Clues to permanence of farming/food systems

Some of the most influential papers of my graduate research career were written by H. Henry Janzen, a Canadian soil scientist. The first broad-reaching paper I read by him was entitled “Greenhouse gases as clues to permanence of farmlands” (2007). His papers are often in obscure journals perhaps because he is a soil scientist writing about a “whole farm approach” and “systems thinking” that includes life-cycle analyses beyond simple carbon calculations. His ability to discuss carbon sequestration along-side the cultural value of farming practices (for example Livestock in his paper on regreening earth),

I was thinking about papers to send my intern while falling asleep when I woke up with a start:
If greenhouse gases/carbon cycling are the essential tool we use to measure the environmental sustainability of farming, are there similar measures for social and economic sustainability? (Related: Janzen uses the word permanence in place of sustainability, a more easily defined concept for many). For economic sustainability, capital and profitability seem like likely measure, but others probably exist. I’m less sure how we can measure social sustainability. Life satisfaction or “gross domestic happiness” might be tools, but I would welcome any comments from social scientists on this.

On a related note, in soil science we frequently cite the work of Hans Jenny who came up with the concept of “state factors” that govern soil development. He identified five main features that determine the development of a soil:

  • climate (rain and freeze/thaw cycles are a big
  • biota (what plants, microbes and animals live on and in the soil)
  • topography (is the soil at the top of a hill? or the bottom where items can be deposited?)
  • parent material (is the soil developed from weathered limestone? granite? volcanic rock?)
  • time (is the soil 1 thousand years old or 1 million?)

Is there similar frameworks out there used by social scientists or economists to think about systems variables that govern economic and social systems? When it comes to systems thinking on farming systems, Jenny’s state factors of soil formation are incredibly valuable for understanding the system. I imagine there are similar tools for other aspects of the farming system and I’d love other tools for other components of the system.

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2 thoughts on “Clues to permanence of farming/food systems

  1. For social sustainability, I think focusing on equality/inequality measurements over life satisfaction/happiness measurements makes more sense. Gross Domestic Happiness has a lot of flaws in how it is measured, and while it is a useful theoretical tool I don’t think it has a lot of actual utility (personal opinion). I even think for economic sustainability we need to re-envision how we are imagining things to be economically sustainable/viable, because (again in my opinion) our current growth model never has been/will be sustainable, so just trying to work from within that mental frame is really limiting.

    1. Using equality/inequality has some drawbacks as well if there is a “rising tide that raises all boats” effect (which often, but not always, seems like a myth).

      Thanks for your comment! Wouldn’t have thought about that index, but it definitely seems like it’s on the right track.

      It’d be great if there were economic measures that were less tied to money. Having people’s absolute needs met and freedom of choice to do other things (start businesses, travel, etc.) seems like a better measure than dollar input/output since there’s a lot of ways the informal economy can help with a lot of needs.

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