Agriculture Fit For A Complex World

complex agriculture

Adam Hejnowicz, Postdoctoral Research Associate - Environmental Policy Evaluation (CECAN) - University of York

Complex Realities

To say that we live in a complex world is, in a very general sense, rather banal and uninteresting being neither particularly illuminating nor especially profound. But, scratch beneath the surface, and an acknowledgement of that complexity can be revelatory.

In a complex world the choices and decisions we make, and the consequences that result from the actions taken in response to those decisions, do not hold clear and predictable outcomes. This is especially true where the context and conditions in which we live, and in which those decisions are made, frequently and rapidly change.  The recent changes in the political circumstances of the UK and USA are good examples.

This is the world, not just of reality, but also of policy. If we fail to recognise these realities then the policies we develop to deal with the global challenges we face will be poor and, at best, so will the outcomes of those policies. At worst, the results of poorly devised and implemented policies could prove catastrophic to both our future wellbeing and the sustainability of the Earth System.

Agriculture and the Earth System...Impacts

Across the world agricultural activities have transformed our lives, shaped cultures and fashioned the landscapes around us. Through food production, rural employment, economic development, and domestic and international trade agricultural systems have made enormous contributions to our wellbeing and social and economic progress. Since the Great Acceleration, however, rapid urbanization and demographic changes have promoted the growth of an agricultural-industrial complex which, by encouraging mass agriculture through a combination of extensification and intensification, has resulted in a planetary-wide agricultural mosaic.

From local to global scales, these activities have severely undermined environmental sustainability by, for example, driving the loss of forests and biodiversity, creating unsustainable demands for freshwater, decreasing water quality, simplifying cropping systems, and increasing soil erosion and greenhouse gas emissions. Such outcomes have important human costs too, particularly in terms of their effects on poverty, health, disease, and water and food security to name but a few examples.

Developments in the Agricultural Policy Landscape

Managing the negative environmental impacts of these widespread agricultural activities, whilst at the same time seeking ways of ensuring productivity is not undermined, has been a central concern of agricultural land management policy. More recently, this has been augmented by the idea that agricultural landscapes can also work positively for natural resource management and biodiversity conservation.

In a European and UK context, approaches to these issues have been formulated under the rubric of the Common Agricultural Policy, whose ‘greening’ activities – partly achieved through the implementation of agri-environment schemes - have been informed by the ecosystem approach and ecosystem services framework. These greening activities make an equivalence between productivity and the delivery of environmental public goods (i.e. ecosystem services). In other words, agriculture needs to do both equally well, an idea captured in the notion of multi-functional agricultural landscapes.

In parallel, there have also been drives to develop more innovative agricultural practices, for instance, efforts such as increasing crop resilience to disease and drought or reducing fertiliser and herbicide inputs, increasingly articulated through the discourse of sustainable intensification. Notably, at the same time, the development of nexus approaches (i.e. explicitly acknowledging that food, energy, water and environment systems as linked) has raised awareness that agricultural systems are complex, that they do not operate in isolation, and that the agricultural policy domain is, by extension, also complex.

Making the Connection: Agriculture and Complexity

How best to achieve the joint provision of environmental goods and food production, in a way that is sustainable, remains the central conundrum that agriculture and agricultural policy needs to tackle. Taking a complexity perspective to policy development and evaluation can help in this respect because it forces us to think about the social, ecological, cultural, economic and political dimensions and interactions that comprise the system. It therefore begs us to think holistically about the possible consequences that might ensue from the introduction of a policy or set of policies into the agricultural space.

Complexity in agricultural policy evaluation forces us to think, for example, about how a policy designed to increase crop yields might address the connections between productivity, energy utilisation and water consumption. Or, for instance, the ways in which synergies can be maximised and trade-offs reduced between the provision of bundles of ecosystem services (e.g. biodiversity, water quality, carbon sequestration and soil fertility) and alternative cropping systems. Or indeed, how newly devised agricultural incentive schemes may impact on farm household incomes and business viability and thus wider human and social capital.

For instance, we may wish to know how we can roll out an agricultural policy in such a way that we maximise uptake, the implementation of particular management strategies and the optimal provision of ecosystem services according to certain geographical regions. By necessity this will require an understanding of not only the specific ecological and environmental conditions encountered in particular geographies; but also, how a policy is going to engage with the broadest array of relevant stakeholders and influence their behaviour as well as relevant socio-economic and cultural conditions. All these factors and more will need to be accounted for with regards to how the governance and institutional arrangements of a policy will work in practice.

Adopting a complexity lens and focusing on issues of scale (spatial and temporal), feedbacks, interactions, cross-scale relations, adaptation, evolution and emergence can help us better devise and transform our agricultural policies to fit a complex and unpredictable world that ensures long-term sustainability; vital in our post-Brexit and austerity era. By working in a transdisciplinary manner, across sectors and engaging with the broadest degree of expert knowledge, the hope is that CECAN will be able to play a role, through innovations in policy evaluation, in the development of robust, resilient and nimble agricultural policy capable of balancing competing food, water, energy and environmental needs.

CECAN - funded and supported by the following organisations