Self Organising Agricultural Systems

Consider the food production system of a single country. There are, perhaps, a million farmers, each making individual decisions about his farming system, his crops, and his harvests. Although independent and individual, these decisions are influenced by outside factors. Apart from such general considerations as climate, the most important of these external factors is probably the current market price of the farm commodity in question. Glut leads to low prices, and shortage leads to high prices. This is negative feedback in a complex adaptive system, and it results in an overall homeostasis. Although the total production is relatively stable, abnormal seasons and other factors may affect it. Consequently, production fluctuates within certain limits, but these limits are normally acceptable. The production system is also resilient, and it can respond quickly to changes in supply and demand. It is a self-organising, complex, adaptive, nonlinear system.

Between the farmers and the consumers is an array of merchants buying, transporting, processing, packaging, and selling. Wheat reaches the consumer as flour or bread, cocoa beans as chocolate, and so on. Butchers, bakers, grocers, importers, exporters, wholesalers, and retailers all contribute to this autonomous system. Each merchant makes his own decisions concerning the type, quantity, and quality of goods that he handles. This whole marketing process is a complex adaptive system. It responds to external influences, exhibiting negative feedback, homeostasis, stability, and resilience. It is self-organising.

Individual consumers also make their own decisions about what to buy. Here, the two main factors are cost and quality. Some consumers want quality, and are not too concerned about price. Others want cheap goods, even at the expense of quality. But, if the price is too high, the consumer will either go to a different merchant, or he will not buy at all. The market forces of supply and demand control this free market.

The entire system of food production, distribution, and marketing is thus a complex adaptive system. It is self-organising, dynamically stable, and resilient. Some control by governments is clearly necessary to prevent abuses, such as contamination, adulteration, and the formation of monopolies and cartels but, in general, this control should be minimal. Over-control can be very damaging, as has been shown, for example, by Soviet and North Korean agriculture. One of the purposes of this book is to suggest that a similar situation exists in plant breeding and crop improvement generally. Like Soviet agriculture, it is currently over-controlled. It should be free and democratic. It should become a self-organising system.

The Scottish economist Adam Smith, who lived from 1723 to 1790, anticipated some of the fundamentals of complexity theory when he wrote his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. It is pleasing to note that the genius of Adam Smith was recognised during his lifetime and that, at a large public dinner, the Prime Minister, William Pitt, invited him to be seated first, declaring "We are all your scholars". It was Adam Smith's concept of self-organisation that led to the concept of free trade. This concept became popular in the latter half of the nineteenth century, but it was strangled by protectionism after World War I. It is now being resuscitated at long last.

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