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Sustainable Cycles of Policies: Crop Rotation as a Metaphor

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Annex 3 to Innovative Global Management through Metaphor (1989)


Linear thinking encourages adoption of policies without thought to the nature of the policies which will have to follow them to remedy the havoc they cause, however incidentally. Given the many cycles essential to the coherence of the natural environment, a non-linear approach would suggest the exploration of "policy cycles" -- within which any "linear" policies are perceived as phases.

In searching for appropriate metaphors to illustrate the need for cycles of policies there is a certain appropriateness to using a process which has traditionally been considered basic to sustaining the productivity of the land, namely crop rotation. The rotation of agricultural crops is an interesting "earthy" practice to explore in the light of the mind-set which it has required of farmers for several thousand years.

Crop rotation is the alternation of different crops in the same field in some (more or less) regular sequence. It differs from the haphazard change of crops from time to time, in that a deliberately chosen set of crops is grown in succession in cycles over a period of years. Rotations may be of any length, being dependent on soil, climate, and crop. They are commonly of 3 to 7 years duration, usually with 4 crops (some of which may be grown twice in succession). The different crop rotations on each of the fields of the set making up the farm as a whole constitute a "crop rotation system" when integrated optimally. Long before crop rotation became a science, practice demonstrated that crop yields decline if the same crop is grown continuously in the same place. There are therefore many benefits, both direct and indirect to be obtained from good rotational cycles (38, pp. 170-8):

(a) Control of pests: with each crop grown the emergence of characteristic weeds, insects and diseases is facilitated. Changing to another crop inhibits the spread of such pests which would otherwise become uncontrollable (to the point that some crops should not be grown twice in succession). By rotating winter and summer crops, the farmer fights summer weeds in the winter crop and winter weeds in the summer crop.

(b) Maintenance of organic matter: some crops deplete the organic matter in the soil, other increase it.

(c) Maintenance of soil nitrogen supply: no single cropping system will ordinarily maintain the nitrogen supply unless leguminous crops are alternated with others.

(d) Economy of labour: several crops may be grown in succession with only one soil preparation (ploughing). For example: the land is ploughed for maize, the maize stubble is disked for wheat, then grass and clover are seeded in the wheat.

(e) Protection of soil: it was once believed necessary to leave land fallow for part of the cycle. Now it is known that a proper rotation of crops, with due attention to maintaining the balance of nutrients, is more successful than leaving the land bare and exposed to leaching and erosion.

(f) Complete use of soil: by alternation between deep and shallow-rooted crops the soil may be utilized more completely.

(g) Balanced use of plant nutrients: when appropriately alternated, crops reduce the different nutrient materials of the soil in more desirable proportions.

(h) Orderly farming: work is more evenly distributed throughout the year. The farm layout is usually simplified and costs of production are reduced. The rushed work characteristic of haphazard cropping is avoided.

(i) Risk reduction: risks are distributed among several crops as a guarantee against complete failure.

There is a striking parallel between the rotation of crops and the succession of (governmental) policies applied in a society. The contrast is also striking because of the essentially haphazard switch between "right" and "left" policies. There is little explicit awareness of the need for any rotation to correct for negative consequences ("pests") encouraged by each and to replenish the resources of society ("nutrients", "soil structure") which each policy so characteristically depeletes.

There is no awareness, for example, of the number of distinct policies or modes of organization through which it is useful to rotate. Nor is it known how many such distinct cycles are necessary for an optimally integrated world society in which the temporary failure of one paradigm or mode of organization, due to adverse circumstances (disaster) is compensated by the success of others. It is also interesting that during a period of increasing complaints regarding cultural homogenization ("monoculture"), voters are either confronted with single-party systems or are frustrated by the lack of real choice between the alternatives offered.

There is something to be learnt from the mind-sets and social organizations associated with the stages in the history of crop rotation which evolved, beyond the slash-and-burn stage, through a 2-year crop-fallow rotation, to more complex 3 and 4-year rotations. Given the widespread sense of increasing impoverishment of the quality-of-life, consideration of crop rotation may clarify ways of thinking about what is being depleted, how to counteract this process, and the nature of the resources that are so vainly (and expensively) used as "fertilizer" and "pesticide" to keep the system going in the short-term. The "yield" to be maximized is presumably human and social development.

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