Sustainable development is the central theme of the SPSDII program, the second plan for scientific support for a policy for sustainable development. An important part of this program is related to agriculture and the feeding sector. Durable food production and - consumption is vital for a sustainable society, because agriculture and food production have an important spatial impact and because of the economic and social importance of the feeding sector. After all, everyone is a consumer of food products and people in Belgium spend on average 400 euro per month on nourishment. Sustainable production is therefore not only a matter of production, but also of the consumer who by means of his or her buying - and eating behaviour influences the manner of production. Besides funding research projects that focus on new, technical production techniques or on the development of new standards and their consequences on environment and public health, the Belgian Science Policy also financed a number of projects that look at sustainability in the agro sector from a more socio-scientific angle. This was the case for the current cluster project on sustainable agriculture which clusters the results of three separate projects.
In socio-scientific studies on sustainability it is often assumed that sustainable development is a social construct in which several actors with divergent value patterns are involved. What one considers to be sustainable is not necessary so for an other person. This leads to tensions and problems and makes normative solutions invented in value-free surroundings or labs often unsuitable. One of the tasks of social-scientists is to examine this. Modern socio-scientific research departs from an actor-oriented approach, in which the different people involved in a problem and their mutual operations and relations are at issue. One then analyses how these different parties incorporate a problem such as that of sustainability in their actions. Thereby, it is tried to understand social phenomena in their full complexity and to examine how economic and social systems function and how to steer them into a more durably desired direction.
This kind of research demands a new and other approach. One must partially abandon the traditional method of formulating hypotheses and empirically testing by means of econometric or statistic research. Sustainability problems are often so strongly influenced by their context that only in-depth research can give answers. By means of in-depth research on one or more cases, it can be examined how the different wheals of the `social machine’ turn and which problems appear when wanting to change that system. In this way, one gets a better view on what really takes place, what the motives are to act in a certain way and which assessments people make while making their choices. As soon as this is known, one can search for ways to neutralise the occurring resistances or to bend them in other directions. In this kind of research it becomes necessary to surmount the specificity of certain cases and to come to some general conclusions (ground-based theory shaping).
A first important lesson learned from clustering the research projects, is that to come to more sustainability, coherence is needed between several scale levels, from the individual level (farmer, company, and consumer), over the chain level to the spatial level. An important element is the management of the tensions which appear between these scale levels. Tensions lead on the one hand to innovation, but can also work paralysing and hamper solutions. Therefore, a balance and harmonisation is needed between what in institutional economics is indicated as fixing game rules on the one hand (the institutional surroundings with its standards and laws) and leaving sufficient space for chain players to search for relations and arrangements on the other hand (or in other words to determine the way in which the game is played). Finding this balance is not simple and socio-scientific research, like the one outlined here, can produce an important surplus value.
A second lesson drawn from the clustering exercise, is that sustainability is a learning process in which the role of researchers moves from being an author of solutions to a guide for organising processes of change. Therefore researchers must together with all actors involved, formulate the problem and identify and evaluate solutions. Such research is therefore not value-free and asks researchers to balance between their role as neutral observers (necessary to be able to exceed the case study) and their involvement in the problem (necessary to be able to understand and describe the problem fully). This calls for more from the researchers than only technical knowledge. Social skills and communicating with the actors involved as well as trans-disciplinary thinking and working are only a few of the many skills required.
The third result offered by the clustering approach, concerns the organisation, evaluation and financing of this type of socio-scientific research, of which the outlines and outcomes are much more uncertain than those of traditional normative research. In this research model integration of social and technical sciences with theoretical and empirical research comes first. Such trans-disciplinary research requires other research models (in the Netherlands one speaks of a shift from mode-1 to mode-2 research) where learning processes are the main focus. This demands, however, also another evaluation of research in which besides the scientific output - measured by means of traditional output indicators - also the potential contribution to change and learning processes should be taken into consideration. Not only in sustainable agriculture the scale of measurement and interpretation of results plays a role, this is also the case for targeting scientific research. Relevance and impact demand other criteria than purely theoretical research.
The above described lessons-learned show that research about research (as this cluster project did) creates much added value and that specific sector - and context-related conclusions, produce useful general results. This research is a good example of the usefulness of socio-scientific research and shows that mixed research actions and cluster projects contribute highly to a more sustainable society.