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Reflections on Resilience

This past January, I attended the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) to share some ideas about resilience in farming, and to learn about the resilience building initiatives being undertaken by UK farmers.

Building resilience into our food systems is fundamental, if society is to adapt to the consequences of climate change. The farmers and agricultural activists that I met at the ORFC aim to make food systems more resilient, and are raising awareness of what needs to be done to achieve this. They are doing this in the face of conventional agricultural thinking, which is largely continuing with business as usual. So what is Resilience, and why is it important for Britain’s ability to adapt to climate change?

Resilience is a property of all living things, and defines the ability to recover from disturbance, or to use disturbance as an opportunity for creating change. Resilience science gives us tools for strategic thinking, based on three common models of change in living things, called ‘complex adaptive systems.’ Farms and food markets are complex adaptive systems, embedded within larger systems that ultimately define global economies and the natural world we live in. The ‘adaptive cycle‘ model describes how change occurs in healthy systems, or does not occur in unhealthy systems; the ‘Panarchy’ (named after Pan, the unpredictable God of Nature) describes interactions between nested systems of different sizes; and the ‘thresholds’ model enables assessment of vulnerability and risk of undesirable change. Interactions between systems within the Panarchy define how things can change in parts of a system, while the larger system within which it is embedded remains more or less the same. This provides us with a way of understanding evolutionary change and a way to build models for assessing the sustainability of any given development.

Managing for resilience is based on our ability to recognise thresholds of undesirable change and to either increase the resilience of the system we manage, helping it to bounce back from a disturbance; or to deliberately change the system, if that seems a more sensible thing to do. An inability to manage thresholds will tend to push systems into ‘rigidity,’ preventing them from changing in response to events in the larger environment.

The ORFC was a gathering of people who think intuitively about resilience. Small-holder farmers have to be resilient to survive in a complex and competitive environment. The family farm, where I grew up, a small-hold, grass-fed, organic beef operation in Cornwall, has been through two cycles of collapse and renewal. If it were not resilient, it would have been lost to the family and possibly incorporated into a large industrial farm. It is now being deliberately developed to respond to global change in climate, energy, nutrient and financial systems, by reducing inputs of fossil fuel energy, artificial nitrogen and concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorous in effluent that pollutes water, and increasing carbon sequestration in woodlots and pastures.

Stability in a farmer’s environment is provided by large-scale systems that change slowly over time, and resist evolutionary change from the smaller systems embedded within. Soils, permanent grass swards and woodlands provide stability. They are the environmental stage upon which the farmer, his animals and crop production systems live and produce food for the rest of society. When large-scale systems collapse, their stabilising influence on smaller systems is lost, and a cascade of collapse ensues, throwing everything into a state of chaos. In healthy, resilient systems, the chaos of collapse is followed by reorganisation and a new phase of growth. In unhealthy systems, reorganisation may be impossible. Without reorganisation, farms and farming systems would sink into a ‘poverty trap’ from which recovery would be extremely difficult.

Global climate change is one of the earth’s major systems that is changing rapidly. This will affect every living thing on the planet and it cannot be stopped. We do not have the knowledge or the technology to successfully intervene and manage climate change. In this situation, the only sensible thing to do is undertake multiple small-scale experiments with different crops, animals and farming methods, develop new ideas and provide farmers with a broad range of ways to respond and adapt to change. That is what the ORFC farmers and their supporters are doing. They are being proactive and innovative, building the ‘response diversity,’ which is an essential component of resilience. It is one of the cornerstones of society’s ability to adapt to the many unknowns that will come as a consequence of climate change.

In a resilient society, the private members bill for agroecology would be presented by government and passed with relatively little opposition. That it is presented as a private bill, and estimated to have little likelihood of passing, is a strong indication of the rigidity that exists within the UK’s governance system. There will be many reasons for this. Many people don’t know enough about farming, food systems, global change and resilience to make considered decisions and take sensible action. Politicians are often short-sighted on matters that require a longer, broader perspective. Further, government and the private sector have an enormous investment in industrial agriculture.

True cost accounting attempts to include the environmental costs of food production in the real price of food, but probably underestimates the cost of the social and economic collapse that will occur, unless proactive measures are taken to enhance the resilience of food systems. The artificially low cost of food is one of the drivers of over-consumption and food waste. The disconnection between food consumers and farming means that consumers have no knowledge of what their consumption is doing to the land and no incentive to change their behavior. Disconnections of this kind mean that there is no feedback between production and consumption. It is the equivalent of being in a car without brakes or steering that is headed towards the edge of a cliff.

In contrast, mainstream agriculture is concerned with matters such as increased efficiency, optimisation, and sustainable intensification as ‘the solution’ to climate change, human population growth, market volatility, and feeding the world. In short, mainstream farming is focused on getting more food, out of a finite amount of land. It’s driven by the false assumption that we can predict a highly uncertain future and that there are such things as ‘silver bullet’ solutions to complex problems. In resilience terms, this is about mature farming systems that are close to the top of the growth curve in the adaptive cycle. Resilience of mature systems is increased by locking up resources such as land and financial capital in a relatively small number of large farms. Competitive advantage is maintained by increasing efficiency and farm size. This is the way that human and natural systems develop. All is well, as long as the larger systems within which these highly efficient systems are embedded remain stable. However, volatility in global food, energy and financial markets, together with the great uncertainties associated with climate change, will create a highly unstable system as we move into the 21st century.

Food production systems based on highly efficient, large industrial scale farming are at risk of collapse because the response diversity represented by the former large number of smallholders has been eroded. Response diversity is further eroded where farming methods are dependent on a narrow range of plant and animal species. High inputs of energy, nitrogen and phosphorous undermine the stability of those large-scale slow changing things, like soils and water and nutrient cycling systems that are essential for long term, sustainable food production.

A farmer’s choice of lifestyle and business model is a personal one, driven by what is known or believed to be known about farming and what is going on in the larger environment within which farming systems operate. In a stable world, resilience can be achieved through growth and increased efficiency, but ultimately this leads to brittle systems that collapse in response to novel disturbance. Industry, technology and fossil fuel energy have enabled unprecedented human growth and development, but at considerable cost to the living world upon which human societies depend. As the history of human development since the last ice age has shown, large scale, efficient systems collapse when the environment changes, as Jared Diamond has written about in ‘Collapse’. Survival depends on an ability to innovate and adapt rapidly, using the collapse as an opportunity for renewal. A society that is pro-active about resilient food systems would be paying as much attention to the kinds of innovation being developed by ORFC farmers as it does to industrial agriculture. The innovations of ORFC farmers maintain high levels of social and biological diversity in farming systems, which together with farming practice and marketing methods, lay the foundation for renewal, after collapse. When systems have lost the social and biological diversity necessary for renewal, they may enter a ‘poverty trap’ from which renewal is difficult if not impossible. Maintaining high levels of social and biological diversity through farming innovation is essential for climate change adaptation. High levels of diversity and innovation are the best climate change ‘insurance’ that society can create.

The difficulty in this regard is another aspect of resilience, the ability of people to perceive distant, slow moving threats; to escape the rut of entrenched belief, thought and action; and to surrender the power that comes with competitive success. Collapse is an inevitable consequence of the human and natural condition. It drives evolutionary change. As creatures with foresight and knowledge, people should be able to learn from history, create proactive responses to global change and take steps to reduce disaster by deliberately transforming industrial agriculture before the inevitable collapse. Experimentation with novel crops, livestock and farming practices, founded on the principles of agroecology that works with nature and food sovereignty that develops local food markets offer hope for the future in a highly uncertain world.


Photo credit: Resilience Alliance.

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