Over the past couple of weeks, there has been a focus on the climate services (mitigation and adaptation) that agricultural landscapes provide. But one of the selling points for integrated landscape management is multifunctionality – not privileging one environmental, social, or economic benefit over another. This notion came across in a post earlier this year on Diversified Farming Systems (DFS), which introduced the synergies across biophysical functions. Today, Professor Tim Benton, who currently serves as the UK Government’s Global Food Security Champion, introduces a recent paper on how diversified agricultural landscapes can increase resilience to a rapidly changing world.
The world is changing, perhaps more rapidly than we are currently willing to acknowledge. The growth of food demand, driven by a growing and richer global population, is creating a big pull to intensify agricultural production, at the same time as there is increasing competition for land for other purposes (e.g. roads, cities, biofuels, etc.). That the economic centre of mass is moving eastwards as Asia develops is also causing significant changes in global supply chains. The tighter linkage between fuel prices and agricultural input (and thus output) prices means that agricultural production is ever more susceptible to fluctuations in the energy markets. And finally – but it is a big finally – climate change, especially the increasing variability in the extremes of weather, is making the world ever more unpredictable. Even if a particular farmer is not impacted by weather extremes, others will be and the cumulative effect of perturbations to supply globally adds to the volatility of the market. The only things that are certain about the future are that it is uncertain and that it will not be very similar to the past.
The ecosystem service view of the world recognises that, broadly, ecology does a lot for us that we largely don’t recognise. At a planetary level, there are some planetary boundaries that, if crossed, are likely to lead to significant negative feedbacks and the potential for large scale system collapse. Even at a local level, any area of land (let’s consider a landscape in this context) will provide a range of services: food production, water services (from capture, storage, and filtering of rain to flood control), biodiversity and its contribution to pollination and the control of pests via natural enemies, and even great cultural and social value. The land may provide footpaths and trails for recreation, offer health benefits for visitors, and also serve as a reservoir (or potential reservoir) of stored carbon, thus contributing to the mitigation of further climate change. However, agricultural landscapes are often managed (and regulated) based on only one or two services (food and water), not the host of services they need to provide. Furthermore, recent decades of intensification of agriculture, coupled with relatively stable markets, have led to large-scale agricultural specialisation, tending to make landscapes monotonous and homogeneous.
Such homogeneous landscapes are unsustainable for two reasons. First, uniformity erodes the ecology by creating a singular and unfriendly habitat. Secondly, uniformity creates a risk – and an ever increasing risk – for farm economics. If a single product is produced and there is a bad year (for the market or due to the weather) then incomes can catastrophically decline. Conversely, in a good year, incomes can be very large. Farmers typically rely on the good years to tide them over during bad years: but if the world is becoming more variable and a few bad years happen in a row, then there is a big risk that the business will fail. Recent research, inspired by the economic theories about portfolio management, shows that more diverse landscapes have farm incomes that fluctuate less, because as conditions change some yields or markets will go up and others down, and thus diversity tends to dampen fluctuations in income. This does come at a cost, seeing as income on average declines (yet less than income volatility declines). Farmer friends of mine say that it is possible to reduce this decline by being better at forecasting future market conditions when choosing what to grow; and there is certainly scope for developing better trade and weather forecasting methods at the timescale needed for farm businesses. Hence, diversified landscapes can be more resilient economically, and more sustainable in that sense.
And in the other sense? Diversified landscapes provide a range of field types, a range of timings in management actions, different types of rotation, smaller fields (and so more marginal land) as different fields are needed for different products. This heterogeneity has benefits for ecosystem service delivery. Therefore, diversification of farming can be a win–win scenario: increasing sustainability and resilience for farmers and wildlife.
Abson, DJ, EDG Fraser, and TG Benton. 2013. Landscape Diversity and the Resilience of Agricultural Returns: A Portfolio Analysis of Land-Use Patterns and Economic Returns from Lowland Agriculture. Agriculture & Food Security 2(2).