Toward a More Resilient Agriculture

John Flannery / CC BY-ND 2.0
Native pollinators of crops are declining globally in response to practices intended to increase the efficiency of farming, such as land-use change and pesticide use.

In Brief

Agriculture is a key driver of change in the Anthropocene. It is both a critical factor for human well-being and development and a major driver of environmental decline. As the human population expands to more than 9 billion by 2050, we will be compelled to find ways to adequately feed this population while simultaneously decreasing the environmental impact of agriculture, even as global change is creating new circumstances to which agriculture must respond. Many proposals to accomplish this dual goal of increasing agricultural production while reducing its environmental impact are based on increasing the efficiency of agricultural production relative to resource use and relative to unintended outcomes such as water pollution, biodiversity loss, and greenhouse gas emissions. While increasing production efficiency is almost certainly necessary, it is unlikely to be sufficient and may in some instances reduce long-term agricultural resilience, for example, by degrading soil and increasing the fragility of agriculture to pest and disease outbreaks and climate shocks. To encourage an agriculture that is both resilient and sustainable, radically new approaches to agricultural development are needed. These approaches must build on a diversity of solutions operating at nested scales, and they must maintain and enhance the adaptive and transformative capacity needed to respond to disturbances and avoid critical thresholds. Finding such approaches will require that we encourage experimentation, innovation, and learning, even if they sometimes reduce short-term production efficiency in some parts of the world.

Key Concepts

  • Agriculture is both fundamental for human well-being and a major cause of environmental decline.

  • Many have suggested that we can achieve a more sustainable agriculture by increasing agricultural production per unit of environmental impact; however, while increasing efficiency is certainly necessary in many places, it is unlikely to be sufficient and, in some cases, may even reduce long-term agricultural resilience.

  • Developing resilient agriculture implies an understanding of which agricultural practices need to be persistent, when adaptation is needed, and maybe most important, how to build transformative capacity when fundamental changes are required.

  • To encourage an agriculture that is both efficient and resilient, radically new approaches to agricultural development and bold experimentation are needed. These approaches must build on a diversity of solutions operating at scales from the farm to the planet.

  • Practices that are inefficient and do not provide opportunities for innovation are maladaptive and should be discontinued. Policies should instead stress learning and innovation toward an agriculture that serves human needs while decreasing the adverse effects of agriculture on biodiversity, water resources and quality, harmful contaminants, and climate.

Agriculture is both critical for human well-being1 and a major driver of environmental decline2. Agricultural development is rightly perceived as being a significant component of efforts to meet the Millennium Development Goals,4 which aim to combat hunger and malnutrition and improve social conditions in the world’s poorest nations. As the human population expands to more than 9 billion people by 2050 and as diets shift toward more animal protein,4-6 we will be compelled to find a way to adequately meet rising demand for food7 while also meeting increased demand for other agricultural products such as biofuel feed stocks.1-6 A path toward resilient and sustainable agriculture must meet food and development needs from local to global scales without destabilizing the Earth system. To achieve this, we will need to resist the trend to focus on single solutions, globally applied, and instead move towards a diversity of solutions operating across scales. Policies and research to develop a resilient agriculture can improve food security and maintain a livable planet.

Modern agriculture has substantial impacts on the biophysical components of the Earth system (Table 1). These impacts of agriculture on the biophysical environment can undermine the very processes that underpin the functioning of agricultural systems, thus reducing the long-term sustainability of agriculture itself.2-8 Because of this, there has been a recent and significant push toward sustainable intensification of agriculture3,7,9-11 that aims to optimize crop production per unit area while accounting for social, political, and environmental impacts. Essentially, these strategies focus on increased production efficiency at lower environmental and resource costs.2,4-6,10,12 Examples include using improved irrigation techniques that give more crop-per-drop,7,13 increasing yield per unit input,14,15 climate-smart agriculture that produces less greenhouse gas per unit product, or other forms of sustainable intensification.16 Many of these efforts aim to achieve and maintain the highest possible productivity at a given location for the lowest economic and environmental cost.17 These efforts are sustainability-related in that they attempt to produce the same or more food without causing a decline in other forms of capital now or in the future.18

However, many of these approaches do not specifically address key aspects of environmental systems having to do with vulnerability, resilience, and the potential for surprise. Considering vulnerability and resilience is important when planning for the future of agriculture because complex social-ecological changes that alter the agricultural context can result in surprising challenges.19 Many such changes with the potential to undermine agricultural development are already underway. Climate change, an increasingly connected social and trade system, declines in pollinators, and increases in pests and diseases all create instabilities that can disrupt the ecosystem services provided by the agricultural landscape, including food production.20


United Nations Photo / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Resilient solutions will vary between agricultural regions, resulting in a “mosaic of resilient regions” interacting through trade.

Increasing efficiency can actually undermine system resilience if it reduces the diversity of the system21 or if it whittles away the safety buffers that are implicit in operating some distance below the theoretical maximum. While we have been good at increasing agricultural productivity, especially in areas with access to fertilizers and other technologies, some actions taken to promote higher agricultural yields have undermined the provision of other ecosystem services.22,23 Evidence indicates that steps taken to increase the narrow-sense efficiency of agricultural production without addressing resilience and long-term provision of a variety of ecosystem services can lead to highly damaging fluctuations in food production, food cost, and environmental outcomes.24 For example, native pollinators of crops are declining globally due to land-use change, pesticide use, and other causes, and managed honeybees cannot compensate for this loss.25 Similarly, destruction of mangroves for aquaculture is increasing vulnerability to tsunamis.26 Therefore, approaches to agriculture must also consider the resilience of the system;27 short-term or local efficiency is not sustainable if it results in long-term or off-site failures.

Further, in complex systems such as the global human–environment system, intense pressure on the environment can cause the system to cross critical thresholds from adequate freshwater to drought, from productive to desertified landscapes, and so forth. Agriculture can push the Earth system, or regions within it, over these types of thresholds. For example, some agricultural practices modify hydrologic cycles in ways that can lead to sudden and surprising changes.20 A well-documented example is the land-use change and irrigation practices that lead to soil salinization and the resulting declines in agricultural production.28 Once a threshold is crossed, it is often both costly and difficult (if even possible) to go back. In our highly connected world, crossing one threshold often triggers another, and many regional or global crises involve cascades of events.29,30 Because of this, and the resulting potential for the unexpected, we need an agricultural system that is both sustainable and resilient. Yet improving food security while also maintaining a safe biophysical environment for humanity is a complex challenge, and current trends indicate that these goals will not be met.31

Table 1: Agriculture’s impact on different global resources and processes

Table 1_1.png

Defining a Globally Resilient Agriculture

A resilient agriculture is one that meets both food and development needs over both the short- and very long-terms, from local to global scales, without destabilizing the Earth system. It aims to maintain or grow the full natural capital of landscapes as well as a broader set of mechanisms, such as the social networks, governance, and leadership required to meet the immediate needs of 9 billion or more people without undermining the long-term stability of social and natural systems that together provide services to people. It specifically seeks not only persistence, but also adaptive changes or even transformations needed to meet evolving environmental conditions and human needs. To do this, we must challenge the current relatively fixed configuration of our production and consumption systems and the assumption that we will be able to continue any given practice ad infinitum. Instead, a resilient agriculture explicitly allows for adaptive changes or transformations to meet evolving environmental conditions and human needs. Indeed, resilience denotes the capacity of a system to continue to develop by absorbing change and without unintentionally shifting into a qualitatively different state controlled by a different set of processes. It also involves staying within critical boundaries. Where it is inevitable or desirable to cross a boundary, this transformation to the new system is managed in such a way that preserves the key processes essential to allow the new system to operate within acceptable boundaries.32

The concept of resilient agriculture demands that we reframe the discussion on sustainable agricultural development from its current focus, which is primarily on optimization of production relative to its immediate economic, social, and environmental costs. Rather we must ask how to build an agricultural production system capable of meeting current and forthcoming challenges, many of which are still unknown to us. To fully comprehend the magnitude of this shift, we must change our basic definitions of success and failure in agriculture. Successful agriculture is most often perceived as high yields with low economic cost. Increasingly, this also includes high yields at low environmental cost. A resilient agriculture must also consider the ability of the system to preserve key functions in the face of systemic change. We suggest that that these key functions include the following condition:

To stay within planetary boundaries for the persistence of the human-environment system, while generating the capacity to reduce hunger and malnutrition to acceptably low levels in all regions and continuing to offer livelihoods and development opportunities now and in the future.

In order for this to work, agriculture must be reasonably profitable33 and diversified.34 Success in any one measure alone does not mean agriculture is resilient: a financially successful agriculture that undermines biodiversity is not resilient, and an agriculture that produces plentiful food but is not economically viable or undermines local livelihood options is not resilient. An agriculture that causes long-term or widespread environmental crises is not resilient, no matter how economically successful or how much food is produced, making its profitability and productivity irrelevant.


Darin / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
An example of a sustainable local adaptation can be found among farms in Wisconsin, where experimentation with soil and tillage practices have been successful in conserving soil water and decreasing runoff nutrients.

We can think about resilience by understanding which management practices tend to maintain the natural capital and generate a balanced and sufficient suite of ecosystem services over long periods of time and which do not. Agricultural regions are heterogeneous around the globe and thus, resilient solutions will vary between locations. It is also true that not all goods and services need to be produced in all locations at all times. It may be that some local biodiversity is lost due to intensified agriculture in one location if this allows better maintenance of biodiversity at a larger scale.35 We thus believe that a resilient global agricultural system will be a mosaic of resilient regions, each one unique in some way, interacting through trade, assistance in times of need, and transfer of learning. Resilience is often associated with diversity, including both biological diversity and social diversity. We would expect a resilient agriculture to be diverse, with many different types of agriculture happening in different places around the world, or even within the same region. This is quite different from an optimized agriculture, in which (at the logical extreme) each region does just one thing, in the way currently believed to be best.

Toward a More Resilient Agriculture

A more resilient agriculture will need to be persistent, adaptive, and transformative, each at the appropriate moment in time and at the appropriate place. Steps to promote persistence of critical functions might include absorbing shocks such as price fluctuations, invasive species, or disease outbreaks. In situations of more long-term change, such as climate change-driven increases in dry spell frequency and occurrence, the capacity to adapt without large declines in critical functions will be necessary. Finally, a resilient agriculture must be able to transform to new modes of operation without excessive damage to human or natural systems when the basic conditions for its operation become untenable. The ability to determine when persistence, adaptation, or transformation is needed, where, and to what degree is critical. There are many steps that are being taken to build persistence and to adapt to changes. Some of these steps have long-term benefits. Others have short-term benefits but can be harmful in the long-term if they are continued. For example, governments sometimes solve short-term problems with subsidies or other interventions that eventually hinder more beneficial changes as agriculturalists become dependent on the subsidies and thereby persist with maladapted agricultural practices.36


There are many small to moderate disruptions that influence agriculture in any particular location or region. These include economic factors like fluctuations in the price of inputs or outputs that affect the viability of farming or the affordability of food; climatic factors, like droughts, floods, and heat waves; and ecological factors such as the loss of pollinators or the eruption of new diseases. Farmers must persist in the face of these inherent and expected shocks if agriculture is to be sustainable.

Among the mechanisms forged to encourage persistence, some are sustainable and some are not. Policies for persistence are often designed to insulate farmers from the effects of specific shocks, for instance, through insurance or relief. However, long-term sustainability of agriculture requires some amount of adaptation to these shocks if they are inherent features of the system, and especially if their probability and severity are changing over time. For this reason, policies that recognize and allow feedbacks to remain in place, such as internalizing externalities and providing true cost accounting of costs and benefits of agricultural management, could improve agriculture’s long-term persistence at the cost of short-term fluctuations. Persistence mechanisms that preserve the regulation of ecosystem services and natural capital and that maintain adequate levels of reserves and inter-regional transfers, will promote long-term sustainability. On the other hand, efforts that aim only to increase productivity and efficiency in a narrowly defined set of dimensions leave inadequate buffering capacity in the system to cope with inherent variability.


Adaptability is the capacity of a system to adjust its responses to changing external drivers and internal processes and thereby allow continued development along the current trajectory.37 Being adaptive and sustainable over the long term means that agriculture must be able to make changes relatively quickly in relation to the rate of change in the circumstances and do so without reducing the overall capacity of the system to support human well-being.18

Among current mechanisms to encourage adaptation, we again find a mix of sustainable and unsustainable practices, where sustainable practices are those that maintain natural and social capital, regulate ecosystem services, and promote social self-organization. For example, governments adapt to changing market pressures by manipulating subsidies and tariffs, but all such programs create dependencies that may impede change and adaptation in the long run.36 On the other hand, some local adaptations can create sustainable practices. For example, extensive experimentation with soil amendments and tillage practices in Wisconsin led to new approaches for building soil organic matter, conserving soil water, and decreasing runoff of nutrients.38 Some efficiency-oriented approaches are sustainably adaptive: for instance, it is hard to argue that reducing the current 30 percent wastage in the farm-to-fork chain would be anything but a good thing, and there is no reason to believe that such improvements would be inherently unsustainable.



Emily Cain, Canadian Foodgrains Bank / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Farmers in southern Niger are transforming their agricultural landscape by managing the natural regeneration of trees on their crop fields.

Transformability is the capacity to create entirely new types of development and cross thresholds onto a new development trajectory.37 It is not achieved by incremental increases in efficiency or sustainability of agricultural practices. It means a fundamental change in the agricultural landscape, with new structures, functions, and feedbacks. For example, farmers in southern Niger who primarily used to cultivate millet are now actively managing the natural regeneration of trees on their crop fields, which has resulted in an improvement in both provisioning and regulating ecosystem services and improved coping capacity among farmers.39 This change required substantial social transformation in the farmers’ relations to trees, their field practices, and the institutions by which communities managed resources, including decentralized tenure rights to trees.40 In the last 20 years, more than 200 million trees, an average expansion of 250,000 ha/y, have been established in the region.41 This socio-ecological transformation has likely been further enabled by a general increase in precipitation over the same time span.42

Breakdowns in agriculture should open opportunities for learning and for new practices to emerge. In some situations, marginal adaptation (tinkering to squeeze a bit more productivity or efficiency from the system) cannot lead to a resilient agriculture. Bigger and more systemic changes are needed. Transformation is often difficult and comes at a cost. For example, the dietary shifts that are likely needed for sustainable agriculture on a planet of 9 billion or more are likely to require significant increases in the relative price of animal-based foods. The coming decades are likely to be characterized by increasing food security crises and possibly conflict over food, land, and water. Governments and non-governmental organizations often step in to ameliorate crises and reduce human suffering. They do this through policies such as subsidies meant to provide economic assistance, which are often needed in times of crises. While interventions like subsidies may be necessary to prevent suffering in the short term, they should not be allowed to block longer-term adaptive changes that decrease the risk of future breakdowns.

In general, current agricultural policies tend to steer away from true transformation because it is disruptive of existing patterns and interests and can incur short-term losses in agricultural productivity or development opportunities. In practice, the push toward a more efficient agriculture can postpone inevitable transformation because of the increased potential for transient inefficiencies during the reorganization process. Instead, we tend to opt for policies that focus on persistence and sometimes modest adaptation. However, ignoring the importance of maintaining natural capital and providing a variety of ecosystem services, while suppressing experimentation, is just as likely to undermine agriculture as failing to consider the importance of development opportunities. More than anything else, in recent decades, we have avoided transformation in agriculture. The time has now come and renewed transformation is inevitable. How can we ensure that it is successful and not catastrophic?

A Positive Transformation

Efforts to improve short-term efficiency and optimization are not ensuring sustainability and may simply be setting us up for a bigger fall down the road. A marginally greener revolution is unlikely to lead to a resilient agriculture. Instead, we must search for systemic changes in agricultural practices and institutional arrangements that allow agriculture to be productive but not static. Ensuring resilient agriculture for the long term will require a bold new focus on innovation and on institutions to facilitate sharing the learning and knowledge that results from that innovation.

Yet important questions remain: How can this transformation occur without unacceptable loss of the well-being of both consumers and producers of agricultural products, particularly the most vulnerable people? How can this be done without propping up maladaptive agricultural practices? And what sorts of institutions are likely to be able to lead toward a more resilient agriculture?

There are no easy answers. Achieving a sustainable agriculture will require patience to allow policies to work, protection for vulnerable people in difficult times, experimentation with effective monitoring of the results, and recognition of the opportunities for learning that result from allowing unsuccessful practices to fail. In fact, the period immediately after a crisis or failure is the best time to promote innovation and experimentation and create new capacity.43

Focusing on innovation, maintaining diversity, and improving outmoded policies will help ensure a more transformative agriculture. A transition to a resilient agriculture requires a focus on innovation.44 Innovation can be achieved through the reorganization of existing building blocks into new families of practices that meet multiple goals in a particular biophysical, geographic, and socio-economic setting. Johnson45 highlights enabling conditions for innovative ideas. Innovation in agriculture will surely draw parts from existing practices, while the truly new ideas will come from bricolage (putting together several pieces into a new formulation), exaptation (building on existing complex ideas), or platforms (building complex things from complex networks). Innovation can be promoted by providing time and resources to experiment and learn from outcomes and by providing opportunities for ideas to connect randomly. This innovation will require experimentation, flexibility, local learning, and these must be fostered by institutions at local, regional, and global scales.

The diversity of socio-ecological systems and food reserves both contribute to the resilience of agriculture. Diversity, including variety of crops, cropping systems, farm sizes, agricultural landscape types, institutional arrangements, policies, and food systems, all provide functional diversity. This diversity provides the raw material needed for innovation and avoids getting locked into traps that are set by having one solution available.

Practices that are inefficient and do not provide opportunities for innovation are maladaptive and should be discontinued. Many agricultural policies are aimed at persistence (e.g. subsidies) and adaptation (e.g. domestic protection laws during price hikes). As they are often focused on short-term benefits, they can be harmful in the long run. Such policies exist because failure is hard—on individuals and on society. However, to maintain agriculture in the long run, maladaptive practices and policies should be dismantled without extreme shocks to individuals and society. At the same time, we need to make failure safe for individuals and societies. In other words, when failure is the best option, we will require at a minimum a vision of a better way, a bridge or pathway from the current system to the better one, and a temporary damage-control mechanism to protect vulnerable people during the transition.


fishyfish_arcade / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Efforts to improve efficiency would also be sustainably adaptive, such as reducing the current 30 percent rate of waste in the farm-to-fork supply chain.

Building institutions to facilitate the development of new ideas will improve communication of successes and failures and make adoption of techniques likely to be successful. Institutions and incentives are needed to translate goals across scales, so that innovative local solutions to farming problems also help meet regional or global goals, such as water security, pollution mitigation, or climate mitigation. This will require new types of governance that fosters communication across scales in order to enable learning and attenuate shocks. These institutions and incentives must be multiscale and allow the solutions to be responsive to changing conditions and unexpected shocks. They can be encouraged to provide resources for experimentation while providing opportunities for bottom-up innovations to be developed locally. They must also protect the most vulnerable, poorest farmers and consumers, who are most likely to bear the cost of failed agriculture and failed policies.

Substantial resources need to be made available to promote for innovation, experimentation, and learning. Bold experimentation can be aided by policies that provide insurance to farmers for trying new farming methods. Fostering communication across scales will be particularly important to enable learning from these experiments, potentially enabled by networking and bridging organizations to transmit innovation.46 However, modularity and weak connections between systems can also be important to allow a variety of local experimentation that sometimes succeed and provide opportunities for learning when they fail.

Agricultural development organizations can help ensure that these experiments are monitored for success or failure and that measures of success and failure are based on the characteristics of resilient agriculture. Systems to monitor progress47,48 are important in this context. These organizations could, for example, look for bright spots of success and transmit information about what makes these places and practices particularly successful to other farmers or farming organizations for which that information might be useful.

How Resilience Thinking Can Improve Agricultural Development

Shifting focus from maximum yield to efficiency and sustainable intensification were big steps for agricultural development. These systems aim for an agriculture that eliminates hunger, provides development opportunities, and maintains, to some degree, the supply of natural capital and a diversity of ecosystem services, factors which are truly basic conditions for the persistence and prosperity of human society. Resilience thinking addresses all these goals while specifically focusing on what builds capacity to persist, adapt, and transform in a world characterized by uncertainty and complexity, where agriculture needs to respond to a rapidly and profoundly changing world. The path towards resilient agriculture will include radically new approaches. To find these best new approaches, we must allow—and even encourage—experimentation, innovation, and learning, even if they produce results that reduce efficiency or are less than optimal. A critical step will be identifying a safe operating space for agriculture in which this learning can happen without causing serious damage to the environment or to human well-being.49 This will mean identifying the ecological and social boundaries within which we want to operate and the places where we are willing to achieve something less than optimal in order to allow room for experimentation.

A resilient agriculture that eliminates hunger, provides development opportunities, and maintains the supply of natural capital and a diversity of ecosystem services is a basic condition for the persistence and prosperity of human society. Achieving this goal will require developing an agriculture that is persistent, adaptive, and transformative. We have many successes in stabilizing agriculture in the short term and in building efficiency; however, this very success has interfered with our ability to allow agricultural systems to adapt to the rising rate of environmental change and to be transformed when needs and opportunities arise. There will be costs to allowing transformation and maintaining a resilient agriculture, but these will be compensated by the capacity to maintain human well-being in the long run.

We thank the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Swedish Royal Academy and the Stockholm Resilience Center for funding the workshop that initiated much of the thinking presented here. This paper is a contribution to the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS).


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