Modern agriculture has had a dramatic impact on the environment. Clearing forests and prairie led to the loss of biodiversity and habitat, as well as traditional knowledge and practices. The last 100 years of simplifying the food system has yielded fewer producers, higher yields, and increased profits. And it’s come at a cost—most notably, a lack of resilience.
Currently, agriculture faces a triple threat from climate change, biodiversity loss, and global food insecurity. To better prepare for future shocks and stressors, a new study from researchers at University of California at Berkeley analyzed the impacts of two opposing trends in farming—simplification and diversification.
All over the world, the dominant trend in agriculture has been to simplify—shifting production from natural, complex ecosystems to a more centralized control of homogenized fields. The result is a rapid decline of crop and livestock diversity, increased concentration of the global seed market, and privatized plant genetic resources.
Diversifying processes, on the other hand, capitalize on biodiversity and ecosystem services rather than capital-intensive technologies. These systems, the researchers write, “leverage ‘nature’s technologies’ … rather than capital-intensive technologies subject to privatization.”
The researchers compared how these two approaches fare when faced with five distinct agricultural challenges: foodborne pathogens, drought, marginal lands, labor availability and land access and tenure. They found that, in all cases, diversification leads to resilience in the face of the triple threat mentioned above.
The study’s lead author Margiana Petersen-Rockney, a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, spoke to Civil Eats about the need to diversify farms, both ecologically and economically. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are the impacts of simplified agricultural systems?
Simplified systems—otherwise known as conventional or industrial agriculture—rely on a narrow range of high-yield crop and livestock varieties and on non-renewable, proprietary, synthetic inputs, such as propriety seeds or agrichemicals. It’s been very good at making a few firms a lot of money. It promises greater control, uniformity, and profit. But we find that these advantages often disappear or fade over time. Just one example—if you are planting a [crop] that has been bred or engineered to be drought resistant, it’s a great way to build adaptive capacity for drought. But what if you have flood? A lack of diversity makes the whole system vulnerable to problems.
The simplifying system also creates externalities that can exacerbate environmental harms and social inequalities. People who work in food and agriculture industries rely on public food assistance at rates 50 percent higher than those not in the food system. As a result, the people who feed us can’t feed their own families. Yet safety nets like [federal] crop insurance, supported by taxpayer funds, prop up this system.
How is the triple threat facing humanity different from the typical climate, ecological, socioeconomic, and political challenges that farmers have always faced?
Simplified agricultural systems are more vulnerable to climate change impacts, and that leaves markets vulnerable, too. In 2012, a drought in the Midwest caused corn yields to decrease by 25 percent. There was little genetic diversity because everyone planted the same variety of corn, and with little diversity in farming practices, some of which could have stored more soil moisture, the drought had a massive impact.
The regional drought ripped through international markets, causing a 50 percent spike in global corn prices and a subsequent increase in food insecurity. This “supply chain reaction” exacerbated problems that farmers were already facing—like unequal market access and income inequality, which are unevenly distributed across populations.
The bottom line is that farmworkers are doing the most dangerous work [in simplified systems] for the lowest pay—for example, working through catastrophic wildfire smoke or during a pandemic. We started this work before COVID-19, but the pandemic illustrates the fact that adaptive capacity in these systems is really brittle and narrow, not only to known threats but to new threats we haven’t even thought about before.
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