Re-Framing Sustainable Farming

“How do intermediate livestock farms and ranches impact the environment and public health?”  For the past two weeks, Nicole Nagel and I have thrown ourselves into this subject as part of a class project for Interaction Design Research and Synthesis (IDSE101) at Austin Center for Design.  We’ve talked with a wide variety of stakeholders, including policy makers, non-profit executives, academics, restaurant employees, governmental regulators, and, of course, livestock farmers.

When contemplating the environmental and health-related impacts of livestock farms, most people would likely point to some common themes and ideas.  Methane emissions from animals, negative externalities of pesticides and herbicides, and food poisoning due to improper raising and processing of livestock are a few that you could likely learn about through a simple Google search.  All these ideas have certainly surfaced in mine and Nicole’s research thus far, but the one thing we learned right away is that this issue encompasses a vast, infinite network of issues, research, opinions, values, and daily lives.  Design research is not like a Google search, where you can deliberately pick and choose what to focus on.  The point here is not to explore pre-determined problems with an issue, but to find new ones.

Slowly but surely, we got lost in an avalanche of data, and we seemingly got pulled in a thousand directions at once.  Utterances pertaining to education, psychology, white privilege, and food distribution all came into the fold.  This multiplicity of subjects made it difficult to retain our initial focus as our primary lens through which to see the issue.  Every time we tried to narrow it down to our initial focus, we would inadvertently uncover yet another issue that was inextricably tied into a growing web of problem spaces, of which livestock farms and ranches were one just thread amongst many.

For example, when it comes to environmentally conscious livestock farming and ranching practices, the stakeholders we interviewed kept falling back on one thing: no matter how refined the model for sustainable farming is, its practicality is in large part at the mercy of the consumer.  The food culture of the United States is such that we have become wholly accustomed to extremely cheap food.  This places an extremely tight market constraint on small, “sustainable” family farms that often pride themselves on environmentally friendly farming practices and wholesome, healthy products.  The idea of limiting the impact of livestock farming seemed to be inextricably tied to this constraint.  It was both frustrating and problematic, not only because all the farming models we were coming up with economically inviable, but more namely because they were tied into a several socio-economic systems that extended beyond the farms themselves.

Then we interviewed Dr. Megan Clayton, who works as an associate professor and extension range specialist at Texas A&M.  A large part of her job is to provide resources, information, and education to ranchers in Texas.

As with most of our interview subjects, we asked Dr. Clayton how farms could limit their negative impact on the environment and public health.  In response, Dr. Clayton essentially said this was the wrong question.  The essential issue, in her mind, was not how to limit the negative externalities of ranching, but how to preserve the intrinsically positive ones.  As an extension specialist, she was much less concerned with manure run-off, factory farming, greenhouse emissions, and the like, and much more focused on simply preserving the farmland from urban and suburban development.  This is because maintaining green, open land in Texas is critical for maintaining clean air and preventing flooding.

Dr. Clayton’s expertise thus provided an interesting re-framing for our research.  Whereas we had been focusing on the negative effects of livestock farms, we had largely overlooked the positive impacts that themselves must be preserved.  All of the sudden, all of the issues that seemed stubbornly tangled into our research focus became much more seamlessly interconnected.  For instance, whereas market constraints had beforehand appeared to hinder any and all models for delimiting the negative impacts of livestock farming, now that we can view ranching as a net positive for the environment and public health, what once seemed like market constraints now also appear as market opportunities.  The ideal models for environmentally-friendly livestock farming are no longer simply a matter of suppressing negative impacts, but also of encouraging the positive ones, leaving much more room for innovation and growth within our models.

Design research is about problem-seeking.  In this case, we found that the problems with respect to livestock farming are not only caused by the industry status quo, but also in large part solved by them.


Jay Messenger

Freelance design researcher and member of AC4D Class of 2018.