The problems of the dominant research and extension model

In North America, the researchers in the dominant food disciplines (agricultural, nutrition and food science) have a long history of conservative social and economic views (cf. Hadwiger, 1982). They have shared, often naively or subconsciously, the interests of the dominant industrialist class in society, often practicing science to solve problems that this class has defined (Vandermeer, 1981; Albury and Schwartz, 1982; Hadwiger, 1982; Danbom, 1986). Agricultural scientists, usually idealists committed to making constructive changes, have generally shared the reductionist economic definition of efficiency in which environmental and other negative impacts are considered largely external to analyses (Friedland and Kappel, 1979; Heffernan, 1986; Madden, 1986a).  The focus has been on facilitating the development and distribution of marketable products, rather than the knowledge and management processes that are consistent with agroecological approaches.  Such values amongst agricultural scientists have contributed historically to the evolution of large-scale, capital-intensive production units, declining numbers of farms, and the erosion of rural communities (Hightower, 1972; Rodefield et al., 1978; Friedland and Kappel, 1979; Troughton, 1985; Heffernan, 1986).   The  groups with the financial, labour, and land resources to help scientists develop such products have taken advantage of the new technologies. Essentially, public research has often been the foundation for private profit making (a reality often conveniently forgotten by entrepreneurs who disparage government research in order to attract more funding to their efforts), often with the private sector distorting the original ideas of public sector research to facilitate profit making.  The story of canola in Canada is perhaps the most dramatic example (Kneen, 1992). In turn, early adoption by those financially privileged has improved their competitive position and helped to drive small and medium sized farmers out of business (Friedland and Kappel, 1979; Hadwiger, 1982, Ruttan, 1982; Busch and Lacy, 1983; Heffernan, 1986), and in the process reduced the vibrancy of rural communities (Fujimoto, 1977; Vogeler, 1981; McClatchy and Abrahamse, 1982, Heffernan, 1986). Conforming to this approach begins for many scientists in graduate school and extends to many places of employment, where conformity is reinforced.

Western science has a long tradition of dividing scientific problems into discrete, manageable pieces, a process commonly referred to as reductionism (Kuhn, 1970: Bahm, 1979; Capra, 1982). Reductionist thinking remains central to much of food system science today  and many of our agricultural and environmental problems can be traced to it (Miller, 1982; Hodges and Schofield, 1983; Levins and Lewontin, 1985). Holding constant or ignoring all but the few factors under examination means that research is removed from the reality of socio-economic and ecological systems in which all factors, known and unknown, measurable or not, are constantly interacting. Scientists commonly argue that it ls possible to integrate the distinct pieces that result from reductionist science into a whole or system, but with respect to natural systems this has proven largely unsuccessful, partly because some of the relationships between the relevant factors are ignored or remain to be discovered (Hanway, 1978; Busch and Lacy, 1983; Miller, 1985a; Suzuki, 1987). Because of this, it is difficult to apply much of the work from the reductionist approach to sustainable systems.

A further obstacle associated with reductionist thinking is the belief in universal technologies, resulting in the commercialization of such  universally applied products as antibiotics, pesticides and fertilizers.  It also contributes to the removal of heterogeneity in crop varieties and animal breeds, in turn resulting in the narrowing of the genetic base of our core foods.

Similarly, there are significant problems with the traditional model by which research is transmitted to farmers and other food system actors.  The limitations of the dominant farm extension approach are described under Goal 5, Sustainable food, Barriers to adoptionFor other food system actors, there essentially is no coherent approach to information dissemination.  The only common threads apparent in government pronouncements, grant programs and structures are conventional economic development interpretations (see critiques in Frameworks, Economy and Income) and food safety (Goal 4). The underlying presumption is that since these are private firms responding to market signals, the role of the state is simply to facilitate economic development and export imperatives.