Interdisciplinarity – choosing which discipline to grow

Interdisciplinarity is the combination of two or more scientific disciplines for the sake of joint research. While it can pose many challenges, it also presents opportunities –  the most important thing I feel it offers is the use of multiple lenses, simultaneously and in an integrated way, to view a topic of research. This is especially so in the area of agriculture – seed in particular.

Because agriculture is so essential for human survival, growth, and self-realization it cannot just be discussed in terms of the biological, chemical, physical, and genetic actions that take place in the growing of plants. It must also include social, political,economic and psychological perspectives to fully understand its impact on humanity.

This is a topic I have been interested in for quite some time, but more so now while working on my Masters at UBC. The specific aspect I will discuss here is as follows:

  • When using multiple disciplines to study a topic, which discipline is it, primarily, that the results will be presented in (if any)?

So in the case of my studies – although my topic of study is related to seed, which includes genetics, biology, and physics as considerations, my research will be presented through a sociological lense.

We use disciplines within disciplines all the time. We can use, for example, dance, music, or theatre as a therapeutic tool to support individuals suffering from various mental health maladies. While the dancer will tell you that dance is the best therapeutic tool and the musician and stage actor may tell you the same about their disciplines – the overall point is more along the lines of: if you engage in any type of activity which requires movement, expression, engagement it is likely to improve your mental health.

But I don’t think we use mental health issues to address dance as much as we use dance to address mental health issues. So our “reporting” discipline in this case is mental health, not dance. You could use hundreds of examples like this, but to keep it simple and short, I won’t.

Now this is not to say that research cannot be presented somewhat equally through multiple disciplines. In many cases this is ideal. But in reality, I’m not sure it is just how research is presented that determines the discipline it is focused on, it is also how it is taken. So I want to share some instances here that have really sparked this line of thinking.

The first ones go back a few years. For several years I worked with urban farmers and the City of Vancouver to raise the profile of urban farming in the city and to address regulatory barriers and gaps in city policy. My approach to this was to address urban farming from the perspective of commonality, as opposed to philosophy. In other words, the things I was focused on were the things we all had in common as urban farmers which, in essence, was the growing and selling (or giving away) of food. This is something you had to do in order to be an urban farmer (just like you need to bake something in order to be a baker). But within the group we were working with there were some people that wanted to dictate “how” people farmed and what their attitude about it should be. Some though urban farming was primarily a political act, while others saw it as primarily community building, or primarily educational, or primarily an economic opportunity. But the reality is they were all engaged in food-growing activities. So as we look at the different approaches from the outside, we have to ask ourselves, which of these initiatives was focusing on agriculture as a discipline and which are focusing on education, or community building, or social justice? There is no judgment about any one of these approaches being any better than the other, it is just a matter of understanding what the focus of each is. Because if I am curious about learning more about agricultural efficiency, cropping systems, and marketing I will probably focus my efforts on a different type of operation than I would if I was wanting to learn about community engagement.

Now, of course, many operations have multiple objectives and can fill multiple disciplines well. But it still remains important to have this understanding of multiple disciplines. In this case – over time, I stopped seeing some initiatives as urban farms and saw them more as community programs – and that enhanced their value to me because I did not see them having as strong a value as primarily an urban farm but rather as contributing to humanity in a different way *using urban farming as the tool).

This also made me more careful about which operations I might use as an example to demonstrate the success of urban farming viewed through a particular lense. If I am looking at urban farming through the lense of economic opportunities I could use a schoolyard education-focused model to talk about the amount of food harvested and jobs created and volunteer hours, etc. and perhaps paint a pretty picture (with accompanying pretty pictures!). But this would not be evidence of the increasing economic opportunities in urban farming for entrepreneurs. Such models are often contingent in grant funding, volunteer labour, and land contributions which may not be available to a farming business. So I would want to draw from examples from urban farming “businesses” to paint a more realistic picture of the growth and success of urban farming in an economic sense to better inform those thinking

So now I want to move this perspective to seed production here in BC, which is my topic of study.

On a personal and professional level I work on seed from several perspectives, with a focus on seed as a means of increasing agricultural resilience in a given region (in this case, British Columbia). This approach covers many disciplines including biology (in dealing with the nature of seed and its genetics); politics (in the regulation and legal issues around seed and proprietorship); sociology and psychology (in why people do or do not grow seed or how they engage in seed with others if they do grow it); economics (in farm planning and market development) and several others. But most of these disciplines are not the focus, but rather they are used to meet my main objective stated above which is focused on agricultural resilience – which requires an interdisciplinary approach. Actually, I think to achieve such an  objective an interdisciplinary approach is required. From an editorial in Nature,

The best interdisciplinary science comes from the realization that there are pressing questions or problems that cannot be adequately addressed by people from just one discipline.

To address each of the disciplines again, and my relationship with them, there are certain beliefs I hold that drive my approach to my work to build agricultural resilience as it relates to seed, based on some of the key issues being discussed in the world of small-scale and organic seed systems:

  • It is crucial to understand the biological nature of seed as it relates to performance and quality and how this impacts farmers. High-quality seed is of paramount importance and thus not all seed is created equal and not all seed has equal value in the resilience mindset. In fact, low-quality seed reduces agricultural resilience.

  • Seed for organic systems requires characteristics and qualities different from seed developed for conventional systems. This concept in itself spans numerous disciplines.

  • Seed quality plays into economic considerations on a farm. Poor performing seed presents an economic risk to farmers. Further, seed as a farm-generated product presents an opportunity for farmers to diversify their income which offers farmers some economic resilience, assuming there is a market for that seed and a mechanism to get it to that market.

  • Politically, the nature of seed as a common good has changed drastically over the past 100 years due to biological proprietorship (in hybrid crops) and legal mechanisms (PVP, patents, regulations, etc.) and requires acknowledging the rights of breeders to collect royalties and revenue for their crop development work while not restricting farmers’ ability to save that seed through regulatory means.

  • There is an ongoing, and currently very active, global consolidation of seed genetic resources happening among seed companies which continues to take control of seed away from farmers and communities and give it to multinational corporations which is reducing the resilience of farms and farm communities.

  • Addressing these and other issues is done by engaging with the seed grower community in multiple ways to gain community input and build social cohesion among a group with shared interests over a wide geographic area – movement building. Farmers are always stakeholders in issues of agriculture.

There are more beliefs than that, I assure you, but this is sufficient for continuing this conversation for now.

A significant part of my research is looking at the seed grower community in British Columbia and getting a sense of the ways in which their activities are contributing to agricultural resilience in BC and, if so, how these activities can be replicated elsewhere. If we draw from the three points I made above we can ask: how well do the activities of the BC Seed grower community contribute to agricultural resilience in BC as it pertains to biological, economic, and political considerations? To elaborate on some of these, further questions would be:

  • Are BC seed grower growing high-quality seed and contributing to the regional adaptation of germplasm? How or how not?

  • Has the BC Seed grower community demonstrated a strong economic case for incorporating seed production into one’s farming operation?

  • Are the activities of the BC seed grower community contributing to increasing farmer access to seed and addressing regulatory and biological barriers to farmer access to seed?

  • And, perhaps the ultimate question, to get back to the point of this post: are movement building activities contributing to the aforementioned objectives and making change in these areas, or is it simply just connecting people with shared beliefs? Or: is the connection that takes place in attempted movement building actual making movement and progress in agricultural resilience and in what ways?

So this takes us back to interdisciplinarity. Seed, just like dance, music, and theatre, can be used as a tool for purposes other than agriculture, such as community building. In BC there are a lot of activities around seed, vegetable seed in particular:

  • Seedy Saturday events throughout the province (dating back to 1990)

  • More than 15 small-scale seed companies selling at Seedy Saturday as as well as online and at Farmers markets

  • Active seed research through FFCF, UBC, and KPU and the national Bauta program

  • Engagement with US seed organizations such as Organic Seed Alliance

  • Establishment of the BC Eco Seed Co-op

  • The Bauta Initiative, started in 2013, which has contributed close to $500,000 to seed programs and grants in BC.

So, in short, the vegetable seed grower community in BC is very active and somewhat organized. But, in what way is this activity contributing to:

  • Growing high-quality vegetable seed for farmers?

    • And here the focus can be both on quality and on volume/scale. In other words, where seed grown is of good quality, is it also grown in sufficient quantity to provide to farmers or is the seed scale just sufficient for gardeners?

  • Is the vegetable seed being grown in BC appropriate for organic systems, independent of its quality and volume?

  • Sustainable economic contribution to a small-scale vegetable farming operation?

  • Is the activity and presence of seed companies in BC having an impact, globally, on the profits, volume of seed produced, or reach of multinational seed companies? And is it providing farmers with an alternative source of seed?

    • While this may seem like a lost cause, I can assure you that 20 years ago if you said the craft breweries were going to have an impact on global brewing companies, people would laugh in your face. However, from 2011 to 2016, craft brewing’s volume share (amount of beer produced) more than doubled from 5.7 % to 12.3% in the United States, accounting for 21.9% of market sales.

    • And while there are concerns that the acquisition of small craft brewing companies by brewing giants such as Anheuser-Busch are going to derail the success of craft brewing, well, you may be right. The ability of the craft brewing industry to maintain its autonomy from the giant breweries really depends, in many ways, on each individual brewery and ownership. While a buyout may weaken the craft brewery trend overall, it can certainly benefit the owners of the craft brewery significantly.

And, now, really back to the point! When we are looking at an issue through the lens of multiple disciplines, which discipline is it that we are focusing on the most (or reporting from) and do the examples we are drawing from to support our research true demonstrate the impact we are looking for?

So, in simple terms, when we look at the individual activities of the seed grower community in BC, the basic questions to ask are: How is this activity contributing to the resilience of the seed system and is it truly making change? How is this activity contributing to the aforementioned points around seed issues? And to what degree is the impact?

I think when we are looking at the issue of social change within as it relates to a specific discipline or area of focus we must be very careful about how we draw from examples to ensure we interpret them correctly and not just find a way to make them support our point and support the idea of how we want things to be,

While that is the general end to this post, it brings up a follow up for me. There is a paper which is in my reference library which seems like it is an ideal paper to support the movement I believe in, but I have never really been convinced by it.

Helicke, N.A., 2015. Seed exchange networks and food system resilience in the United States. J Environ Stud Sci 5, 636–649. doi:10.1007/s13412-015-0346-5

The first time I read the paper I don’t recall my initial reaction, but I knew I wanted it to be a strong paper ti support my perspective. In the end I was not that moved by it. The second time I read the paper I recall feeling a bit frustrated by it; I remember saying to someone it felt quite elitist to me. So now I will go back to the paper for a third time (which is what I feel you need to do to understand any paper anyway!) with an intention to pick it apart. I will aim to still find the strengths in the paper but will be asking myself the questions I asked above, in particular – how is this paper contributing to an understanding of agricultural resilience as it relates to seed? Or is it more appropriately serving another discipline, such as community building

Any why, overall, is this so important? And, in the end, is there a primary goal here?

I think that goal is empowering communities in many ways to take ownership over seed and shift this ownership away from concentrated corporate control. This move is crucial in allowing regions to be more resilient by ensuring they are growing and sharing seeds bred for their specific needs. And the effort to do this will be phenomenal. While small, local projects may have the potential to lay the foundation for bigger things and then bigger things after that in order to make this change, they can become irrelevant if they are not build upon.

So, that was a whole lot of writing to not say a whole lot in the end, but that’s my process!

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