February 1996 // Volume 34 // Number 1 // Commentary // 1COM1

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Citizen Diplomacy Efforts Should Precede Policy Formation on Sustainable Agriculture

This commentary considers the absence of international and cross-cultural dialogue on development of sustainable agricultural policies and practices. The author calls for establishment of citizen diplomacy initiatives through the land- grant universities. Recent reports from conferences and studies on sustainable development are cited. Grass-roots deliberation of issues will prove useful in development of trade agreements. This dialogue also has potential for increasing community agency in international farm systems.

Michael Score
Extension Associate
University of Kentucky
Lexington, Kentucky
Internet address: mscore@ca.uky.edu

Consider the momentum that is building around studies of sustainable agriculture. Many involved in the land-grant system are familiar with an ongoing national initiative funded by the Kellogg foundation to study approaches to integrated farm system management. Through this grant program, more than twenty million dollars has been committed to farm communities in eighteen states to improve our national understanding of sustainable agriculture, and to encourage public policy at local, state, and federal levels that will nurture development of sustainable farm communities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture funded research and education initiatives through the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education/Agriculture in Concert with the Environment (SARE/ACE) program to complement these private sector efforts at the regional level. In the national arena, land-grant institutions in all 50 states have recently completed strategies toward sustainable agriculture as mandated in the 1990 Farm Bill. When fully implemented, farm communities and Extension clientele will be working at varying degrees to improve the sustainability of food and fiber production systems in all counties. Additionally, there are grass roots organizations working in concert to empower individual farm community members. Contributions from groups like Farm Bureau, Community Farm Alliance, and Practical Farmers of Iowa will increase citizen involvement in the public policy formation process. Dialogue processes have matured to a point where even those with initial negative or skeptical attitudes toward the concept are appearing at community forums or educational meetings to participate in public deliberation over definitions and implied directions of sustainable agriculture.

While community and statewide discussions have produced examples of consensus on local or regional directions for sustainable agriculture (Worstell, 1995), division into camps has been observed at the national level. Allen, Van Dusen, Lundy, and Gliessman (1991) suggest that there are two major schools of thought regarding definition of sustainable farm systems: (a) sustainability defined primarily in terms of resource conservation and profitability, and (b) sustainability defined in terms of pressing social problems in the food and agriculture system. As scientists approach this area of study, a division occurs within disciplines as theoretical models are applied to evaluation of farm system sustainability. In sociology for example, evaluation of farm systems from a Marxist tradition leads to a focus on skewed relationships between farm owners and hired migrant labor. A functionalist perspective would view migrant laborers, farm owners, lending institutions, and others as components of a system. Each component is viewed as making a positive contribution to the functioning of the system. Functionalists could arguably be viewed as being more open to the idea of regulating production practices with a goal of maintaining a functional farm system. Those working from a rational choice or exchange theory perspective on the other hand, believe that humans respond to rewards and consequences, or punishments. Based on this perspective, they might argue that regulation of production relationships and practices is uncalled for. Despite these restraints to development of public policy that will nurture sustainable agriculture as the nation defines it, the considerable investment that has been made in public deliberation suggests an optimism about the prospects for successfully dealing with these tensions. Within American culture we have seen that there is a social infrastructure able to allow adequate deliberation for passage of public policy.

Perhaps it is the enormity of the task that has moved us to pretend, at least for a little while, that the end goal is to identify a common ground at the national level from which sustainable agricultural policies can be developed. In reality however, the arena is much larger than the complex network we've just considered. While some countries are also engaged in assessment of farm system sustainability, other citizens have not perceived a need to look at the long range impacts of resource management on communities, ecosystems, and economies. Wendell Berry, in his address during the Louisville Summit, mentioned the fact that local or national sustainable agriculture strategies can encounter serious challenges when conflicting cultural and ideological perspectives encounter each other in the language of international trade agreements (Stutsman, 1993). The problem is that our well-intentioned discussions are avoiding how our conclusions are perceived in the international community.

In a recent tour during which Russian agricultural leaders came to the United States to study rural development, several references were made by American resource people to sustainable development initiatives. Each time, translators had to struggle to describe sustainable agriculture. At regional government, and private farm levels in Russia, the concept of sustainable development has not yet been applied to agricultural systems. Another term that was difficult to translate into Russian was the word "issue." Translators explained that there are many words in Russian corresponding to our concept of issue.

Another example that can be addressed at a local level in many North American farm communities is the gap between migrant farm laborers from countries like Mexico and the farmers that hire them. As farmers agree with their neighbors on steps to take in improving overall farm system sustainability, they more often than not make these decisions without consideration of how new production practices or agricultural policies will affect this significant sector of the labor force. Farmers admit that without migrant laborers they could not continue to farm at existing levels. However, they are in the process of re-working agriculture without consulting them. The risk is that in improving agriculture from their perspective, they may create labor management strategies or working conditions that are unacceptable to those who do most of the physical labor in some farm communities.

In other areas of public life, the concept of citizen diplomacy has been used to prepare for encounters between government representatives. Without intentions of creating a war metaphor to describe the tensions attached to agricultural issues, it is helpful to refer to citizen-to-citizen encounters between Arabs and Israelis, and between citizens from factions within the ongoing civil war in Tajikistan. In these situations of conflict, citizens were brought together before official representatives of warring parties engaged in negotiations over peace agreements. These encounters were more than cross-cultural exchange visits. Citizens came together specifically to deliberate the issues underlying the positions opposing sides had taken. Their task was to explore potential compatibility of definitions and ideas. The results of their discussions guided diplomats at a later date when official dialogues on treaties and policy began. In the realm of agriculture, increasing communications between farm community members during the grass-roots initiatives for defining policies that nurture "sustainable agricultural systems" would pre-empt ideological blind-siding when local ideas finally reach the level of international dialogue. Indeed, citizen-to-citizen dialogue about definition of the issues is essential if the deliberative processes being funded by foundations and departments of agriculture are to avoid accusations of coaptation and false empowerment. Funding strategies for the next phases of sustainable farm system studies should include allocation of resources for cross-cultural interaction specifically for exploration of evolving concepts of sustainable agriculture. Unleashing the creative thinking at all levels of the international farm system, and taking steps to increase community agency would surely achieve greater enthusiasm for living by the discoveries that come out of the deliberative process. The alternative is a discussion network dominated by experts and official community representatives working from abstracts and summary statements generated during community forums and Extension educational meetings. Citizen diplomacy... the process of cross-cultural dialogue at the citizen level about pressing issues, is compatible with contemporary land-grant mission statements focusing on empowerment and leadership development.


Allen, P., Van Dusen, D., Lundy, J., & Gliessman, S. (1991). Commentary: Integrating social, environmental, and economic issues in sustainable agriculture. American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, 6(1), 34-39.

Stutsman, R. (1993). From Rio to the capitols. Frankfort: Natural Resource and Environmental Protection Cabinet.

Worstell, J. (1995). Southern futures: Opportunities for sustainable agricultural systems. Almyra, AR: Delta Land and Community Inc.

This article is online at http://www.joe.org/joe/1996february/comm1.html.