Do You See What I See? Examining the Epistemic Barriers to Sustainable Agriculture

Carolan, M. (2006). Do You See What I See? Examining the Epistemic Barriers to Sustainable Agriculture. Rural Sociology, 71(2), 232.

This paper examines the epistemic barriers to sustainable agriculture, which are those aspects of food production that are not readily revealed by direct perception: such as decreases in rates of soil and nutrient loss, increases in levels of beneficial soil micro-organisms, and reductions in the amount of chemicals leaching into the water table. While many of sustainable agriculture's most touted benefits cannot easily or immediately be seen by producers, the opposite can be said of the benefits of conventional agriculture: from, for example, weed-free rows and pest-free fields to tall stalks, large yields, and commodity uniformity. Yet, while its benefits are readily apparent to many operators, the costs of conventional agricultural production often are not because conventional agriculture partly externalizes those costs to society at large. This paper investigates how the tension between the "visible" and the "nonvisible" plays out in the debate between sustainable and conventional agriculture. It concludes by suggesting potential solutions to overcoming these epistemic barriers, so as to make the epistemologically distant aspects of sustainable (namely, the benefits of) and conventional (namely, the costs of) agriculture more visible to all.

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