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Try new approach to solving conservation issues

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SUCCESS: When applied to conservation planning and problem solving, systems thinking has the potential to help overcome many long-standing environmental challenges.
Iowa Learning Farms: Use "systems thinking" to reach soil and water conservation goals.

In a previous article, the “systems thinking” approach to addressing soil conservation and water quality issues  was covered. At a high level, this approach advocates for gathering the broadest view possible to best understand internal and external influences and outcomes related to programs, decisions and ecosystems.

In this follow-up article, we examine additional details and practices of this concept.

When considering a system, it’s important to identify causal loops, which are closed loops of cause-and-effect linkages that capture how variables in a system are interrelated. Actions cause reactions and determine outcomes; those outcomes influence other elements and can feed back to the origin of the loop.

As causal loops reiterate, there can be positive and reinforcing results, and there can be negative and harmful results. These virtuous and vicious loops aren’t always equally perceived from the vantage point of an individual looking to solve a problem or evaluate a system. We all bring our experiences, knowledge, biases, beliefs and assumptions to the evaluation process. In addition, differing constituent groups affected by a problem or involved in a system may have competing or incompatible goals in seeking solutions.

Broadening your vision helps

The systems thinking approach requires constituents to broaden the field of vision to reveal causal loops and long-term impacts. This can provide more opportunities to recognize positive loops while anticipating and mitigating harmful effects and dampening the negative feedback.

In looking at a common approach to increasing pasture productivity, we can see the long-term negative impacts of a vicious loop. Increasing stocking levels can deliver short-term productivity gains. More livestock ready for market yields more value per pasture acre.

However, additional stocking places more pressure on the pasture, leading to issues with poor water infiltration due to soil compaction impacting vegetation coverage and health. Over time, the reductions in available forage will force supplemental feeding — raising input costs and rolling back total value of the previous short-term productivity gains.

An ISU Extension faculty member participating in the workshop noted, “The workshop helped me think about how things are linked together. It definitely got me thinking about the problem rather than the symptom. Our group had a great discussion on farm program payments and some of the reasons they came about to reduce some of the volatility in revenue for farmers. This really got me focused on what other ways we could work within the system to solve this problem of volatility that might help our overall desired outcome of reducing marginal lands that are cropped.”

Problem-solving takes time

One important factor of problem-solving is time. Not necessarily the time it takes to implement a fix for a symptom, but time on a longer scale. While short-term fixes can quickly remedy a surface-level problem, the fix can often cause a ripple effect that can cause unintended consequences. These delayed effects may not become evident for some time or several cycles of the causal loops. Perceptions of success can be inaccurately influenced without due consideration of delayed impacts.

An example of perception versus delay can be seen in the implementation of cover crops. When cover crops are planted, there is an immediate decrease in runoff. This is a positive result that can lead to the perception that water quality concerns have been addressed, and no further action is needed. Unfortunately, nature and agriculture are leaky systems that demand constant maintenance. If we stop with the short-term gain, contaminants will continue to leak, and water quality will continue to degrade over time.

Looking from the top down, it can be said that the current agricultural system is designed to produce water quality problems. The degradation of water quality is an unintended consequence that has been building for decades. Over the years, practices have been developed to mitigate runoff and reduce erosion, but most have been focused on narrow short-term gains.

Through systems thinking, organizations have a means to take a step back and reimagine the interconnected causal loops that make up the environmental and agricultural ecosystems. The next step in this process would be to identify and anticipate delayed and unintended consequences and work to mitigate or avoid them.

Addressing awkward issues

ILF and the Conservation Learning Group at ISU have already begun using the systems thinking approach in internal meetings and discussions regarding how to best implement its conservation programming and objectives. Taking the larger-picture approach should help to remove some of the incongruent perceptions that naturally occur within multidisciplinary groups and empower the organizations to best address some niggling problems that have remained unresolved.

Using the iceberg metaphor discussed in the last column, the ILF groups hope to uncover those hidden loops and look further into the future to understand unintended and delayed consequences of the current reality and actions. The process necessarily takes time to enable participants to avoid jumping to short-term fixes and encourage creative solutions from a broader perspective. Systems Thinking can and will change how conservation measures are viewed and implemented, and we are looking forward to continued progress throughout Iowa as a result.

Pierce is an ISU Extension program specialist with a focus on water quality with Iowa Learning Farms.



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