Complex Systems Science in food production

In: CSIRO Sustainability Network Update – No.15: p.10-13, June 2002,     ed. Elizabeth Heij

The following essay on the future of agricultural research is provided by CSIRO's Dr Maarten Stapper.  Maarten's training in Holland gave him an early understanding of the need for a more inclusive type of agricultural science to underpin food production  – a holistic science based on linking the physics, chemistry and biology of natural systems from the complex food web of the soil, through crops and livestock, to human and environmental health.                                                                        


There are significant problems facing mankind associated with the production, processing and consumption of food. Traditionally, these activities have been conceptualised as a linear production pathway, or value chain, in which the steps can be individually optimised to optimise the chain as a whole.  Unfortunately, research based on this linear, reductionist approach, which simplifies the complex interconnectedness of the system, tends to exacerbate rather than solve problems.

For example, the long recommended use of fertilisers, pesticides and other chemicals to address production problems is leading to poor soil health and resistance in insects, diseases and weeds.  The petrochemical solution is not working – we are on a treadmill, needing more and more chemicals and fertilizers to keep yields up.  This solution is not sustainable.

The problems arising from this approach were first exemplified in Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring' (1963), which exposed the effects of indiscriminate use of pesticides, and eventually resulted in the banning of DDT.  Nevertheless, in spite of this warning, industrial manufacturing and widespread agricultural use of chemicals continue to affect our environment. Consumers, however, concerned about the effects of chemicals on food quality, will increasingly demand food free of chemical residues.

A similar path is potentially being followed with the introduction of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).  The promised vigour and robustness shown by genetically modified crops in limited experimental trials is not always realised under actual field conditions. For example, Roundup Ready soybeans gave significantly lower yields than top conventional lines, used more herbicides (since Roundup doesn't kill all weeds), and decreased gross income in a study of 8,200 soybean trials in the USA.[1]  GMO varieties of tomato, potato, corn and soybean have been taken off the market as a result of unforseen problems, and, in September 2000, a number of corn products were removed from sale in the USA when it was found that protein in the GMO variety StarLink is a potential human allergen.[2]

If agricultural research is to deliver anything approaching sustainability, we need to change the science paradigm. Traditionally, such research has been essentially "reductionist", that is, reducing and outlining systematically the area of interest and the disciplines to be studied. Boundary conditions are set by the choice of one or a small number of factors that are varied deliberately while all other factors in the environment are "controlled" – i.e., held constant. The chosen research boundary conditions limit the true quantification of that part of the system as setting different boundaries in place, time and scale influences the outcome. For example, the results of a crop trial with fertilizers or chemicals on one soil type, on one site, under climatic conditions of a few years apply, in reality, only to that particular set of boundary conditions. While this approach has delivered a lot of knowledge about the workings of particular crops, pastures, livestock, insect pests, chemicals, etc, focussing down too intensely on closed systems with narrow boundaries – on single, isolated components of the bigger "real-world" system – means we are blind to the larger cycles and patterns within which the component parts exist.

In this reductionist, closed-system approach, new discoveries – such as a new herbicide or fungicide chemical – are only evaluated for expected characteristics, and only over short periods under a limited range of soil, weather and management conditions.  In the open systems of the real world, however, it is the duration, local conditions, and intensity of actual use that slowly reveal problems at the whole-system level.  For example, unexpected synergies that alter toxicities may emerge between chemicals applied for unrelated purposes; and management systems for particular crops or varieties may change the spectrum of beneficial soil organisms in unexpected ways thereby increasing the risk of plant diseases.

When major problems do arise, a new technical "fix" is often the treatment of a symptom through the reductionist research approach, rather than being able to seek and discover the underlying systemic cause of the original problem.  This in turn can create new problems, recursively driving the larger system away from ideal function.  So long as studies apply only to isolated individual components, even the use of experimental designs that expand the range of conditions under which a particular factor is tested will still be insufficient for full understanding of a complex biological system with its many active and silent interactions.  A real systems approach is needed.

While we may have preferred for the sake of simplicity to imagine crop production as a linear process, biological systems are non-linear and massively interconnected.  Plant biology alone cannot provide the answers as plants interact strongly with a complex soil biology (benevolent and predatory insects, fungi and bacteria, etc) as influenced by soil water and nutrients, climate, and paddock management (eg. tillage).  Modern farming has reduced the essential layer of humus in the topsoil.  A thick layer of humus functions as a sponge for water retention, while the associated soil microorganisms power the recycling of nutrients – acting together to prevent leaching and loss of resources for plant growth.  In a balanced system, plant roots are colonized by benevolent soil microorganisms that feed on plant root exudates, and in return deliver soil nutrients in plant-available form.

Interactions between organisms are among the most powerful evolutionary forces. For example, symbiosis – the balanced, mutual interdependence of different species – is a protective mechanism in nature, which develops in response to compatible needs.  Increased complexity and diversity of the organisms, species and interactions within the soil food-web allows the establishment of just such a balance, and results in higher plant productivity.  Anderson, in his book ‘Science in Agriculture' (ACRES USA, 2000), has presented an integrated, systems approach based on linkage of the sciences of chemistry, physics and biology.  He describes a sophisticated, professional farming system designed to enhance biological activity in the soil, minimize weeds, provide energy to the crop, and build internal resistance to pests and diseases, thus resulting in lower use of chemicals and fertilizers.

Organic agriculture often is a proven good producer of food, with yields comparable to those of conventional agriculture in both poor[3] and rich[4] countries.  "Biological" or "ecological" agriculture uses principles from both Organic and Biodynamic farming, but is more adaptive to different climates, soils, and local needs, as it is not bound by their stringent rules (originating from central Europe), thereby improving production reliability.

Biological agriculture promotes an active management system to identify and overcome factors limiting production by spraying liquid cultures extracted from compost (ie compost tea) on soil and plants. These cultures can be modified with fungi and bacteria to actual plant needs, and are a source of vitamins, minerals, proteins, enzymes, amino acids, carbohydrates and growth promoters.[5]   The aim is to provide a food source for the soil biota and, by increasing their activity, to improve calcium and phosphorus uptake by plants, soil nitrogen fixation, decomposition of crop residues, and the health of plants and grazing animals without reliance on chemicals or drugs.  If chemicals are needed, only fertilizers and herbicides with the least impact on soil biota are used, in conjunction with added molasses and/or humic acid to boost surviving bacteria and fungi, respectively. The activity of live soil biota can be measured directly in soil samples without having to separate and culture the individual organisms, thus providing a much more accurate description of the total complement and function of the soil food web.[6]

The success of such approaches to working with and optimising a whole complex system without attempting to manipulate components individually, shows us that there is much to be gained by moving beyond the reductionist approach for agricultural research.  The biological agriculture concept is successfully being developed world-wide on horticultural and broadacre farms [5], even though ecologists have often claimed that monocultures were the cause of problems in agriculture.

Complex Systems Science (CSS) is the new science paradigm that seeks to work with the emergent properties of complex systems – the properties that are not tied to any single component of the system but arise from the sum total of their interactions.  This is the type of science that is needed to identify and solve problems in our food production systems.  As momentum builds in Complex Systems Science, agriculture is increasingly able to access its new tools and techniques for analysing a multitude of interactions in space and time.  In our mission to restore and maintain healthy biological systems across Australian agro-ecological regions, it is such tools that will help to improve our knowledge of: (i) important factors influencing soil biota (e.g. chemicals, level and pattern of plant root exudates), (ii) the impact of crop and variety choice on expression of soil biological activity, (iii) animal husbandry in relation to soil biological activity, (iv) availability of critical soil minerals in relation to food production and quality, (v) the impact of adverse soil conditions on plant, animal, and human health, (vi) energy flow as a communication and linkage mechanism in nature, and (vii) selection of appropriate land uses (cropping, pasture, woodland) to achieve a sustainable agricultural system with a high biodiversity.

While restoring the biological balance of soils is important, restoring a complete, balanced complement of minerals will also be necessary.  Re-mineralising agricultural soils that have been depleted of many critical mineral nutrients will be vital, both to production levels and to food quality with its linkage to human health.  In an extended view of complex agricultural science, therefore, it will be important to include food research to follow quality and nutrition from paddock to plate.

In moving beyond reductionist science to Complex Systems Science, agricultural research has, in effect, to go back to the principles outlined by those great minds active during the early part of the 20th century in the transition phase from organic to petrochemical agriculture – the biology/physics of Dr Steiner[7], the soil chemistry of Dr Albrecht[8], and the biology/chemistry/physics of Schauberger[9]. Descriptions by these researchers of processes in terms of natural balance rather than linear causality were not well accepted by their peers (and are still essentially marginalised). Their principles, however, were mostly derived from close observation of the prevailing village agriculture of the time, with its customs rooted in traditional knowledge of successful organic production systems.  In quantum physics non-linearity is now well accepted; so surely it should not now be so hard to accept non-linearity in biological and natural systems.  World-renowned quantum physicist, Dr John Hagelin, wrote in the USA Environmental Protection Agency StarLink report "It is astounding that so many biologists are attempting to impose a paradigm of precise, linear, billiard-ball predictability onto the behavior of DNA, when physics has long since dislodged such a paradigm from the microscopic realm and molecular biological research increasingly confirms its inapplicability to the dynamics of genomes." 

Taking a linear, reductionist approach, we might well be able to produce tables of chemical and mineral content for food items or soil samples that could be used as evidence that there are no significant differences among, for example, organic, conventional, or GMO crops. However, this lack of compositional differences says nothing about potential differences in biological function and ultimate nutrient availability, which could be substantial.  In a sense, we have not yet learned to measure ("sense") the important differences to which even the simplest component organisms in a complex system respond.  Even our domestic cats and dogs know when to walk away from non-nutritious food without even tasting it.

If we have learned anything from the Green Revolution, it is that the next successful modernization in agriculture will be through eco-technology, where farming works with, not against, nature.  Nature confronts us with complex systems, with intricate food webs, and with a myriad of dynamic visible and invisible interdependencies – confirming the need for agricultural research to move to a Complex Systems Science approach.


"can you hear the whispers in the shouting?"

"no? . . . . . . . . . do you want to hear them?"


[1] Benbrook, 1999, Tech. Paper No.1,


[3] "The Real Green Revolution, Organic and Agroecological Farming in the South" by Parrott & Marsden, 2002, Cardiff University, UK.

[4] "Soil Fertility and Biodiversity in Organic Farming" – Maeder et al., Science May 2002

[5] See, for example,

[6] Soil Foodweb Incorporated, Lismore, NSW.

[7] "Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture" by Rudolf Steiner, a course of lectures in 1924, transl. 1993, ed. Gardner, BDFGA, USA.

[8] "The Albrecht Papers" Volumes I-IV, 1975, ed. Walters, ACRES, USA.

[9] "Living Water, Viktor Schauberger and the Secrets of Natural Energy" by Alexandersson, 1976, Gateway books, UK. 

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