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Diversification the key in agrifood systems' fight against global 'triple threat'

Agrifood systems
Agrifood systems
“We found that all three of the triple threats are mitigated in more diverse agricultural pathways, whereas they tend to be worsened in simplified systems. Importantly, we know that a lot of the negative impacts are disproportionately felt by marginalised communities”

How can food and agricultural systems best respond to the global “triple threats” of climate change, biodiversity loss, and food insecurity? The agrifood industry is responsible for 23 percent of greenhouse gas emission worldwide, drives biodiversity loss and contribute to economic decline in rural communities. A recently published study co-authored by a James Hutton Institute social scientist has found that diversification is key to agrifood systems best adapting to the many challenges they must face.

The study, which was co-written by researchers from the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM) at UC Berkeley Rausser College of Natural Resources in the America and includes work from Dr Adam Calo, now based at the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen, analysed two principal trends in agrifood systems—simplification and diversification.

Margiana Petersen-Rockney, a PhD candidate in ESPM and lead author of the study said: “We found that all three of the triple threats are mitigated in more diverse agricultural pathways, whereas they tend to be worsened in simplified systems. Importantly, we know that a lot of the negative impacts are disproportionately felt by marginalised communities.”

Simplification is a model in which producers focus on just one or two crops or livestock varieties. It is a more centralised system in which fewer producers can intensify yields and increase profit. These types of systems often depend heavily on agrichemicals and have negative impacts like pollution or soil erosion.

Diversification focuses on improving outcomes for more people, benefiting natural systems, and integrating resilience to future shocks and stressors. Such processes can leverage natural technologies to enhance biodiversity, improve stability and protect ecosystems. All while reducing the need for inputs like fertiliser and pesticides and providing many positive outcomes for workers and consumers.

Dr Adam Calo says the findings of the predominantly American based project are highly relevant when applied to Scottish agrifood systems.

“The Scottish Government is looking squarely at the agricultural sector as a site to deliver on its net zero 2045 goal. This research shows how pursuit of narrow land use objectives at the farm level, like yields or carbon sequestration, may result in a brittle form of resilience.

“Yet, Scotland’s unique diversity of land tenure contexts and strong community empowerment agenda offer powerful avenues towards landscape level agricultural diversification, which may deliver the most equitable transition to a low-carbon farming policy agenda.”      

To understand simplification and diversification in agrifood systems, the study focused on equity and sustainability outcomes across five cases: drought, foodborne pathogens, farm labour, marginal lands, and land access and tenure.

The analysis found, amongst many other points, that diversified systems are more resilient when dealing with the danger of foodborne pathogens and the ever-increasing threat of drought. While past simplified approaches have recommended the removal of wildlife from farms, the study found more biodiversity naturally helps to regulate pathogens as it promotes other ecosystem services like soil and water retention. It also suggested crop diversification on a single farm can improve soil health and bolster crops resistance to drought.

Systems that embrace diversification practices can also create benefits for labour and expand access for small-scale farmers. Many diversified systems are far less capital intensive, such models are more accessible to a wider range of farmers, including people with limited resources or on marginal lands.

A further summary of the research findings is available on the UC Berkeley Rausser College of Natural Resources website, and more information on the study can be found on the UC Berkeley Rausser College of Natural Resources website here.

Paper: Margiana Petersen-Rockney, Patrick Baur, Aidee Guzman, S. Franz Bender, Adam Calo, Federico Castillo, Kathryn De Master, Antoinette Dumont, Kenzo Esquivel, Claire Kremen, James LaChance, Maria Mooshammer, Joanna Ory, Mindy J. Price, Yvonne Socolar, Paige Stanley, Alastair Iles and Timothy Bowles: Narrow and Brittle or Broad and Nimble? Comparing Adaptive Capacity in Simplifying and Diversifying Farming Systems. Front. Sustain. Food Syst, doi: 10.3389/fsufs.2021.564900.

More information from: 

Adam Walker, Communications Officer, James Hutton Institute, Tel: 01224 395095 (direct line), 0344 928 5428 (switchboard).


Printed from /news/diversification-key-agrifood-systems-fight-against-global-%E2%80%9Ctriple-threat%E2%80%9D on 28/07/21 10:31:51 AM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.