Resilience vs Yield: A Difficult Choice

Farming on the outskirts of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.
One of the most densely populated agricultural areas on the planet

The challenge of feeding the estimated 10 billion people by 2050 on an already stressed agricultural landscape without further degrading the state of the planet will be an enormous task. This much should be obvious to anyone. What is perhaps less obvious, however, is that we are faced with some very difficult choices as we struggle to feed the growing human population.

What is often lost is the back and forth debates over how we can rise up and meet this challenge is the notion that organic and conventional farming practices are just tools. And just like a hammer is useless if all you have is a bag of screws, no single agricultural system will be appropriate in all situations. What we need are policies that ensure we use a hammer only when we have a bunch of nails. But to do this we need to understand that each different agricultural system has its own unique properties; its own unique benefits and disadvantages.

A recent comprehensive analysis of the existing science found that conventional farming practices (often large monocultures) generally result in higher yields (sometimes significantly so, other times only marginally better). However conventional farming practices often result in a much larger impact on the land they occupy as well as the surrounding area. Such practises also tend to lead to less resilient systems that are dependent on a specific range of sometimes narrow conditions and external inputs (such as fertilizers) which if not met could result in massive crop losses.

Organic farms, however, often have lower yields (though not always significantly lower), but have a smaller impact on the land they occupy and its surroundings. Organic farming practices are also very knowledge intensive, and often times it is the lack of knowledge that is responsible for an organic farm’s lower productivity. Increasing knowledge can be key in improving organic farm yields and it can also provide other benefits such as an improved resilience of the overall system. For example organic farms often develop a healthier soil that among other things can retain more water thus requiring less irrigation while being more drought tolerant. This could be vital as the earth continues to warm and water available for irrigation becomes more scarce.

The differing impacts on the landscape of conventional vs organic farming practices raises an interesting issue. If we want to grow X amount of food conventional farming practices will require less land (thanks to higher yields) than we would need using organic agriculture. However the smaller parcel of land needed to grow X amount of food using conventional agriculture, as well as the surrounding landscape, will be much more heavily impacted than the larger parcel of land needed if we opt for organic agriculture instead. So the question becomes: Is it preferable to heavily impact a smaller parcel of land or to moderately impact a larger one?

The answer, of course, is it depends.

If for example we are dealing with a landscape that contains the last few remnants of an endangered ecosystem that is not adversely affected by conventional farming practices, then perhaps it would be best to limit, as much as possible, the amount of land dedicated to agriculture thus preserving more of the endangered ecosystem. In this situation conventional farming would be the better option.

If on the other hand the moderately impacted land used in organic agriculture made it a suitable habitat for several important native species of wildlife that are threatened by conventional agriculture, then perhaps it would be ok to use a little more land for agriculture.

Most of the time the correct answer (if one even exists) won’t be as obvious.

The bottom line is that there is no universal answer that works everywhere. Both tools are needed because we have both nails and screws.

But while the questions of the impacts of agriculture on the landscape are important and complicated enough on their own, the issue of resilience can force us to choose between two very unappealing options.

As mentioned above, conventional farming practices have both the highest yield and the lowest resilience. This combined with the fact that the human population continues to grow and that we are already pushing the planet to its limit means that we might have to choose: Which to we prefer, resilience or yield?

Of course ideally we would want both, an agricultural system that produces both enough food for all the estimated 10 billion people by 2050 and one that is very resilient to any changes the future might bring. But that might not be possible if the lower yields of the more resilient farming practices don’t produce enough food for everyone.

If this scenario turns out to be true, then we would face a truly horrific choice. Do we create a system that can feed everyone? Or one that can withstand the inevitable changes the future will bring? Neither answer is particularly appealing and both options will result in suffering.

There is no right answer here. But only if we develop a strong ability to discuss difficult issues in good faith (something that seems to be very difficult lately) will we be able to make an informed decision.

The difficult answer to this question, thankfully, might not matter. It might be possible to grow enough food with truly resilient agricultural systems to feed 10 billion people. In fact very large gains in yield and resilience can be made simply by increasing knowledge and improving management practices. This is especially true in any parts of Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe where many farms are not producing as much as as they could.

We might also shift our eating habits so we get more food on our plates per acre of land (by eating less meat for example). And other smart polices might make the difficult question of resilience or yield moot.

This is the desired outcome, but it is not guaranteed.

But the first, and perhaps most difficult, step in achieving this desired outcome is throwing away all the ideological preferences we might have. In a perfect world all our food would be produced in idyllic and romanticized small family farms that coexist harmoniously with the surrounding ecosystems. As much as we wish this to to be true it is simply not possible. There are 7 billion mouths to feed on the planet and by 2050 there will be 10 billion.

We might not like some of the options available to us, we might not like some of the decisions we will be forced to make but we should limit our focus on what really matters. Figuring our how to feed 10 billion people sustainably without trashing the planet. Everything else matters much less.

Comments:

  1. Part of the problem is that there's a perceived dichotomy between organic and conventional farming. This is related to the problem of not being able to discuss difficult issues in good faith. In order for produce to be labelled as organic they need to be certified to strict standards and any farmers not adhering to all of these standard lose the added value that an organic label brings. This leads to an 'all or nothing' approach to organic farming.

    What we really need, as you say, is a system where appropiate practices are used for any given locality and we need a way of valuing those farmers who, in good faith, do eveything they can to ensure that they are using these best practices. I don't know if there any ways of achieving this beyond education and trust.

    This Economist article, from a couple of years ago, makes a case for intensive industrial farming techniques for producing grain in Brazil. Perhaps this is what we need to be doing, accepting that we want huge-scale grain farming in those regions of the world most suited to it providing the bulk of our world food supplies, and more 'environmentally friendly', smaller scale farms using more organic principles producing the varied foodstuffs with shorter shelf-lives for local consumption.

    • One argument for buying local is that farmers and food producers who work within a community can build up trust in their practices. I'm reasonably confident that at least some of the food I buy has been grown using principles I share. Farmers' markets are the sort of instituions that can help to build these networks of trust and shared goals, though as they become larger and more commercialised they also become open to those willing to game the system. I don't know if that means they could bever be anything more than a peripheral part of a solution.

      FairTrade provides an instructive lesson. Whilst the outlets remained relatively small scale the principles behind it were robust. However, as they have sought to expand they have necessarily teamed up with large food production companies and the supermarkets and some of those principles look like they may be being compromised. FairTrade remains, I think, an unambiguously 'good thing', but maybe not as good as it should be.


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