Farming Systems Research – Untying the Gordian Knot


The legend of how Alexander of Macedonia acquired his famous sobriquet, “Alexander the Great” is a tale of enormous fascination and, more than anything, a perfect epitome of the conqueror’s incredible pragmatism. According to legend, Alexander the Great had ridden to the ancient city of Phrygia to winter there before his next campaign. As was customary, Alexander had made his first stop at the city’s pagan temple where upon arrival the priests guarding the temple had presented him with a nearly impossible task – untying the famed Gordian knot.  A thousand men had attempted to untie the Gordian knot before Alexander, and a thousand men had failed miserably. According to Phrygian legend, it was said whoever untied the Gordian knot would rule the world over. Alexander the Great had stared at the knot for a while, and then, almost instinctively, swung his sword and sliced the knot in half, exposing its ends while around him men stood in astonishment at the peculiarity with which he had solved the Gordian Knot. The Phrygian myth indeed lived to its promise as Alexander the Great conquered and subsequently ruled all of Asia after that fateful day. Thus, the Alexandrian Solution – or the notion of quite simply ‘thinking outside the box’ – was born; problems previously thought to be without solutions suddenly had a million possibilities. Alexander the Great’s skewed way of solving problems had set precedence for a new school of thought, one which sought to cut the problem in half and nip the cause in the bud. The most notable of these is farming systems research (FSR). The FAO defines farming systems research as, “a diagnostic process, providing a collection of methods for researchers to understand farm households and their decision-making. Its applications use this understanding to increase efficiency in the use of human and budgetary resources for agricultural development, including research, extension and policy formulation.”

Earlier in the week we were privileged to host Professor Hans Schiere from Wageningen University in the Netherlands; a remarkable scholar whose brilliance is matched only by his Alexander the Great-esque approach to complex agricultural problems. Professor Schiere’s message was clear and succinct: Problems are not always as complicated as they may appear. Sometimes the solution calls for stepping outside the conventional belt and slicing the problem in half. He also cautioned that, because of the complex nature of agriculture, this radical method to problem-solving would certainly be impossible without looking at the problem as a whole in lieu of separate individual components. One simply cannot study the human anatomy by looking at individual cells at a time, Professor Schiere argued. A more practical example is ’13.’ Alone, it’s difficult to determine whether it’s the number ‘13’ or the letter ‘B’ (presumably drawn by a toddler). When it is written in the sequence: 12, 13, 14 – we can say with absolution that it is indeed the number 13.  However, substituting the sequence to the following: A13S – the context suddenly changes, spelling out that fantastic braking system inherent in most modern cars (read: ABS). Coming back to my Alexander the Great illustration. It would’ve been incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for Alexander the Great to untie the Gordian knot had he narrowed his attention down to the individual threads that kept the knot together. However, through a holistic and not reductionist approach, it had been much easier for Alexander to find a solution and put an end to the Gordian riddle.

The intricate nature of the agricultural industry is a feature that not only sets it apart from other industries, but also means it is saturated with technical, financial, institutional, socio-political, as well as cultural problems that often leave managers and policy makers in the dark with regard to formulating intelligent solutions. The risk and uncertainty that come as standard terms and conditions of endeavouring in agriculture certainly need farmers to be flexible in their decision-making; quickly adapting to unforeseen circumstances by taking their minds out of the barn to ensure the sustainable growth and development of agricultural systems.


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