EABC Statement of Terms
The Limits of Simplicity in the Agriculture Enterprise:
The broad goal of agriculture is to develop crop plants that reliably produce the products we desire, qualitatively and quantitatively, in a manner that will allow continuous long-term production. The broad goal of this initiative is to encourage a dialogue about the complexity inherent in agricultural production systems, from genes to individuals to landscapes to society.
The Limits of Simplicity
What are the limits to improvability of crop production systems? The limits to improvement of the agricultural enterprise are numerous and include our ability to understand the complexity of genomic ecosystems (community of interacting genes and their physical environment interacting as a unit) and the agricultural ecosystem (a community of interacting organisms and their physical environment interacting as a unit). Social complexity (economic, risk, informational, governmental policy) and well as environmental complexity (e.g. global climate change) are important elements of this ecosystem complexity.
The Gap Between Genomic Crop Improvement Goals and
Agricultural Production Goals
There currently exists a gap in understanding between the genomic ecosystem and the agricultural ecosystem. The linear mindset of identifying a problem and engineering a solution via gene cloning and transgenesis (or conventional breeding) does not result in long term crop improvement, despite its ability to provide short-term solutions in some cases.
The problem that we are currently confronted with revolves around the complexity inherent in the genomic ecosystem and the agricultural ecosystem, and the inherent difficulty in studying both independently.
Genomic research is often neither informed by, nor informing to, cropping systems research (including crop improvement), and vice-versa. Biotechnology and plant breeding programs need to consider improvement in the context of appropriate cropping systems, a systems approach. Biotechnology can only provide traits to manipulate, but it cannot anticipate how those traits will affect the system in which they are used. Most genomic research is scale-limited, scale-constrained, and therefore highly vulnerable to unanticipated emergent consequences of their interaction with other components of the system.
Cropping system research has not been immune to the coalescing trends in agriculture that have been occurring over the last 100 years: fewer people on the land, larger individual farm size, near complete reliance on off-farm inputs, dominance of monocultures, and an ever narrowing genetic base of cultivars. This trend has been exacerbated by the transgene cultivar technologies that have been recently introduced and widely adopted.
There exists a strong need to bridge this gap by recognizing the complexity by both endeavors as we adapt our thinking and direct our research efforts.
Simplicity and Complexity
Agriculture and agroecosystems systems are composed of, and driven by, complex adaptive systems (CAS's), from the individual crops and pests composing a field community to the humans that grow the plants or set the policies affecting them. CAS's exist on many scales, from the molecular (genomes) to the global (world grain trade).
Complex adaptive systems acquire information about their environment (e.g. the weather; the price of soybeans) and their interaction with that environment (e.g. the soil is very dry; prices are down), and condense regularities of that experience into an internal schema or memory, and subsequently act in the real world on the basis of that model (e.g. don't germinate when its dry; plant wheat next year). CAS schemata do not completely describe all the information they receive, but only the regularities, a blueprint of rules to guide future behavior. The genome is a CAS whose schema is embedded in the genetic code. The phenotype is the real world product that unfolds from the interaction of that blueprint and the special circumstances encountered by an individual.
Complex systems are formed from many interacting components acting on their schema. Their behavior is emergent, behavior that cannot be simply inferred from the behavior of their components. Emergent properties of complex systems cannot be studied physically by observing each of the parts (reductionism), but they can be studied by looking at each of the parts in the context of the system as a whole.
The nature of emergent behaviors of CAS's make simple transgenesis a highly unpredictable activity, potentially subjecting the agricultural enterprise to even greater randomness and risk. There exists a disconnect in the agricultural enterprise between "bottom-down" transgenic engineering and "bottom-up" emergence in complex systems.
Agro-ecosystems are the emergent properties from components at lower levels of organization. Epistatic and pleiotropic interactions dominate the assembly of the genotype-phenotype map, making predictions from the molecular level nearly impossible. In the same manner, phenotype-agroecosystem mapping is problematic when communities assemble, and the agriculture-society map is no less unpredictable. Each level of organization from molecular to societal is internally complex, and interactions among these CAS's in crop production demand we include them in our future decisions.
To engage scientists from all relevant backgrounds in addressing the question of how the research enterprise might embrace complexity and integrate genomic and agricultural ecosystem understanding.
To conduct a dialogue about complexity and specific approaches to crop production: How does the research address the complexity of crop improvement-from altering DNA sequence through environmentally-sensitive agroecosystem management?
About the EABC
The Evolutionary Agroecology and Biocomplexity Initiative (EABC) is funded by a grant from the Path to the Future Agronomy Department Endowment, Iowa State University, and is a component of the Instititute for Global Innovation in Agricultural, Science, Technology and Policy (IGIASTP). The EABC is a dialogue to expand our view of agricultural biology to the complex, to engage the research enterprise as well as social, cultural, and economic dimensions. It is intended to foster international, interdisciplinary, interorganizational collaboration in the study of agricultural issues, impacts, and potential courses of action. Innovation and creativity in agricultural research come with the risk of engaging complexity.