Understanding and Changing Farming, Food & Fiber Systems. The Organic Cotton Case in Mali and West Africa

Gian L. Nicolay 1
  • 1 FiBL (Research Institute of Organic Agriculture), CH-5070,, Frick, Swithzerland


Science should be capable of covering issues as diverse as farming systems, technology, innovation, climate change adaptation, poverty alleviation, extension, policy and practice, as they all relate to sustainable agriculture and development. Some years ago, the call for a new farming systems approach was raised to accommodate the principles of interdisciplinary, systems thinking and participatory research. Society calls for systems performance that provides stability and sustainability (SDGs!), multi-scale and territorial approaches and looks for solutions for critical issues such as employment, migration and inclusion/exclusion at the global level (World Society). We propose here a way in dealing with this complexity by addressing the mentioned problem from the communication and symbolic perspective, i.e. to consider the "object" within agricultural science but mainly observe the dedicated systems of communication. By using the concept of social systems, we can accommodate under it systems as diverse as farms, extension organizations, innovation patterns, (agricultural) sciences, policy and politics, farmer and indigenous knowledge, markets and value chains, but always in the form of communication. As such, we remain within a discipline with the potential to evolve towards a promising sub-discipline of agricultural sciences (or of sociology?). The relatively new farming approach of certified organic in combination with agroecology is relevant for family farms and small-scale entities. It depends much more on societal support for extension, technology development and policy coherence than commercial farms. Organic agriculture, with its standards, technological requirements and consumer preferences is nested in socio-economic and political networks, which makes it challenging for researchers to integrate the various components. This challenge applies particularly to countries with poorly developed institutions, weak organizations and within the context of poverty and rural exodus. We therefore use a unified approach under a single scientific system. This system observes, analyses and reports on communication aspects of involved (observed!) social systems (including networks and interactions) within the society of any given nation, including the realities of globalized markets. We are developing a case study based in Mali, in which we apply this method. The case is describing a planning process involving cotton farmers from the Sikasso region, the cotton industry, public and private extension systems, farmer organizations, local governments, the NARS (IER), FiBL, donors and the national institutions involved in climate change adaptation and food security. Various technological options of production (conventional, organic) and farming systems are available. The reflexive use of science dealing with human behavior may facilitate the pragmatic participation of researchers from various disciplines in addressing the uncertainties and opportunities that lie ahead of us and achieve the required impacts together with the practitioners.

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