Efficiency (Research)

Undergraduate, graduate and professional education for researchers

Changes to researcher reward systems

Changes to research dissemination, publishing and peer review

Changing the funding of sustainable food systems research

Priorities for the research agenda


Undergraduate, graduate and professional education for researchers

Although there have been some modest improvements the last few decades, it has been understood for years that scientist training is too narrow (Kuhn, 1970; Hadwiger, 1982; Miller, 1984). Even scientists studying environmental issues usually focused on the technical aspects  with limited exposure to philosophical and ethical questions (Miller, 1982). The  result has often been a highly specialized sceintist viewing problems through a narrow window (Danbom, 1986; Hill, 1986b), with difficulty synthesizing information (Hill, 1978; de Rosnay, 1979), and trouble conceptualizing (Miller, 1983a). Food - related faculties often suffer from significant pressures to conform to the dominant views in their field, in part because agricultural and nutrition schools have often been geographically and administratively isolated from other faculties within the university system (Mayer and Mayer, 1974; Friedland and Kappel, 1979; Hadwiger, 1982).  This has limited exposure to different paradigms and analytical frameworks.

Because of the wide range of conceptual frameworks that can be applied to food system research, undergrads, grads and professionals should be versed in:

  • Gramsciian / neo analysis (counter – hegemony)
  • Various social movement theories including alternative food movements
  • Marxist – Structuralist analyses; Food regimes; political economy
  • Ecological economic theories
  • Political science frames – Incrementalist, Punctuated equilibrium, Policy Windows, Instrumentalist, Lock-in, Loci of decision-making, regulatory pluralist
  • Business and economic models - Industrial organization, supply chain dynamics
  • Cultural production
  • Feminism
  • Rights (human / non-human)
  • Food security
  • Bruntland-style Sustainability
  • Agroecology
  • Political ecology (see Moragues-Faus and Marsden,  2017)
  • History, sociology and philosophy of science
  • New models of pedagogy and learning delivery

Although some of these themes can be integrated into existing courses, given how packed most curricula are, and the limited time available for professional development, short course and online formats are more likely to be viable ways to supplement existing programs.  Many universities are already experimenting with these modes, though not necessarily with this subject matter. Professional development (PD) needs to be brought more to the food system workplace, rather than staying directly on campuses.  The Academy for Sustainable Innovation, which focuses on the transition to a carbon-neutral world, provides an example of the range of PD efforts that are required.  See also Goal 8, Labour Force Development, Efficiency, Sustainable Agriculture training.

Changes to researcher reward systems

The dominant system of scientist evaluation is a major obstacle to the development of sustainable agriculture. It has long been the case that reward in most research institutions is determined primarily by publishing record, and quantity is usually more important than quality (Mahoney, 1976; Busch and Lacy, 1983; Madden, 1988; Savan, 1988). This has especially been the situation of young professors trying to advance in universities (Ruttan, 1982), but Agriculture and Agrifood Canada scientists have also identified reward systems problematic, for a range of reasons. The pressure to publish means that research projects have been designed for the speediness of publication, rather than  their contributions to our understanding (Busch and Lacy, 1983). It has also contributed to conformity on subjects firmly within disciplinary paradigms to which most editors are committed (Busch and Lacy, 1982; Buttel, 1982; Madden, 1988).  Even 40 years ago, most of  the scientists surveyed in the extensive Busch and Lacy (1983) study believed that publication record was overemphasized in evaluations.

The situation in Canadian universities is particularly problematic (more so than research units and institutions) because of the gap between organizational and individual professorial missions, and difficulties with human resource management that include poor performance evaluation.  Most faculties have a mission, but there is no real coherent link between it and what individual professors do.  Professors do not typically articulate their mission to the head of the unit, as part of annual review processes, and consequently there is no way for the unit head to ascertain whether the faculty members are really helping to fulfill the organizational mission.  Such information would be useful for determining assignments and assessing new hiring needs.

As well, professors are not properly assessed for everything they do, and those who are under-performing are not particularly accountable nor are they sanctioned.  An over-commitment to a perverse conception of academic freedom means that it is challenging to create focused research agendas beyond the individual researcher.  The notion that individual researchers will carry out the most pressing and pertinent research is as false as saying that the free hand of the market always properly allocates resources. Although most scientists believe that they have the ability to select projects that are the most socially beneficial, it has long been known from studies that scientists actually have difficulty doing so (Mahoney, 1976; Busch and Lacy, 1983).

Ives et al. (2020) have highlighted a different dimension of the reward problem, that  competitive, output-driven and performance-oriented cultures in many universities  promote stress and declines in the inner emotional health and well-being of faculty and staff. Changing  this requires opportunities for training and development in inner virtues and inner transitions and meaning in work. Different reward systems could include criteria incorporating personal character strengths, or augmenting output and external ‘impact’ to also include sensitive, respectful modes of working.

For government researchers, rewards are often too tied to their ability to obtain industry matching funding (see below).  They are sometimes unable to pursue research avenues that are important for sustainability because matching money cannot be obtained.  Consequently, that reality and the reward system pushes them to projects that may be less significant but more fundable.

All these changes begin the shift of reward systems in the direction of long term and site based studies.

Changes to research dissemination, publishing and peer review

The traditional models of research dissemination are poorly suited to the needs of sustainable food systems change.  Books take too long to publish for many change issues, the material outdated by the time the book is published.  Even with online journal formats, word and page limitations are still imposed by many journals and this favours general and often more conceptual treatments, rather than investigations of the details of the change process.  Many conferences are well - suited to new researchers, but the traditional presentation formats are not of much value for discussing the challenges and details of change agendas.  The peer-review system is increasingly clumsy, with journal editors and funders struggling for numerous reasons to find qualified reviewers.  Many journals take more than 6 months to get reviews back, which feeds into the timeliness problem. The traditional farm extension models have been successful at promoting discrete technologies and practices but not food system change (see Goal 5, Sustainable food and fisheries production).

Many articles still require the traditional approach to peer review, especially those involving field, laboratory and quantitative analysis.  However, those using more qualitative methodologies focused on food system transition could benefit from a different approach, attempted so far unsuccessfully by the journal Canadian Food Studies (CFS). The failure of this approach so far in CFS may be due to its novelty, the failure of an associate editor (MacRae) to properly support it, and the way it challenges traditional reward systems in the universities. The focus on transition is also novel for many researchers.

CFS built on the community-of-practice model, creating a new approach for certain submissions: community review. It is partly inspired by the work of earlier public intellectuals who would frequently release a “draft” version of their document and then revise later, once comments were received. While it is unclear how tenure and promotion committees in universities will view this process, what is clear is that—given the relatively small pool of potential food studies reviewers and the burgeoning pool of food studies articles in need of review—creative solutions to the peer review quandary are both essential and a driver of academic innovation. In an open access journal such as CFS, for which the audience spans academics and practitioners, a peer review process that facilitates constructive feedback from all engaged parties may break new ground for academic publications on policy and community relevance frontiers.

The process:

  1. A submitted article is assessed for the appropriate type of review—i.e., conventional peer review or community review (see details below).
  2. If the editors determine that community review is warranted, the author/s is/are contacted in order to obtain his/her/their approval.
  3. If the author/s agree, the submitted version (with any immediate editorial suggestions provided by the journal editors) is posted on the journal website under the Community Review section. This version is effectively a draft manuscript. Readers are encouraged to submit comments online or to the editors. Comments can be on the entire document or just on sections and in cases where comments are of substantial quality and length (up to 1500 words), those authors will be requested to submit a formal “Commentary” submission for editorial review and publication. Authors of feedback may also request that their comments be considered for review/publication. The idea is that reviewers provide critical (positive and negative) “real-time” reactions to the draft manuscript. Feedback does not have to conform to the requirements of conventional peer review. In other words, reviewers are not expected to provide extensive guidance to authors on what needs revision. The hope is that reviewers will find it straightforward to provide comments and that the aggregated information from multiple reviewers (significantly more than traditional peer review) will improve the article.
  4. After three months, the authors revise the manuscript, based on comments received and with guidance from the journal editors. The editors review the article once more to be assured that feedback has been appropriately incorporated (much as should happen in traditional peer review).
  5. The final article is then attached to a journal issue. A phrase such as “Accepted under provisions of community review” would be displayed on the title page. Any commentaries would also be published in that same journal issue.
  6. Authors will be encouraged to cite the article under a “community review” segment of their CV, distinct from articles listed as peer reviewed.

In this model, the editors recommend for community review articles with two or more of the following characteristics.

  1. The manuscript addresses issues that are currently being debated and for which interventions are imminent or underway.
  2. There are multiple authors and they are well-networked across food studies, such that finding reviewers with no conflicts of interest would represent a significant challenge.
  3. The manuscript by necessity sets out the issues in significant detail and complexity, resulting in a document that exceeds the normal CFS word limit for research articles.
  4. The article addresses topics that have received little attention and/or combines analytical frameworks in novel ways, potentially breaking new ground.

This would be the first stage of a longer term realignment of research dissemination and publishing.

Changing the funding of sustainable food systems research

Although there have been some improvements over the last few decades, the funding model for food and agricultural research is still rooted in a commodity client approach. In other words, many of the research programs are not systemic, but rather specific to particular commodity - client combinations.  This is expressed  through both the origins of the funding and also the way the research projects are assembled.

The Agri-science cluster program of AAFC under the Canadian Agricultural Partnerships represents certain improvements and remaining limitations if funding sustainable food systems is a priority.  The good news is that the program requires scientists of different backgrounds and institutional affiliations to cluster and create a package of research projects that will meet the program requirements.  This creates a more integrated and prioritized approach than in the past when sectoral collaboration was not so well embedded in the structure of the funding program, and competition between different scientists and institutions for funding resulted in duplication or reduced quality.  The funding is also typically 3-5 years which allows for longer term trials or market development processes to unfold.  And the program is now in it's third iteration which has permitted the possibility of even longer term continuity.

However, sustainability is only one of a long list of possible priorities (and the priorities seem somewhat out of sync with the project assessment process which has more sustainability considerations) and it is not defined by AAFC in a way that is consistent with the literature on what true sustainable agriculture is (i.e., rooted in agroecological theory) and how to advance it. Equally significant, the process does not require researchers to fully consider the equity impacts on different groups within their sector, a key limitation given how many research projects have historically reinforced status quo power relations (see MacRae, 1991). Other than the Organic Science Cluster, which is inherently about sustainability, the other clusters have it is one among many priorities and they typically define sustainability in limited ways.  The commodity sector orientation of the program (again organic being an exception and the beef / forage cluster an encouraging sign) means that linkages across farming systems are not always strong.  For example, the Canola cluster does have many Integrated Pest Management projects, but they only receive 4% of the funding and appear to focus on individual problems rather than pursuing integrated systemic solutions.  None of the projects in the cluster appear to have a strong emphasis on crop rotation design, one of the fundamental challenges facing canola production and affecting many of the foci in the cluster.  Crop rotation requires collaboration with researchers working on many topics beyond canola.

The other challenge is the funding model. Significant percentages of the funding must come from industry sources.  This reinforces the "industry as client" approach to research funding.  It means that the industry has to agree on the priorities and given how few food system sectors are deeply committed to sustainability at this point, it means that primarily conventional approaches will be explored, or shallow sustainability ones.  It also places too much emphasis on pre-commercialization, since many industry actors are looking for commercialisable products. Because industry actors deeply committed to sustainability are relatively small in scope and scale, matching money for research is a challenge.  Also similarly challenging is reimbursement distribution of money.  This often means a large organization is required to front the expenses or industry dollars are required to jumpstart activities before reimbursements can be requested.

Much as Canadian governments have been reluctant to do this, AAFC must create a science cluster process completely focused on sustainable systems adoption.  It could be based on the current program, but explicitly convey the parameters of sustainability, systems adoption research,  and research teams that must be addressed in the research proposals and remove the requirement for matching industry dollars and reimbursement financing. Pre-commercialization should not be a priority (though it can feature in proposals) since many sustainability problems are about design and management, not product development.  At least 25% of the existing Agriscience cluster budget should be moved over to this category.

There are also difficulties with Tri-council funding.  Food studies should in theory cover all three councils, SSHRC, CIHR and NSERC but the interdisciplinary nature of much of this work (see Koc et al., 2012) creates challenges for both deciding where to submit, which review committee to submit to, and then whether the Council will actually consider your proposal.  There are also challenges moving SSHRC funded research to action and impact (Koc et al., 2010; Wixted and Beaudry, 2012) that have only been partially addressed by program changes in the 2010s.

The opportunity is to transform SSHRC's Knowledge Synthesis into a Sustainability Transitions Planning program. It has some dimensions of transition planning, but needs to more explicitly focus on assembling existing knowledge into a transition plan.  Their energy sector work is more advanced in this regard than their food work. It is important that a revamped program acknowledge that transition planning is actually an original research process.  It builds upon knowledge synthesis, but then adds other elements of original inquiry (see MacRae and Winfield, 2016).

Priorities for the sustainable agriculture research agenda

In many ways, this site is about a new food system research agenda as many of the transition proposals outlined here require further investigation, especially the Redesign proposals.  Here the focus is on the sustainable agriculture research agenda. MacRae (1991) identified the broad strokes of this agenda (10 key dimensions) based on a reading at that time of the sustainable agriculture literature.  Much of it is still applicable, given only modest progress on some of these research issues.

1. Indicators of soil excesses and deficiencies. Such experiments require multidisciplinary teams of soil scientists, botanists, plant and animal scientists and farmers. Scientists must rely heavily on observation and phenomenological investigation, using soil, tissue and animal analyses for corroboration in sorne instances. Farmers may play a critical role in observing different phenomena.
2. Lifecycles of poorly understood insect and animal pests. Such investigations involve basic zoological and entomological research and benefit from the presence of soil and plant ecologists who may help to explain certain features of the organism's lifecycle in an agricultural context.
3. Design of animal environments based on ethological and ecological principles. These types of experiments require multidisciplinary teams of animal scientists, ethologists, ecologists and engineers. They also rely heavily on observation and phenomenological inquiry.
4. Implications of widespread conversion to sustainable systems on land use and the food economy. These investigations involve land use specialists, economists and sociologists. The limiting factor at present for most professionals in these disciplines ls an absence of training in agroecology.
5. Design of transitional rotations for a variety of production sectors and economic and ecological conditions. These require multidisciplinary teams including agronomists, economists and farmers. The most valuable information is generated in on-farm trials and observations (see Substitution), but research station plots and sorne economic modelling may be useful to explain certain elements of the success or failure of different rotations.
6. Optimal design of orchard and vineyard environments, particularly to prevent the development of pest problems. These investigations require horticulturalists, entomologists, soil scientists, landscape designers, forest ecologists (for interactions with adjacent areas), and farmers. These may be very long-term trials, and case studies of successful models.
7. Design of soil management systems that optimize food quality characteristics. These kinds of experiments may present the greatest methodological challenges. The number of soil, plant, animal, and climatic factors that may influence food quality indicate the need for holistic inquiry. Bioassays may be the most promising initial investigative tools, with more traditional analyses being used to confirm or contradict
findings from the bioassays.
8. Integration of farming and food systems with biodiversity preservation.  Many ecologists are required for these kinds of studies.
9. Design of the optimal Canadian diet and implications for food system design. This kind of investigation involves nutritionists, food processing and packaging specialists, planners, policy analysts, agronomists and economists. An agroecological paradigm is essential.
10. The city as a source of food production and soil nutrients. In addition to a full range of agricultural professionals, such investigations involve urban and transportation planners, pollution control experts, sewage engineers and citizen groups. Extensive study of existing success stories from different parts of the world would be a critical component of such inquiries.

The organic sector has also set research priorities that mirror to many degrees the priorities set out above.  Other schools of thoughts in sustainable production will have associated priorities to elaborate.