Taking a systems approach to farming

N8 AgriFood Agronomist models farming systems to explore how they can help fulfil the world’s competing environmental, food security and social goals

Professor Mariana Rufino, who has recently joined Lancaster University as N8 AgriFood Professor of Agricultural Systems, believes the international climate agreement in Paris offers scientists a opportunity to influence policy on a grand scale.

“A few people are deciding where to put billions of dollars to achieve the commitments made in Paris,” said Mariana, whose work straddles plant, animal and social science. “In the past we have made very bad decisions environmentally. What information do these politicians need to make better decisions? Can I put more variables into their thinking to help them consider the problems that could arise from those decisions and to understand the uncertainties and risks involved?”
One of the ways Mariana tries to influence decisions is by constructing models of different scenarios, to provide decision makers and farmers with the information they need to farm complex systems for the benefit of all. This means that social goals like reducing poverty, and protecting farmers’ livelihoods, are all part of the scenario.

An African perspective
Mariana has spent most of her working life researching soil, livestock and forests in Africa. It was an unlikely career path for a woman born into an agricultural family of Italian origin in Argentina. It wasn’t surprising that she chose to study agronomy – livestock is a key part of the economy and culture in Argentina – what was unusual was her obsession with Africa, born out of a school project on African rivers.
“Argentinians don’t go to Africa: if they go abroad, they go to the US,” said Mariana. But when she fell in love with and married a Dutchman, and moved to the Netherlands, she did a masters in tropical agriculture, including a dissertation on the interaction between soils and pests in Uganda.

“Before that, farming to me meant you have a piece of land, you plant seed, they grow, you harvest and sell the produce. I learned that in Africa for the plant to grow and produce food many other things need to be in place: whether the land is yours, whether you are a woman or a man, whether you can get access to seed. I learnt that agronomy was only 30-40% of the problem.”
The experience turned her from an agronomist into a student of agricultural systems, determined to explore the trade offs between food production, environmental sustainability and social goals such as poverty reduction.

The global impact of livestock
She did a PhD and post doctoral research in Africa, moving into studying plant livestock interactions. Then, in 2010, she took at job with the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya to work on its environmental programme, in particular climate change mitigation. Her first role was helping with a global study of the impact of livestock production on the environment.
It turned her into a vegetarian, much to the bemusement of her Argentinian friends and relatives.
“The impact of livestock on the environment is so huge. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have livestock, they are very important for farmers’ incomes, and for providing protein, particularly in places where there isn’t so much variety of food types. But we could all reduce our consumption: it’s a balance.”

Modelling complexity
After three years she moved on to the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), looking at livestock-forest interactions and the capacity of forests to regulate the ecosystem. Her fascination with modelling at a system level deepened.
“It’s very complex. We know the best feed to give to livestock to reduce methane production, but producing that feed may cause an effect in another part of the country.
“So we need to do a complex assessment to find the right combination that mimics nature as much as we can: where should we have animals, how many do we need, what should they eat, should we have forests around them and, if so, what sort of forests? And so on.”
She was also deepening her understanding of the social and political complexities of livestock farming.

Listening to real life stories
“I Interacted with a lot with people from ministries in Africa. When you listen more instead of talking, you realise that politicians do care about the environment, but their priority is to reduce poverty and increase growth. How do we make our concern with greenhouse gas emissions fit into other competing demands.”

Which is why Mariana is now so interested in creating scenarios, which help marry environmental with social and political goals. Now, based at the Lancaster Environment Centre, she also wants to find empirical evidence to support her models’ findings, and is applying for funding to study the trade offs in reality.