Resilience, Uncertainty, and Sustainable Agriculture

Resilience, Uncertainty, and Sustainable Agriculture

By Ryan Grist

In recent years, much focus in agriculture has shifted to sustainability. By definition, there are three main components to sustainability: environmental, social, and economic. Many farmers, ranchers, and consumers are interested in sustainable agriculture because of the emphasis on ecological and regenerative farm management practices, as well as economic stability and social well-being. However, in the world’s current state of economic, political, social, and environmental uncertainty, it is important to also include the concept of resiliency in our definition of sustainable agriculture. What is our ability to adapt to unforeseen change?

Agriculture is a significant contributor to global warming and the ongoing environmental crisis. In an incredibly short time period, just over 50 years, we have seen major depletion of top soil, pollution, water contamination, desertification, deforestation, and pesticide, antibiotic, and pest resistance, only to name a few. Additionally, agriculture’s heavy use of fossil fuel for synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, fungicides, machinery operation, and transportation, contributes significantly to the rising levels of C02 in the atmosphere.

It is also important to recognize that every major agricultural civilization has been built upon fertile topsoil, and many have fallen due to environmental degradation and destruction of agricultural land. Increasing awareness of these issues brings up an important question: For how long can our current modes of producing food be sustained?

The current state of environmental health makes obvious that much of our future depends on the role of agriculture in environmental regeneration, conservation, sufficient food production, human health, and economic stability. Providing sustainable solutions to agricultural challenges and shifting our focus from maximum yields and externalized costs, to a closed-loop energy cycle and true cost system could have a beneficial effect on mitigating climate change and environmental degradation.

 Wheat Field Near Sunset

There is still, however, significant doubt about the potential of small-scale, locally based sustainable agriculture, and thus the question often arises: Can it “feed the world”?

The short answer is yes; a sustainable agricultural system is truly the only way to “feed the world” because it is the only system able to be sustained far into the future.

First, we must recognize that our current agricultural production system is heavily reliant on a finite source of energy – fossil fuel – which is inherently unsustainable. Scientists have now identified peak oil, and fossil fuels are predicted to become increasingly expensive as resources dwindle, conflict arises, and environmental destruction increases. How can such a system feed the world if it can’t sustain itself? With such a reliance on a single source of energy, what is the ability of the current agricultural production system to adapt to change?

Additionally, sustainable agriculture is only recently growing in popularity as research and application begins to catch up with conventional agriculture. Since the green revolution, much agricultural research has been conducted in land grant universities focused on conventional methods of production. Lack of funding and support has led farmers to do research and conduct experiments on sustainable agriculture on their own. As agricultural research is shifting, the potential for sustainable agriculture is becoming more obvious.

However, the shift from a primarily conventional agricultural system to a sustainable system will be a slow and difficult process. Resiliency must be accounted for and discussed as farmers and ranchers transition management practices. If an environmental catastrophe strikes, how will our farmers adapt? What resources and tools do our farmers need to withstand changing climatic patterns? What kind of local community base do our farmers have for support in uncertain times?

Cattle Grazing Under Power LinesUnderstanding and creating resilience in every aspect of agriculture will allow the U.S. and entire global population to develop agricultural methods and policies that foster the ability to change, withstand, adapt to, and creatively utilize challenge and catastrophe in order to sustain necessary agricultural production.

Inevitably, the future will bring unforeseen change. In a world of increasingly unpredictable climatic patterns, economic instability, and social and political disparities, it is the duty of farmers, policy makers, consumers, and citizen activists to support and foster resilient methods of sustainable agriculture.

Ryan Grist is an intern at Matheson Farms Sustainable Living Education Center from Fairhaven College at Western Washington University. He is a student in the sustainable agriculture program and is originally from Wisconsin.

2 Responses to Resilience, Uncertainty, and Sustainable Agriculture

  1. Ryan, thank you for your article, it is such a critical time to start shifting our mindset from conventional to sustainable and regenerative agriculture.. I am curious what you mean when you say: “Understanding and creating resilience in every aspect of agriculture will allow the U.S. and entire global population to develop agricultural methods and policies that foster the ability to change, withstand, adapt to, and creatively utilize challenge and catastrophe in order to sustain necessary agricultural production.” Could you provide some examples?

    • Hi Caronline, thank you for your comment. In that sentence, I was essentially giving my definition of resilience and why it is important. I define resilience as our “ability to change, withstand, adapt to, and creatively utilize challenge and catastrophe.” In a time of worldwide economic, political, and environmental challenges and uncertainty, I believe we (as a human race) need to begin fostering resilience thinking into our agricultural practices in order to sustain ourselves far into the future. For example, developing resilience could be something as simple as diversifying the number products produced on farm, such as selling milk, eggs, beef, and pork, rather than just beef, or selling breeding stock and show cattle rather than just grass fed beef.

      In addition, a farm could foster resilience by building ponds to capture rainwater. In times of drought or water shortages, the farmer could utilize the stored pond water to irrigate or feed animals. I noticed a prime example of this while interning on Matheson Farms. There was a problem with the pump on the well and Matheson Farms lost water for a couple days. Rather than importing water onto the farm or hoping that the cattle survive without water, they gave the cattle access (for short periods of time) to the water ditches that were located throughout the pasture. In addition to providing the cattle with temporary water, the cattle also grazed down the tall grass and the hoof impact of the cattle actually evened out some of the steeper slopes, preventing erosion along the ditches. This is a prime example of a creative solution to a environmental challenge.

      Lastly, as we are faced with the uncertainty of global climate change, it may be important to start discussing adaptability. What is our ability to adapt to global warming, prolonged droughts, or increasingly extreme weather patterns such as hurricanes, tornados, or major floods? As temperatures rise in certain geographical ranges, farmers may need to provide more shade to cattle out on pasture. Or, the farmer could possibly creatively utilize the warmer temperatures by growing a new heat loving crop. In the scenario of colder winters, farmers may need to provide more hay feed throughout the winter. It would also be important for a farmer to identify areas prone to drought and eliminate it from agricultural production, and it may also be necessary to update infrastructure so that it is more tolerant to natural disasters.

      In a nutshell, resilience and sustainability go hand in hand and can be extended to every part of life, not just agriculture. In order to be sustainable, our society and civilizations must be able to withstand challenging times and adapt to and endure unforeseen change.

      I hope the examples help!