25.01.2011, Joris Lohman

Transition theory provides hope for activists

For my thesis in policy science at the University of Amsterdam, I conducted research on a possible transition in agriculture in the province of North-Holland in the Netherlands. As a master student I was inspired by transition literature. It gave me a scientific tool to underpin my belief in the possibility to change the system in a sustainable way.

The idea that innovative projects in niches can play the role of a catalyst for transition when the pressure they apply on the regime is supported by pressure from the landscape level where broader societal developments, like crises and paradigm shifts occur, was the basis for the research that included three case studies in innovative agricultural practices in North-Holland: Saline agriculture, biodynamic agriculture and (ecological) seed ennoblement.

Conclusions found were anecdotal rather than to be generalized, but all together sketch an interesting overview of the current state of affairs in the Dutch agricultural system. The idea that niche-projects should find a connection with landscape developments was echoed in interviews with niche actors. However, the landscape developments were found to be too scattered in terms of direction and paradigm, so making a connection proved difficult. The divided character of the landscape is partly due to the occurring paradigm shift from a strictly productionist to a life sciences integrated paradigm. Also, uncertainty about the definition of ‘sustainable agriculture' seemed to be a cause.

Most importantly, the case studies shed a light on the way policy actors interact with niche projects. The projects that were part of this study were subject of local policy, and all received some financial support. However, all of the niche actors perceived this support as inadequate. This insight defines the core of the argument I would like to make here: the relationship between niche actors and regime players remains problematic. Niche actors felt misunderstood and mismanaged, despite good intentions of policy actors. As John Grin observed in another study, there is a need for intermediary actors. Intermediary actors overview the entire playing field and act as a hinge between the radical niches and the regime.

It is interesting to reflect on what kind of people or organizations should be able to play this intermediary role. Societal organizations with smart actors from outside of the regime might well be able to play a binding role between radical, unpolished innovative practices and open-for-change administrative regime players. This is a thought that can work out as being highly motivational for action-minded organizations such as the Youth Food Movement.

Joris Lohman, MSc. Wrote thesis on transitions in agriculture, and was awarded with the Jan Wolf Prize 2010.

Jonathan Sobels
25 August 06:28
Dear Joris, The notion of state support for bottom up rural development is characterised by Norman Uphoff's "paradox of participation". A common factor across successful transitions and projects are 'local organisations'. My paper: Sobels et al 2001 The role of Landcare group networks (J of Rural Studies, 17 (3), pp. 265-77) discusses the importance of state sponsorship to the formation of intermediary local organisations. They achieve social learning through landscape scale participation in improving biophysical assets in the constructed rural environment.
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