural Systems Thinking attempts to help students (and me) practice thinking creatively (explored in “On Creativity and the Sources of New Ideas“) at a level of complexity and rigor that will help us understand and perhaps even solve global problems.  The following blogs introduce some of the tools and topics I teach in class.

In the blog titled “Learn to Think Like a Mountain” we begin looking at that higher level of thinking that Einstein mentioned.  I suggest that we are unlikely to solve seemingly intractable systemic agricultural problems with linear (simple cause and effect) thinking.  Aldo Leopold’s famous essay “Think Like a Mountain” reminds us that we need to take the “long view” by seeing problems through an ecological lens.

In “Education for Sustainability: a holistic philosophy” I suggest that education for sustainability will require “the integration of thinking and feeling, mind and body, science and spirit, knowledge and values, head and heart.”  We need ethical ways of learning (explored in Ethics, Self-interest and a Purposeful Life) and new tools for teaching to achieve this broad goal for education.

One of the simple systems tools I teach is the Mind Map, which is a visual representation of the multiple components of a complex system like a farm.  Students majoring in Sustainable Food and Farming are introduced to this tool in several of their classes and most find it useful as a means of taking notes, planning projects, of just telling someone else about a farm they have visited. Here is an example of a mind map of a community farm which uses land owned by UMass in Eastern Massachusetts.

In two blogs, Digging for Root Causes of Global Crises and Finding the Root Causes of BIG Problems, we learn about the iceberg.  A very simple and useful tool for looking below the surface of actions and patterns of events to discover structural causes and the mental models (worldview, assumptions etc.) that direct human behavior.  Mental models are further explored in “Which Comes First – Sustainable Policies or Sustainable Behavior?”

It turns out that the answer to the question posed in the title of the last blog is – “NEITHER.”  in fact thinking must change before either behavior or policy.  In “Talking Sustainability” we explore how to be effective in sharing complex ideas and changing the thinking of large groups of people.  Step by step instructions are given on how to effectively communicate our ideas.  Its starts by speaking from the heart!

We know that the way we think has a powerful influence over our behavior.  In “Worldview,Clocks and Trees” we explore the difference between mechanistic and ecological thinking.  And we take another big picture look at ourselves and the world around us in “Understanding Hierarchy.”

Another of the tools we learn to use is the causal loop diagram, represented in the diagram above by a Fix That Fails,  one of the system archetypes that describe mistakes that we make over and over again.

For example, we need to learn to see that the use of antibiotics in the animal industry (which results in a short term “fix”) can reduce the effectiveness of these critical drugs for humans (an unintended consequence).  And the continued use of pesticides in farming results in the unintended consequence of increasing resistance to pesticides in insects and disease organisms.

When these fixes that fail are identified, it becomes possible to get off the “quick fix treadmill” and begin to find real solutions to these problems.  Then we use the iceberg tool to help discover the root causes –  and quite often find that we create our own problems!  Our objective of course, is to create food and farming systems that are sustainable.

In “Resilience” we examine the key features of a sustainable system, or one that can “experience change while retaining essentially the same function, structure, feedback mechanisms, and therefore identity.”   In the video below, Fred Kirschenmann describes the value of resilience in farming systems.


The blogs linked above offer a glimpse into my Agricultural Systems Thinking class and a vision of how I believe we must teach sustainable agriculture if we ever hope to address systemic global problems related to food and farming.  In Education for Sustainable Agriculture – A Vision, I wrote:

Today’s graduates from university agricultural programs are generally well-prepared to address problems and opportunities from both a practical management and a theory-based perspective at the organism, organ, cellular and molecular levels. Graduates in the future will also need to understand complex food and farming systems at the population, community, and ecosystem levels.  

While lots of people talk about the need for systems thinking in higher education, it is rarely offered as part of the curriculum.  I believe it’s time that systems thinking becomes a core learning objective in all agricultural education programs.  This is needed both to prepare students to think creatively and systemically, but also so they are better prepared to discover their own personal calling and create “good work” over a lifetime. This is one of my personal goals for agricultural education in the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   Go here for more of my World.edu posts. Finally, for more on the transformation of agricultural education and research at the University of Massachusetts, see: Land Grant Revitalization at UMass.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *