The systemic approach refers to an analysis method; a way to handle a complex system with a global point of view without focalizing on details. It aims for a better understanding of complexity without simplifying reality too much. For example, it avoids dividing systems into independent subsets or isolating a factor as it is usually done with a more analytical approach. It is a way to identify emerging properties specific to a level of organization. More generally, it favours the conception and the communication of the complexity more through models than with a fully comprehensive analysis. Achieving this requires being pragmatic when defining the limits and the spatio-temporal scales of the studied system.
This approach is commonly used to study biophysical systems (eg, nitrogen cycle). It describes interactions between components of the system, especially synergies (eg, multi-crop – livestock) and antagonisms (eg, auxiliaries against pests) reducing or amplifying effects of factors. It is a way to learn how the systems work. The systemic approach is also used with sociotechnical systems. Actors (politicians, farmers, local residents) are part of the system, their goals and interactions are considered. Thus, the priority is given to the intelligibility of the system’s behaviour to guide its operations. The system is represented as the articulation between a biophysical system, the operating one (eg, interaction between soil and plants in a field), a system of information (eg, state of catchment indicators), and a decision system (eg, decision rules applied in the coordination of a project). Beyond prioritizing operations, the systemic approach contributes to the actors’ understanding.
Assessing, designing and managing agricultural systems based on agroecological principles (eg, development of a new food chain to diversify crops and foods; territorialisation of agriculture to bind consumers and farmers) require a systemic approach.
References to explore
Heylighen, F. 1979. The Macroscope: a new World Scientific System. Editions du Seuil, Harper & Row New York. 346 p. ISBN : 0060110295.
Ikerd, John E. 1993. The need for a system approach to sustainable agriculture. Agriculture Ecosystems & Environement, Vol. 46, n°1, p. 147‑160. DOI: 10.1016/0167-8809(93)90020-P
Tow Philip, Ian Cooper, Ian Partridge, Colin Birch, Larry Harrington. 2011. Principles of a Systems Approach to Agriculture. In: Tow P, Cooper I, Partridge I, Birch C (éds.). Rainfed Farming Systems. Dordrecht : Springer Netherlands, pp 03‑43. ISBN : 978-1-4020-9132-2.