Reductionist science in agriculture and horticulture

Prominent members of the NZIAHS have written a paper – just published by the New Zealand Journal of Agricultural Research – on varying approaches to science and ideas for improving primary production practices in New Zealand.

The paper has been written by Jon G. H. Hickford (lead author), Stephen L. Goldson, John R. Caradus and Jacqueline S. Rowarth.

It was published online on 24 January (

The authors say science ensures that explanations and predictions about the biological and physical worlds are verifiable, while also providing an approach that enables improved understanding to develop and be permanently recorded.

They note there are several terms in common usage that describe the approaches used in scientific research, but at the extremes, words such as ‘reductionism’ and ‘holism’ are now frequently encountered”.

Singular reductionism can result in key relationships and linkages being missed, the paper says, but holism appears to ignore the need to identify how confounding factors can affect the quality of understanding derived from complex systems.

The authors suggest that science is not a simple dichotomy of reductionism versus holism. Rather, it comprises a more fluid and complex mission.

But within multidisciplinary agricultural and horticultural science, they say, words like ‘systems’, ‘integration’ and ‘unifying’ are encountered.

“Reductionist science is certainly part of the pursuit of holistic solutions to problems, not least in transdisciplinary research.”

In effect, the paper says, many people feel the need or desire to move beyond the ‘conventional’, if such an approach could be defined or even exists.

As an aspiration, this may add value,

But such intentions may engender the pursuit of ill-advised short-cuts that ignore the robust analysis provided by reductionist science.

Accordingly, the pursuit of ‘working with nature’ may be based more on ‘feel-good’ factors rather than on systematic, peer-reviewed, and documented findings.

The paper concludes:

“Reductionism must not ignore serendipity, but neither can holism. With reductionist science, libraries contain a precise record that allow us to stand ‘on the shoulders of giants’

Source:  New Zealand Journal of Agricultural Research


Author: Bob Edlin

Editor of AgScience Magazine and Editor of the AgScience Blog