Could the 3Ds breathe new life into farming systems research?

by Jim Sumberg, STEPS centre research fellow

Hans Ruthenberg

Hans Ruthenberg’s Farming Systems in the Tropics, first published in 1971, still stands as a classic. Through detailed and systematic treatment of the major tropical farming systems, he demonstrates how – in principle and in practical application – systems theory can be brought to bear on the analysis of smallholder farming.

While he was neither the first nor the last agricultural economist to advocate a systems approach, Ruthenberg made a major contribution in broadening and enriching the arena of farm management studies. In so doing he also helped set the stage for the development of ‘farming systems research’ (FSR) as an exciting new multi-disciplinary (although most often economist-led) field of study.

Much of the formalisation of farming systems research took place within the CGIAR centres in Nigeria (IITA), Mexico (CIMMYT) and The Philippines (IRRI). USAID and other funders eventually piled in, spawning farming systems research units, projects and training programmes throughout the tropics. What had started as an analytical endeavour was thus transformed into a ‘movement’.

But it was only a matter of time before unrealistic expectations went unfulfilled and the bandwagon moved on to the next best thing. Mike Collinson’s edited volume A History of Farming Systems Research, which appeared in 2000, reads like an extended eulogy to unrealised potential.

Perhaps it is now time to breathe new life into research on farming systems in the tropics. With agriculture once again high on the development agenda, and with new ambitions, actors and alliances, surely a systems-oriented research approach has much to offer. After all, notions such as resilience and adaptation, which have become so central to agricultural development discourse, are themselves rooted in systems theory.

But let’s be very clear – it is not a matter of simply dusting off the old Farming Systems Research training manuals and survey protocols.

What the 3Ds could bring to farming systems research

Instead, I believe that a new era of farming systems analysis can usefully draw from the work of the STEPS Centre. STEPS uses the term ‘pathway’ to refer to the development trajectory of a human endeavour (such as a farming system) which results from the co-evolution of social, technological and environmental systems over time.

When considering the outcomes and impacts associated with, and the sustainability of, pathways, three dimensions are of particular importance.

  • The directionality of change suggests that while it may be possible to identify alternative routes, these are constrained by amongst other things path-dependency and technological lock-in.
  • The direction of change can be intensely contested, in part because it shapes the patterns of distribution of the benefits, costs and risks associated with innovation.
  • The third critical dimension of processes of co-evolution relates to their impacts on diversity (of knowledges, actors, processes, biological and other resources and outcomes) and the links between diversity and system properties such as resilience, robustness and sustainability.

I am suggesting that these same 3Ds – directionality, distribution and diversity – could be at the centre of a whole new generation of farming systems analysis.

Such an approach would build on the solid foundations laid down by Ruthenberg, and could help systems-oriented farm research to reclaim its rightful analytical terrain.

Andy Stirling’s working paper (link below) has more detail about the thinking behind the 3Ds.

 This article was originally posted on the The Crossing.


  1. Nice posting, Jim.

    And not so far off from the integration of the 3Ds into agricultural innovations that we set forth in our chapter “Hungry for innovation: From GM crops to agroecology” in European Environment Agency’s “Late Lessons for Early Warnings” vol 2 published earlier this year. See Chapter 19 in the emerging innovations section

    Would be great to see the 3Ds get greater traction in agricultural development!

  2. Excellent idea, Jim.

    Could be the basis of a paper, or a series of papers/workshop, at the next European International Farming Systems Symposium in Berlin next year .

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