To Simplify or Diversify? On Today’s Farms, That Is the Question.

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.

Today’s food system is complex.

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Can you offer some examples of diversified systems?

A classic example would be diversifying production practices on the farm to intentionally increase biodiversity. For example, adding cover crops can create a mulch that suppresses weed growth and increases soil moisture, and ultimately increases soil carbon when it decays. If a farmer adds livestock or alternative crops, they can diversify both ecologically and economically. For this to happen at scale beyond an individual farmer, we need more diverse markets.

Wouldn’t diversified systems involve more labor and more complex work?

If we just diversify farming practices—complex rotations, integrating livestock, silvopasture—that could add more labor on farmworkers. But there are potential benefits. Much of farm labor is seasonal, migrant work done largely by undocumented farmworkers. Our immigration policy for the last 100-plus years was structured to facilitate a constant stream of migrant, rights-less workers, whose labor subsidizes our agrifood system.

With diverse food systems, we could potentially offer year-round employment instead of the need to follow harvests around the country. If a farm is highly diversified, different tasks could be integrated throughout the year. We can’t just diversify on one axis alone, however. We need to also shift power to frontline workers, to be able to identify and address problems on the ground before they magnify. Farmworkers need to be acknowledged as handlers of knowledge and compensated for the professionals they are.

Was there anything surprising when you explored how simplified versus diversified systems respond to the 5 challenges you investigated?

While researching marginal land, we found some historical details about how governments, NGOs, and other large-scale actors labeled some lands as marginal in strategic ways to, for example, justify removing the people who were using that land. This isn’t just a historical phenomenon. We still see these narratives of “underutilized” or “degraded” land used around the world to garner development funding and international support for removing small scale subsistence farmers, who are deemed unproductive or even blamed for environmental degradation. Often these small-scale farmers are replaced by the most highly simplified kind of agriculture: plantations—whether it be palm oil, or rubber trees, or soybeans.

Even more surprising is that there is a lot of money to be made today by purchasing these “marginal” lands. Precisely because they’re not very productive, financial actors like investment firms and university endowments can buy this land cheaply, put infrastructure on it to make it productive in the short run (like expensive irrigation equipment), and then sell it for a handsome profit. These field practices are not only highly simplifying, but this land ownership structure consolidates farmland into the hands of a few and takes that land out of the hands of actual farmers. For example, Harvard University owns farmland all over the world and Bill Gates is the largest private farmland owner in the U.S.

What would it take to shift to broad and nimble (diversified) approaches rather than brittle and narrow (simplified) approaches?

First, trace externalities [the costs to the environment, public health, etc. not paid by the producer] back to their roots. What are the incentives we have in place currently to do the wrong thing, and how can we shift those so that farmers do the right thing?

We have almost nothing in the U.S. that is more socialized than our agrifood system. But it is structured to incentivize simplification, not diversification. For example, only a few crops qualify for [federal subsidized] crop insurance. And most farms don’t qualify for these programs if you want multiple crops or crops and livestock together. While it remains a fraction of commodity crop insurance, both in funding and utilization, a whole farm option for diversified farms does exist.

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At the same time, not only does the federal government spend about as much for farm conservation as the entire EPA budget, but it spends public, taxpayer money on agricultural research, the vast majority of which supports further simplifying our farming systems (and creating externalities). Yet once that basic research is done, it’s very often privatized, and then the products are sold at high prices to farmers who often have little choice but to buy them. A great example is how a university researcher helped develop herbicide-resistant crops. In the Midwest, glyphosate or Roundup is paired with herbicide-resistant “Roundup Ready” soybean seed. Soon, almost all farmers planted them so that the soybeans that weren’t glyphosate-ready wouldn’t get killed by neighbors spraying the herbicide. Now, the vast majority of soybeans are one variety from one company [Bayer].

What are the three takeaways you hope policymakers get from the paper?

Crises produce moments of opportunity. Process matters. And diversifying agrifood systems gives us more options in the future.

Can advocating for diverse strategies help overcome the cultural divide?

Farmers and ranchers are skeptical of environmentalists or “urban elites” telling them what to do. Having grown up on a farm, “diversification” feels like a more culturally appropriate language that is more of a calling in rather than calling out.

The problem we run into in the U.S. is that farmers have been blamed for environmental problems. Assigning blame is not going to move us forward, but creating opportunities to invite farmers to create a new future will produce greater sustainability and equitability. I grew up on a farm. I saw again and again that these environmental problems, like climate change, are not so much just environmental problems or knowledge problems; they are really power problems.

Virginia Gewin

Virginia Gewin is a freelance science journalist who covers how humans are profoundly altering the environment – from climate change to biodiversity loss – and undertaking extraordinary endeavors to preserve nature. Her work has appeared in Nature, Popular Science, Scientific American, The Atlantic, Bloomberg, bioGraphic, Discover, Science, Washington Post, Civil Eats, Ensia, Yale e360, Modern Farmer, Portland Monthly and many others.

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