Resilience in agricultural landscapes: Dealing with complexity in a changing climate

15 November 2021

The concept of 'resilience' is simultaneously central to achieving a more sustainable food system, yet notoriously difficult to define and measure. On 10th November 2021 the three research projects funded under the EU Horizon 2020 call on climate-smart and resilient farming (MIXED, STARGATE, and AGROMIX) joined forces to explore how to achieve resilience on the field, based on their on-the-ground experience.

The webinar began with three keynote speeches, corresponding to each of the three projects. On behalf of STARGATE – a project developing a tools to modernise agricultural systems and implement climate-smart agriculture practices based on geospatial data and climate models – Anne Gobin (KU Leuven) and Emmanuel Lekakis (AgroApps) discussed the importance of harnessing Earth observation and early warning systems to optimise crop and livestock insurance. Second, Miranda Meuwissen (Wageningen University and Research) and Pip Nicholas-Davies (Aberystwyth University) shared MIXED’s experience of overcoming the shortfalls of quantitative indicators of resilience by adopting a ‘narrative’ research approach to understand the factors of resilience that are often overlooked. On behalf of AGROMIX, Ulrich Schmutz (Coventry University) and Jessica Donham (Agroecology for Europe) introduced attendees to the concept of ‘dark resilience’ – i.e., the stability of systems that damage the planet or wellbeing – and explored the core pillars of agroecology, and why these principles matter.

The topics presented in the keynote speeches were further explored in three breakout room discussions. At the end of the one-hour debates, Insights were gathered and shared with all attendees.

The session chaired by STARGATE focused on the use of Intelligent Geospatial Services for adapting farming techniques to climate variations. Project representatives talked about the importance of insurance for farmers’ resilience: the effects of climate change are expected to cost the economy one trillion USD in the next five years, and 25% of the associated economic damage is in the agriculture sector, leaving farmers especially vulnerable. Researchers from STARGATE illustrated how the necessary increase in agricultural insurance services can be supported by innovations in satellite technology, helping insurance companies to quantify damage, estimate recovery, and use machine learning to develop early warning systems. Participants discussed the process of transferring and upscaling these data-driven tools, and the session facilitator - Stylianos Kotsopoulos from AgroApps – concluded that “the main challenge is to convince farmers that the tools we are co-developing with them are not just another fancy, colourful and useless app, but something that can be really helpful for them now and in the future”.

In the session led by AGROMIX, the facilitators opened a discussion on the main principles of agroecology, arguing that whilst the organic agriculture movement focuses on the health of soil and consumers, and the regenerative agriculture movement focuses on soil, agroecology incorporates all of these concerns, whilst encouraging small-scale farming, use of indigenous breeds, food sovereignty, and more. Participants also discussed the trade-offs in transitioning to agroecological systems, using the examples of farmers who’ve willingly adopted strategies that produce a lower yield, yet more yield stability. The potential of food cooperatives was also debated, though with mixed results: a representative from the AGROMIX pilot project Stadtbauernhof Saarbrücken shared her experience of food cooperatives offering a valuable opportunity to bring together rural and urban residents, whilst other participants said that food cooperatives are inefficient, and that balancing supply and demand is not feasible at a large scale. However, all participants agreed that in the process of adopting these new models, trust and transparency between actors is key.

Lastly, the session chaired by MIXED focused on the definitions and indicators of resilience, with project representatives offering thought-provoking insights from their data gathering. The facilitators explained that whilst variables such as soil health, income stability, etc. are measured using quantitative methods, they saw how these approaches missed important nuances in the experience of the farmers – who are, after all, the ones whose resilience we’re working to increase. On discovering this shortfall in quantitative data gathering, researchers from MIXED visited 46 family farms across Europe, adopting a ‘narrative’ approach to discover the variables of farm resilience that matter most on the ground. Researchers discovered what the numbers didn’t tell them: internal pressures such as intergenerational family dynamics, changes in management, illness, divorce, and other personal challenges were greater threats to the farmers’ resilience than external factors such as price fluctuation, climate change, etc. This being the case, the support offered by projects such as MIXED must be rethought, offering tailor-made solutions for each farm, and support with more immediate challenges such as intergenerational dynamics and changes in leadership. This narrative approach to agricultural resilience research has led to a number of publications by researchers from MIXED. For example, in the article ‘Telling Stories – Farmers Offer New Insights into Farming Resilience’ by Peter Midmore and Pip Nicholas-Davies, the authors relate that “it is not easy to pin down a precise, unambiguous description of resilience… [farmers’] descriptions of how they have managed critical challenges and decision points in their agricultural practice can rewardingly complement existing ideas about resilience and lead to more efficient policies targeting healthy ecosystems and future food security.”

This joint webinar is one of an ongoing series where these three projects come together to share insights from their ongoing research, each developing tools to tackle different challenges in the transition towards resilient land use.

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COORDINATOR
Dr. Sara Burbi - Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience - Coventry University, Ryton Gardens Campus, CV8 LG, UK
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