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Practitioner lexicon of sustainable agriculture

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By Matthew Hoffman - Posted on 28 June 2012

Reporting here on a research snippet from the Center’s National Science Foundation funded sustainable viticulture research project.

What is the definition of sustainable agriculture? More importantly, how might we define sustainable agriculture to serve as an effective guide for putting sustainability into practice?

The concept of sustainable agriculture has been increasingly used as a compass for designing agricultural policies and programs, especially in California's viticulture outreach and education programs. There is general acceptance that sustainable agricultural systems can be abstractly defined as those that successfully integrate the goals of environmental health, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. However, due to the complex, dynamic, multi-stakeholder, and geographically unique nature of social-ecological systems, such universal definitions may be too general to serve as useful criteria for guiding and measuring progress toward sustainability. In order for definitions to be effective, they must meet the criteria if legitimacy, saliency, and credibility in the eyes of agricultural practitioners. After all, practitioners are the ones who ultimately put sustainability into action. Outreach and education programs may benefit from definitions that are attentive to the practical realities of agriculture. Understanding how practitioners define sustainable agriculture is one question our research team is exploring.

Using content analysis of written definitions of sustainable agriculture from winegrape growers and outreach professionals we identified 56 embedded concepts. These concepts can be thought of as the lexicon or vocabulary used by agricultural practitioners to define, and think about, sustainable agriculture. The table to the right (and attached) lists the concepts, which are ranked in decreasing order by frequency and probability of occurrence. The frequency column reports the absolute frequency, or count, of times a given concept occurred in the sample of definitions. The probability column reports the percent of definitions in the sample that contained the given concept, which can be interpreted as the expected probability that a given concept will be included in definitions at the population level.

As you can see, the three most frequently occurring concepts emerged as a prominent triad: “economic viability” was expressed in 48% of definitions, “environmental responsibility” in 42%, and “continuation into the future” in 33%. This triad not only occur across practitioner definitions of sustainable agriculture at significantly higher rates than the other 53 concepts, but we are finding through semantic network analysis that these three concepts constitute the nexus of the concept network. In the minds of agricultural practitioners these three concepts are associated with the largest number of other concepts. We can think of these concepts as properties of sustainable agriculture that are valued and likely prioritized by agricultural practitioners in their decision-making process around farm management and practice adoption.

Stay tuned for more research snippets on defining sustainable agriculture.

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