Biological diversity in agro-ecosystems: teaching and learning for decision-making

R. van Haarlem

R. van Haarlem is Senior Officer for Research and Education at the Central Office of Wageningen Agricultural University, the Netherlands. He is also founding editor of the European Journal of Agricultural Education and Extension.

Central Office of Education and Science,
Wageningen Agricultural University,
PO Box 9101
6700 HB Waeningen, The Netherlands
tel: +31 317 484018
fax: +31 317 485123


A four-week full-time course entitled Biological Diversity in Agro-ecosystems: Biological, Landscape-Ecological and Institutional Factors has been designed at Wageningen Agricultural University in the Netherlands. The course is intended for students from a variety of disciplines such as plant sciences, animal sciences, land-use studies and socio-economic sciences. The course aims to contribute to knowledge within the specific disciplines of the students, as well as making them aware of various perspectives associated with the complex problems of achieving sustainable agriculture.

Sustainable development will be the key issue for the next decade. It can be defined as:

The management and conservation of the natural resource base, and the orientation of technological and institutional change in such a manner as to ensure attainment and continued satisfaction of human needs for present and future generations: such sustainable development conserves water, plant and animal genetic resources in an environmentally non-degrading, technically appropriate, economically viable and socially acceptable manner.
(FAO, 1992).

"Developments of the immediate past will continue for the next decades and will certainly mean less resources for more people and more production from less resources" (Bonte-Friedheim, 1995). This is the challenge for society, which should be supported by institutions of higher agricultural education and research. Such institutions must make an even greater contribution to achieving food security, reducing poverty, protecting the environment, reducing social tensions and developing sustainable agricultural production in economically and socially accepted systems.

Since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), biological diversity has been recognized as an important issue. There are many ways of looking at biological diversity and the perspective taken will influence the line of thought and choice of actions that are taken subsequently. Discussions on issues such as biological diversity are often based on the structure of "resource dilemmas", which are formulated as follows:

The above dilemmas provide an appropriate framework within which to discuss public and private goods and can reveal many perspectives on agriculture and the environment.

Course structure

In the course offered by Wageningen Agricultural Universtiy all students participate in the introduction (20 hours) where the aims of the course are explained and some basic skills are practised. Students then study one of three specific disciplinary fields - plant sciences, animal sciences or land-use studies - to deepen their understanding in that discipline (80 hours). The three parallel subject courses centre around real-life case studies. Next, the groups recombine for an interdisciplinary, integrative simulation (40 hours). The course is concluded with a public debate (20 hours) in which representatives from various agrifood sector groups participate; these include farmers, regulatory institutions, processing industries, retailers and consumers. A whole range of teaching methods and learning materials are used, such as lectures, working groups, practical exercises and reading materials. The course is represented pictorially in Figure 1.

FIGURE 1 The set-up of the advanced course, indicating the allotted study time

Basic philosophy of the course

Institutions of agricultural higher education all over the world are facing a serious crisis concerning the self-perception of the professional agriculturist and the prevailing model of agricultural science in which they are trained. This raises questions about the relevance of training institutions themselves and their future existence (Bawden, 1996). The subjects taught and the skills and attitudes imparted are also drawn into question. One of the challenges for an agricultural university or college is the integration of various fields of knowledge and expertise to serve the agricultural sector better. The challenge for students is to build up a disciplinary knowledge base so that they can contribute to the development of their academic discipline as well as function properly in a professional setting.

What does this mean for the development of competencies for professional life? What can be done to bridge the gap between learning and practice, between training and profession (Everwijn, 1996)? Whitehead's (1929) definition of learning as "the acquisition of the art of the utilization of knowledge" addresses this concern. This definition encompasses the ability to apply discipline-oriented knowledge, but also to integrate knowledge domains and to evaluate critically many aspects of current practices, as well as to reflect on situations where existing practices fail and to develop appropriate new knowledge and skills for these situations. A competent person is someone who combines all these abilities.

As a consequence of the increasing influence of science and technology on society, more attention is required in academic courses to skills such as logical reasoning, question formulation, systematic inquiry and critical evaluation. Active participation in the simulation of real-life problems allows students to experience: 1) conflicts of interests, 2) uncertain knowledge claims and 3) rivalry between normative claims. It goes without saying that it is only through insights based on specific and detailed information that such general competencies can be acquired.

In the course offered by Wageningen Agricultural University, case studies and simulation give students the opportunity to develop professional skills, using the latest scientific data. The case study discussions are decision simulations that focus on an evolving problem and depend on data interpretation and management to reach a solution. The aim is to develop participants' abilities to select, organize, interpret and manage data (Barnes, Christensen and Hansen, 1994).

The social system simulation focuses on the complex supporting fabric of relationships that are found in organized societies (Gredler, 1992). In the simulations, the participants assume roles in a hypothetical social group and experience the complexity of establishing and implementing particular goals within the system. In their roles participants attempt to complete an assigned task in a social milieu. The exercises focus on the interactions among people and the ways in which an individual's beliefs, assumptions, goals and actions may be hindered or assisted during interactions with others. The actions of other participants and their reactions to one another's own behaviour in the assigned roles are key factors in planning and executing the strategies.

The case studies

The real-life case studies that are used in the course are described briefly in the following sections.

Plant sciences

The agronomy case study examines the biological diversity issue in relation to plant breeding, pest and disease management, natural resource use and environmental pressures and uses a potato crop as an example. In the course workbook, cues are given for the discussion of social and ethical issues related to real-life situations.

Using a systems approach, biological diversity is viewed as just one of the variables in a complex agro-ecosystem. Diversity exists within the agricultural crop itself, but also in the "abiotic environment" (soil, climate), in the "biotic environment" (insects and micro-organisms) and in the "human environment" (social and economic factors). These components form the basis of the concept of agrodiversity that is developed and clarified during the course. Accurate data and arguments for discussion are provided under six headings: 1) introduction and genetic diversity; 2) the potato and the biotic environment and the potato and the abiotic environment; 3) the flow of minerals at the crop and farm levels; 4) the potato in the agro-ecosystem; 5) ecological functions of the farm and nature; and 6) the potato breeding system - production, processing, management and marketing.

One of the six case studies presents a Dutch company that processes potatoes and markets them as chips and snacks. They advertise that they guarantee uniform quality products. They use a potato variety that is popular in the United States, however, in the Netherlands this variety is vulnerable to pests and diseases and demands a high input of chemicals. Some issues addressed are: is the industry acting in an ethical way? is the claim of the industry valid? should "environmentally friendly" be an aspect of marketing?

Animal science

A small component of the Dutch cattle herd is made up of the Blaarkop breed (Figure 2). The Blaarkop is a dual-purpose breed that has been developed from a meat-producing type of cow. Characteristics of the breed are: long life span, good hooves, strong legs and few calving problems. Between 1500 and 1775, the Blaarkop was the major breed in the Netherlands; in 1950 they made up 5 percent of the herd, and in 1980 just 1 percent. The number of inseminations decreased from 11 000 in 1983 to 3 000 in 1992 and, as a result of the use of Holstein Friesian bulls, the presence of pure blood groups has been reduced to 25 percent in the Blaarkop population.

At present, the organization for artificial insemination (AI), Holland Genetics, oversees the breeding programme for the Blaarkop breed. The current view of Holland Genetics is that they supply what the customer asks for, but this raises the question as to whether such a practice is sufficient to conserve the Blaarkop population. If it is not, then the next question to answer is: how to proceed?

FIGURE 2 Blaarkop cattle

This case study provides data and arguments for discussion related to: biological diversity in livestock; the value of diversity; the quantification of genetic variance; the conservation of genetic variance within populations; the use of in-situ and ex-situ genetic material; the effect of animal production on ecosystems; the cost of conserving genetic variance; and the role of graduates from Wageningen Agricultural University.

The different actors involved in this problem are: the AI organization that takes care of the breeding programme; Blaarkop breeders and farmers who utilize the facilities of the AI organization; the Dutch foundation for rare livestock, which is concerned with the conservation of native species; the public who attribute historical and aesthetic values to the breed; and the government which may be approached for financial help and to develop regulations. The students are asked to consider what they would do in such a situation.

Land-use studies

In Europe, 75 percent of rural areas are occupied by agricultural landscapes. Different types of landscapes are distinguished by factors such as climate, soil, geomorphology, vegetation and land use, but even within the types of landscapes there is a great diversity of vegetation and species (Figure 3). During the past decades, the European landscape has been under severe pressure for many reasons, including factors arising from the Common Agricultural Policy. At international, national and local levels, measures are necessary for the conservation and recovery of diversity in the landscape.

FIGURE 3 Diversity in the landscape

The case studies entail the design of a corridor between two areas in the province of Brabant to increase the size of the habitat of several endangered and protected animal species. According to sound ecological principles, it appears that the best location for the zone is on highly productive agricultural land. However, a multicriteria analysis accounting for a set of abiotic, biotic and anthropological criteria makes such a choice appear less favourable. In addition, the social basis of the rural people must be taken into account. During such analyses, the effects on the quality of the landscape at various levels, such as that of physical survival, social survival, ethical survival and the earth's survival (Stobbelaar and van Mansvelt, 1994), can be taken into account. Hence the students have many alternatives to choose from.

The integrative social-process simulation

The aim of the integrative part of the course is to connect the various disciplines. In the social simulation, the students develop skills in interdisciplinary collaboration and experience real-life multi-agenda negotiations by designing an agrifood chain for the production, processing and distribution of potatoes.

The simulation entails the physical planning of a large area in the north of the Netherlands, named Westerwolde, where the development of a natural park is to be simulated. The national and provincial authorities agree with nature conservation groups, who see possibilities for increased tourism, but the majority of the people in the area are farmers and view this development as a threat. In three rounds of debate, the various actors have to reach a decision. The simulation begins at the local level, with a decision from the community council. After renewed study and lobbying, the second meeting serves as a platform in which all the actors participate; this second discussion concludes with an opinion poll. The third meeting is set in "parliament" and is about a possible directive to the community council. The first and third decisions have legal implications.

The 15 groups of actors involved in the simulation are: an organic farmer, a conservative farmer, a high-input farmer, an organic greengrocer, a supermarket, a consumers' union, an organic consumers' union, the Ministry of Agriculture, the genome bank, the processing industry, quality control institutions, environmentalists' groups and a women's organization.

Concluding remarks

In setting goals for sustainable development, problems may arise as a result of conflicting views such as: cause versus cure; humility versus arrogance; intergenerational versus intragenerational equity; growth versus constraint; individual interest versus collective interest; diversity versus purpose; adaptation versus resistance; or optimization versus spare capacity (Dovers and Handmer, 1993). Such differences may result in different views of what should be emphasized to achieve sustainable agriculture (Douglas, 1984). For example, solutions could come from the application of technology, changes at the policy/administration level or reorientation of norms and values. People might, therefore, differ in their judgement about: 1) what sustainable development really is and what it means to them; and 2) which actions are appropriate for the achievement of sustainable agriculture.

The course, Biological Diversity in Agro-ecosystems: Biological, Landscape-ecological and Institutional Factors, aims to allow students to experience near real-life situations and help them to develop the capabilities necessary to cope with them. The course has been designed during the past two years and was taught for the first time in early 1998. The course resulted from a conference on Biodiversity and Education (Van Haarlem and Van Eldijk, 1995) which was organized by a group of teachers, each with their own ideas about sustainable agriculture and nature. Many of the discussions from this group of teachers are used as starting points for discussions with students. So far the course has had experience with the Blaarkop cattle case study and the nature corridor case study. Both teachers and students were satisfied with the case study materials and enthusiastically participated in the associated discussions.

Agriculture today requires the ability to use knowledge and information to build new insights and to solve the intricate problems of today. To achieve this new professionalism, the learning environment must foster teaching for learning. In order to achieve an effective educational approach, the constructive nature of understanding, the complex and intricate nature of many knowledge domains, the patterns of learning and the learning theories to address learning failure (Spiro et al., 1995) have to be considered. In this context, the case studies and course on biological diversity do not aim to transfer content-related knowledge but to enhance students' conceptual understanding and empower them to transfer their learned intelligent behaviour to real-life situations.


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