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EAP Publication - 33

Developing Sustainable Agriculture Education in Canada

Stuart B. Hill and Rod J. MacRae

Stuart B. Hill is Associate Professor, Department of Entomology in the Agriculture Faculty of McGill University, and Director of Ecological Agriculture Projects located within the Agriculture Faculty. He has authored numerous papers in the academic and popular press on sustainability in agriculture and sustainable human development.

Rod J. MacRae is Research Assistant, Ecological Agriculture Projects and a Ph.D. student developing strategies for overcoming barriers to sustainability in Canadian agriculture.

Ecological Agriculture Projects provides information to people all over the world on sustainable agriculture, does research, organizes workshops and acts as a liaison centre for individuals and groups interested in sustainability. Its library has one of the world's largest collections of material on sustainable agriculture.


In a number of surveys, Canadian farmers have found the absence of information to be a major obstacle to the development of sustainable agriculture. The traditional -sources of information for farmers have been unable to provide them with suitable information. One reason for this deficiency is the absence of suitable training for agriculture professionals. The details of a newly created course designed to address these problems at the Faculty of Agriculture of McGill University are provided, and some suggestions made about the pedagogy and course content of an en tire program.

I. Introduction

Economic and environmental concerns are causing more and more farmers to become interested in "low-input" systems of agriculture. Organic farmers have for many years expressed not only these concerns, but have also raised questions about the relationships between methods of production, soil health, food quality, and livestock and human health. Concerns for the sustainability of agriculture are linking these and other "alternative" groups. They are also linked by the widespread dissatisfaction amongst their members with the ability of the institutions supporting agriculture to provide them with the information they desire (Hill, 1984; Kramer, 1984; Robinson, 1985). One reason for this deficiency is the lack of education and training available in low-input, sustainable, ecological and organic farming, particularly at the University lever. In one survey of organic farmers, many suggested that one way in which the government could support them would be to provide training for professionals and agriculture students in sustainable agriculture (Robinson, 1986).

Sustainable agriculture is a controversial system of food production, distribution and marketing, and our intent here is not to argue for its importance. There is, however, an increasing consumer demand for organically-grown food, and concern about environmental problems associated with agriculture, particularly pesticide contamination, additives, and antibiotics in meat. Demand for organic food far exceeds supply. This explains, in part, why the number of organic farmers in Canada, the U.S.A., and Europe has risen rapidly in this decade (cf. Harwood, 1983). These factors are pushing agricultural professionals to pay attention to the needs, concerns, and opportunities of farmers interested in sustainable agriculture.

As one response to this situation, in January of 1987, an introductory course, "Issues in Alternative Agriculture," was introduced into the curriculum of the Faculty of Agriculture of McGill University. The purpose of this paper is to outline the challenges of developing such a course, and to provide the reader with details of the content and pedagogical process used in this course. As well, we make suggestions on the content and pedagogy for an entire program in sustainable agriculture.

The challenges of developing a course in sustainable agriculture

Developing a course and program for this evolving field presented a number of challenges. The first was to define what is meant by sustainable agriculture. The following description is an expansion of the definition of organic farming used by the USDA (1980).

Sustainable agriculture is a philosophy and system of farming based on a set of values that reflects a state of awareness and empowerment. Efforts to ensure short-term viability are tested against long-term sustainability and attention to the uniqueness of every operation is considered in relation to ecological and humanistic imperatives and global implications.

It involves benign designs and management procedures that work with naturel processes to conserve all resources, minimize waste and environmental impact, prevent problems and promote agroecosystem resilience, self-regulation, evolution and sustained production for the nourishment and fulfillment of all.

In practice, such systems have tended to minimize or avoid the use of synthetically compounded fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators, and antibiotics. Instead they rely upon crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, legumes, green manures, off-farm organic wastes, mechanical cultivation, and mineral-bearing rocks to maintain soil fertility and productivity, and on naturel, cultural and biological methods for controlling pests.

The potential of this approach, however, goes far beyond its present expression, which has largely been limited to the substitution of environmentally benign products and practices. More significant advances can be expected as a result of developments in the science and art of agroecosystem design and management.

Implicit in this description is the importance of being aware of both the short and long term, and near and far implications of one's actions and of feeling empowered enough to act responsibly; of having a sustainable philosophy of life and of farming; of being able to think of agriculture as a system of interacting multi-functional components; and of believing that nature is benign and that the design and management of agricultural systems must be supportive of naturel processes such as the cycling of nutrients. Sustainable agriculture is firmly rooted in the discipline of agroecology (cf. Cox and Atkins, 1979; Altieri, 1987; Dover and Talbot, 1987), which is concerned with both bioecological and human systems, and the relationships between them. Rooting sustainable agriculture in an agroecological paradigm is consistent with the historical evolution of sustainability as a concept of stewardship, as a system to produce food for self-reliance, and as a vehicle for sustaining rural communities (Douglass, 1984).

A second challenge was to adequately address the "global" nature of this approach to food production within an agricultural education framework that, in North America, has been strong on teaching specific techniques but generally short on placing agriculture (and other natural resource fields) within a broader socioeconomic, philosophical and ethical framework (cf. Buttel, 1980; Miller, 1982; Busch and Lacy, 1983). Rural sociology, agricultural ethics, and interdisciplinary courses, for example, are conspicuous by their absence from most agricultural degree programs in Canada.

The third challenge was to meet the learning needs of the students. Our experience from course evaluations and discussions with students was that many were frustrated by a lack of opportunity for constructive discussion with the instructor and classmates, by a perceived lack of relevance in most of their assignments to the 'real" world of agriculture, and by a feeling that although their courses often explained problems in great detail few helped them to improve their problem-solving skills or adequately discussed solutions.

Design and management of the course

The course was designed and managed to meet the above challenges and to examine the key philosophical and practical issues. The lecture topics were chosen to lay the foundations for the design and management of food systems that could meet the goals of nourishment, fulfillment and sustainability, and to demonstrate the multi-disciplinary and integrated nature of sustainable agriculture (Table 1). Each lecture emphasized the interconnections between the different aspects of the subject. Students received a handout prior to each lecture listing course objectives, behavioral objectives (cf. Bloom, 1956), key references and assignment ideas.

The teaching process was designed to demonstrate, in a practical way, the kinds of values that are inherent in sustainable farming, such as awareness, empowerment, self-reliance, resilience, and cooperation. We encourages the students to define for themselves their persona! goals and to use us as allies in meeting those goals. Assignments were designed to approximate real world experiences, such as the production of popular articles for the farm media, surveys of the views of the public and farmers, organizing events, and public speaking. The students were, in fact, co-instructors in the course.

TABLE I Issues in Alternative Agriculture Lecture Topics

WHAT IS ALTERNATIVE AGRICULTURE? Introduction: definition, & student & instructor expectations History: science, agriculture, & alternative approaches Goals: sustainable vs. conventional; roots & implications Ecology: scientific & ecological bases

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT? Environment: implications of different agricultural practices Economy: current crisis & alternative possibilities Socio-cultural indices: implications of conventional practices Health: short & long-term effects on humans International scene: aid, technology transfer, import/export


Soil and land: living soil

Water: conservation & efficient use

Energy: "soft paths" applied to the food system

Gene Pool: conservation & management of plants, animals & microbes

Human: rational, creative & just ways to use human resources


Theories: philosophical & scientific bases of different "schools"

Fertilizing: green manures, organic wastes, compost, rock powders

Cropping systems (I & 11): rotations, multiple cropping

Plant disease control: resistant varieties, cultural controls

Weed management: weeds as indicators and allies, biological and cultural controls

Insect control: insects as indicators and allies. biological and cultural controls

Livestock production (I & 11): physical & nutritional needs

Agro-forestry: alternative designs for trees in agriculture

Aquaculture: integration of fish and mixed farming operations

Appropriate technology: human-scale in temperate and tropical regions

Food quality: relationships between soil, food, and health

Storage and handling: rational ways to transport, process, and store

Marketing: developing markets for alternative produce

Case studies: converting a farm to sustainable practices


The process of change: examining psycho-social barriers to change

Research: needs & methods

Education and extension: training programs & extension services

Farm and community action: rural & urban action programs

Economic aspects: changing current systems & new. paradigms

Political aspects: using the political process for change

Conclusions: overview & final discussion

They presented seminars and reported to the group on their assignments. Guest speakers were helpful in bringing the real world into the classroom. In the future, tours of organic farms will be included as part of the curriculum. Opportunities were also provided for learning about group process and facilitation skills, areas often neglected in other agricultural courses.

The final section of the course examined the process of positive change and how it can be facilitated at a number of levers, including the identification of the barriers to change and how they can be overcome (cf. Lewin's force field analysis approach, 1947). Particular emphasis was placed on how, at the national, group, and individual levels, there is widespread evidence of fear, powerlessness, helplessness, and hopelessness, and of the associated compensatory characteristics of conspicuous compulsive consumption of agricultural resources and food, hierarchical and oppressive relationships between individuals and groups, humans and both non-humans (insects, animals, plants) and the environment. These traits are particularly evident in two contrasting approaches to problem-solving (Table 2). We hypothesize that the characteristics of the approaches on the left are attractive partly (and mostly subconsciously) because they compensate for an individual's internal (but not necessarily acknowledged) sense of powerlessness. The characteristics of the approaches on the right are more likely to be associated with the fully aware, truly powerful, benign individual (ref. Hill, 1986, 1987). Students participated in exercises designed to examine how their own ability to contribute to change towards a sustainable agricultural system might be impaired by some of these characteristics, and they were encourages to find ways to transcend those barriers.

Our vision of a program

By continuing to work on the challenges discussed above, and by building on the successes of our course to date, we plan to eventually offer a degree program in sustainable agriculture that would produce graduates with an understanding of the historical evolution of science, and in particular agricultural science; the stages of scientific problem formulation, experimental design, data collection and analysis, and the latent influences on each stage; the technical, psycho-social and moral elements of problem solving; the importance of ethical issues in any agricultural research and decision making; constructive intellectual and interpersonal conflict resolution techniques; the principles of logic; how science develops confident assertions rather than truths (ref. Leiss, 1972;)

TABLE 2 Problem Solving Emphasis




Eliminate "Enemies"

Narrow focus (neglects side effects, health & environmental costs ignored)


Single, simple (magic bullets, single discipline)

Temporary solutions

Unexpected disbenefits (to person & planet)

High power (risk of overkill & errors/accidents)

Direct "attack"



Physico-chemical (often unnatural, synthetic)

Technology intensive


Values secondary

Expert, paternalistic (arrogant)



Ignores freedom of choice (unjust)





Causes, prevention


Respond to indicators

Broad focus (subcellular to all life to globe, all costs internalized)

Long time frame (future generations)

Multifaceted, complex (multi- & trans-disciplinary)

Permanent solutions

Unexpected benefits

Low power (minimal risk)

Indirect, benign approaches (catalytic, multiplier, synergistic effects)

Local solutions & materials

Processes, services

Bio-ecological (naturel)

Knowledge/skill intensive

Decentralized (human scale)

Compatible with higher values

Individual community responsibility (humble)

Self- maintaining/regulating


Respects freedom of choice (just)



Anonymous (seeking neither reward or fame)

Mahoney, 1976); the principles of ecology and their application to agriculture; the principles of economic systems that value ecological imperatives; and the essential information in the particular area of sustainable agriculture that the student chooses to focus on.


Students are asking for a program of this kind and institutions are slowly beginning to respond. We plan to have an entire program in place in McGill University's Faculty of Agriculture by 1990, although, it may take several years to meet all of the above goals. Clearly, farmers and policy makers who are interested in sustainable agriculture nee~l access to professionals trained in this area. A comprehensive program in sustainable agriculture can go a long way in providing that assistance. We believe that our initial course and proposed program constitute a significant step in the realization of that goal.


Altieri, Miguel A. Agroecology: the Scientific Basis of Alternative Agriculture. 2nd edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1987.

Bloom, Benjamin S. (ed.). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook 1: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Co, 1956.

Busch, Lawrence and William B. Lacy. Science, Agriculture, and the Politics of Research. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1983.

Buttel, Frederick H., "Agriculture, Environment, and Social Change: Some Emergent Issues." Pp 453-88 in The Rural Sociology of the Advanced Societies. Ed. by Frederick H. Buttel and Haward Newby. Montclair, NJ: Allanheld, Osman, 1980.

Cox, George W. and Michael D. Atkins. Agricultural Ecology. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1979.

Douglass, Gordon K. (ed.) Agricultural sustainability in a Changing World Order. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1984.

Dover, Michael and Lee M. Talbot. To Feed the Earth: Agroecology for Sustainable Development. Washington: World Resources Institute, 1987.

Harvrood, Richard R., "International Overview of Regenerative Agriculture." Pp 24-35 in Proceedings of a Workshop on' Resource-Efficient Farming Methods for Tanzania. Ed. by Mike Brusko. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1983.

Hill, Stuart B., "Diversification and Agricultural Sustainability." Pp 89-106 in Sunrise Agriculture in the Northeast: Foundation for a Sustainable Agriculture in the 21st Century. Maine Agricultural Experiment Station Miscellaneous Publication #694. Orono, ME: University of Maine, 1987.

_ "Sustainable Human Development: Driving and Restraining Forces in the Food System." A submission to the World Commission on Environment and Development. Residual Priorities 1(2 1986): 2-6.

Organic Farming in Canada. Ecological Agriculture Projects Research Paper 4. Ste. Anne de Bellevue, QC: Ecological Agriculture Projects, 1984.

Kramer, Dee, "Problems Facing Canadian Farmers Using Organic Methods." Pp 129-62 in Pesticide Policy: the Environmental Perspective. Ed. by Ted Schrecker and Ray Vles. Ottawa: Friends of the Earth, 1984.

Leiss, William. The Domination of Nature. New York: George Braziller, 1972.

Lewis, Kurt (1947), 'Force Field Analysis." Pp 115-7 in Management of organizational Behavior. Ed. by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1982.

Mahoney, Michael. Scientist as Subject: the Psychological Imperative. Cambridge: Ballinger, 1976.

Miller, Alan, "Tunnel Vision in Environmental Management." The Environmentalist 2 (1982): 223-31.

Robinson, Paul. Searching for Alternative Solutions: Sustainable Agriculture. Policy Branch Working Paper. Ottawa: Agriculture Canada, 1986.

Effects of a Transition' to Ecological-organic Agriculture on Livestock Production in Manitoba. Unpublished M.Sc. Thesis. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba, 1985.

USDA. Report and Recommendations 071 Organic Farming. Washington: Superintendent of Documents, 1980.

Copyright 1988