Water for Food

New collaboration to help build resilience in agroecosystems

February 18, 2014

Craig Allen, University of Nebraska-Lincoln wildlife ecologist and DWFI fellow, is a member of the Resilience Alliance. Photo by Brett Hampton/IANR News Service

Craig Allen, University of Nebraska-Lincoln wildlife ecologist and DWFI fellow, is a member of the Resilience Alliance. Photo by Brett Hampton/IANR News Service

The concept of resilience, first introduced in the 1970s, has become a hot topic, reaching beyond its ecological roots to other fields, including water and food systems. But resilience researchers and food productivity experts don’t necessarily speak the same language and greater collaboration would benefit future water and food security as well as natural ecosystems, said Craig Allen, University of Nebraska-Lincoln wildlife ecologist and DWFI fellow.

Last week, Allen and other members of the Resilience Alliance, an international, multi-disciplinary network of researchers, met with DWFI’s Christopher Neale in Paris to develop a collaborative large-scale research project that brings a resilience focus to food production. The three-day meeting is a direct result of networking that began at the 2013 Water for Food Conference, which focused on building resilient agroecosystems.

Resilience is a socio-ecological system’s capacity to absorb disturbances and maintain its structure and function. Systems fluctuate around a normal range of resilience, but when processes acting on the system cause it to pass outside that range, the underlying structure changes to the point it can undergo a permanent regime shift.

These regime shifts threaten agroecosystems at global and local scales. Food production systems operate within a safe zone. But water scarcity and soil degradation, among other changes, are causing us to approach regional and global boundaries to the point that sudden, nonlinear change is flipping systems into completely different domains.

“I think one way of contrasting resilience from efficiency in food production is that efficiency and optimization seek to maximize output under current conditions, whereas resilience looks to guarantee output over a wider range of conditions,” Allen said.

A resilience approach emphasizes the trade-offs necessary to adapt to the effects of human action on the planet. Some of those effects are well-known: the disruptions to natural processes, such as climate change and species extinctions. As the planetary environment changes, agricultural systems must accept trade-offs — smaller yields and reduced water consumption now for a more resilient agricultural system able to survive future conditions, Neale said.

The new collaboration is developing a proposal to evaluate agricultural systems around the world based on their resilience. For example, those that can survive a 5-year drought will be deemed more resilient than those that cannot. Decision-makers can then take steps to better prepare for the future.

“It was a productive meeting,” Neale said. “Hopefully, we can be successful in incorporating resilience into future water for food production, with the goal of producing food to some level despite all of the surprising things that could happen in the future.”

To learn more about resilience and agroecosystems, watch Christo Fabricius, director of the Resilience Alliance, speak during the 2013 Water for Food Conference. A panel of experts also explored resilience issues during the conference.

Christopher Neale is Director of Research at the Daugherty Water for Food Institute.

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