While classical research focuses on problem solving, design is a problem-prevention methodology and is suitable for multi- and interdisciplinary research teams with the vision of how to improve agricultural sustainability. Since organic agriculture is based on the holistic approach and is also problem-prevention oriented in that it refrains from certain inputs and practices, design is an interesting methodology that could be applied more often in organic agriculture.
The demand for a more careful stewardship of abiotic and biotic resources is central to the philosophy of sustainable development. A widely recognized concept, sustainable development is an essential element in future development. Agriculture plays a vital role in the concept of sustainable development. Without sustainable agriculture, no sustainable development is possible. Agriculture related problems such as environmental pollution of soil, water and air; resource depletion and nature degradation as well as socio-economic problems, are high on the agenda of various communities and interest groups (including those of farmers, environmentalists, nature-conservators, scientists, consumers and policy makers). This has resulted in the serious demand that today's farming systems be redesigned and transformed into more sustainable ones. However, this is not an easy task, because agriculture is a multifunctional and multiple objective activity (Goewie, 1997; Vereijken, 1995). Agriculture has to supply food in sufficient quantity and quality and the supply itself must be stable, sustainable and accessible. It must provide employment and generate basic income and profit at farm, regional and national levels. In addition, agriculture also has to try and avoid and minimize the pollution of abiotic resources, protect and steward nature and landscape, as well as ensure the overall health and well-being of farm animals and rural and urban people (Vereijken, 1995).
Taking into account agriculture-related problems, the following improvements seem to be desirable in order to make farming systems more sustainable:
A farming system should be designed and function in such a way that complies, as far as possible, with the requirements, criteria and parameters of sustainable agriculture (van Mansvelt and Znaor, forthcoming). However, the above-mentioned functions and objectives of agriculture are not necessarily always compatible. Sometimes they conflict as in the case of economy and nature protection (Goewie, 1997). Besides, each farm is an agro-ecological and socio-economic entity, operating under specific conditions, which makes it impossible to impose a set of uniform sustainability criteria because sustainability is both site-specific and determined by macro institutional and economic settings. Therefore, in practice no farm entirely fulfils all the requirements for sustainable agriculture, even if these have been theoretically determined. The overall sustainability of a farming system can best be expressed by the index (degree) of sustainability reached. This index can be derived from farm balances such as nutrients, soil organic matter, energy, labour, economic return, resource use and biodiversity value and from other relevant farm data (Znaor, 1996).
Design is not a typical research methodology. In fact it is a process very different from classical research. Classical research investigates a particular problem, phenomena or a set of problems, in order to understand the mechanisms involved. Sometimes it seeks answers to practical problems. In most cases, a research problem or object is segregated into smaller "researchable" units and analysis and experiments are performed to prove causal relations between manipulation and phenomena (Goewie, 1997). Design, however, involves another process entirely. In design one synthesizes the knowledge into the larger units through which the "whole" functions in reality. In other words, in research one "discovers something", while in designing one "creates something" out of its vision and synthesized knowledge. However, although design takes another route than the one followed in research, it does not exclude the need for classical research, since designing is enriched by each new research discovery. Agro-designing methodology involves several steps (Vereijken, 1995). It starts with an inventory of the needs and objectives of the stakeholders concerned. Objectives are then ordered hierarchical and rated. The most important of these are then transformed into a suitable set of parameters. In other words, in order to quantify selected objectives, a set of measurable key parameters should be developed. The next step is to establish appropriate agricultural methods and techniques serving more than one objective, for example, intensive fertilization in general serves the objective of high yield and is detrimental to other objectives such as the environment and capable of bridging gaps between conflicting objectives. Finally, the set of multi-objective parameters and methods is linked in a general theoretical prototype based on agronomic, agro-ecological and economic considerations. Theoretical prototypes are then tested in practice and their shortcomings are used as the learning points for the next phase, (re)designing of the same or another farming system.
Goewie, E.A. (1997): "Designing methodologies for prototyping ecological production systems" Course reader MSc. Ecological Agriculture (F800-204). Department of Ecological Agriculture, Wageningen Agricultural University, Wageningen.
Mansvelt, van J.D. and D. Znaor, (forthcoming): "Criteria for the abiotic and biotic realm: environment and ecology". In: Mansvelt van J.D. and Lubbe M.J (eds.): Checklist for sustainable landscape management: final report of the EU-concerted action (AIR3-CT93-1210), Elsevier, Amsterdam.
Vereijken, P. (1995): "Designing and testing prototypes: Progress reports of the research network on integrated and ecological arable farming systems for EU and associated countries" (Concerted Action AIR 3-CT920755), DLO Research Institute for Agrobiology and Soil Fertility, Wageningen.
Znaor, D. (1996): "Ekolo_ka poljoprivreda- poljoprivreda sutra_njice", Globus, Zagreb.