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“Wicked problems” defy easy solutions to sustainable food production

Urban centers and rural areas benefit greatly from each other’s strengths. But the issues rural and urban dwellers see affecting them and their neighborhoods are very different. These different perspectives can make it difficult to come up with solutions to big societal issues such as sustainable food production and climate change. This consequently results in conflict over how to spend tax dollars and what policies to put into place. There is a scientific term for these large complex societal problems. They are considered “wicked problems.”

A “wicked problem”’ is defined as a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of its complexity and interconnected nature. Wicked problems have no perfect solutions and require open discussion and listening to all perspectives before arriving at a compromise that works for everyone.

Here are few reasons wicked problems are particularly challenging.

Wicked problems involve several different stakeholders with different perspectives on the problem.

One reason it is difficult to agree on solutions is that stakeholders have different values. If you were to ask 10 people about what constitutes sustainable food production, you could easily receive 10 different responses. Responses will vary because of different personal values and circumstances.

For some, the highest priority of a sustainable food production system is producing nutritious food that is low-cost. Other people may be more concerned about using less herbicide and wanting products from animals raised in their natural environment. Cost is less of a concern.

People living in rural areas may be more interested in supporting a food production system that keeps their local schools and small towns vibrant. All these stakeholders’ perspectives are valid and important, but some of the potential solutions may compete against each other.

Wicked problems are unstructured making it difficult to sort out causes and effects with little consensus in identifying problems and solutions.

Is our current food production economically, socially and environmentally sustainable? What are the long-term effects on the environment and food cost if we eliminate all herbicides? Are there any long-term human health or environmental effects of the herbicides we are using? Is grazing better for the environment and animal welfare than confinement dairying? Is eliminating all ruminants better for the environment?

The answers to these questions are not clear and research results are inconclusive or conflicting. There are potential tradeoffs with different solutions.

Eliminating ruminants will decrease methane production, but many of the human-inedible byproducts we feed to animals are converted to highly nutritious human food. Landfilling these byproducts may result in methane production.

Grazing cows will result in more perennial crops being grown, potentially lowering erosion while less fuel will be needed to harvest the crop and haul the manure. But if cows produce less milk, we may need more land and cows to produce the same amount of milk resulting in increased methane production.

Wicked problems are interconnected, never go away, and can only be managed.

Solutions involve compromise and tradeoffs. Will eliminating ruminants solve climate change if we keep using fossil fuels?

Most of the major challenges that we hear about on the news and debated in the political arena are wicked problems. Before we jump to what may appear to be a simple solution, it is important for all of us to try and understand everyone’s perspective, not just our own. We need to have more respectful conversations about all the potential solutions, realizing that solutions will involve compromise and tradeoffs. If we do this, we will craft better solutions that work for everyone.

Author: Jim Salfer, Extension dairy educator

The original version of this article appeared in Dairy Star in December 2022.

Related topics: Dairy News
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