N. Ryrholm/Azote.

A new landscape for agriculture

The impacts and benefits of agricultural landscapes are more visible through a resilience framework, new study argues.

This piece was originally posted on the Stockholm Resilience Centre's website. Read the original article.

Imagine you are driving through endless fields. They are filled with crops and animals as far as the eye can see. This is not such an unusual scene. Now, imagine driving for days across almost half of the world's land area and seeing only this scene. Nothing else. It might sound like something out of a sci-fi movie but agricultural landscapes now cover 38% of the world’s terrestrial surface of the planet. They cover a terrain almost twice the size of the African continent.

Not only are they the largest, they are also the single most important solution space for addressing both environmental sustainability and food security challenges outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Reaching this potential will require rapid harmonisation of conservation and development objectives and embracing a more transdisciplinary approach. This is one of the key points from a study recently published in Current Opinions on Sustainability co-authored by several centre researchers.

The researchers propose an Ecosystem Service and Resilience (ESR) framework to facilitate this process. ”Identifying the options and limits for managing agricultural systems to conserve ecosystem services on which we rely for our health and wellbeing is vital to achieving sustainable development” explains Sarah Jones of Bioversity International, France and co-author on the paper.

The ESR framework is designed to enhance efforts to understand and manage ecosystem services in a way that builds social-ecological system resilience to stressors and shocks. This will help to support food security and the poverty alleviation goals in the SDGs.

“Agricultural landscapes are the largest ecosystems of the Anthropocene,” argues Line Gordon. She is a co-author on the paper and deputy director at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Why ecosystem services and resilience?

All too often society and ecosystems are disconnected in conservation and development targets. Fabrice DeClerck who has been leading the work explains, “The ecosystem services concept provides a system-based approach to describe and manage agricultural systems and facilitate a holistic view of these landscapes...it offers an opportunity to converge agricultural and nature conservation objectives making them more achievable.”

In a rapidly developing world, agricultural systems must be able to cope with change. Resilient agricultural landscapes are better able to recover from the shocks and stresses that we may face in the future. They can even transform into a new regime which has a more desirable environmental or social outcome.

Improving the resilience of agricultural systems and landscapes again climate variability, extreme weather events, pest outbreaks, market volatility, institutional changes or other stressors is critical to the achievement of the SDGs.

 - Fabrice DeClerck, lead author

Moving from theory to practice

Operationalising ecosystem services and resilience-based approaches requires a complete re-envision of our current agricultural system.

The researchers highlight five key features in the Ecosystem Service and Resilience (ESR) framework. They include: 1) the people; 2) the links between agricultural management and food production; 3) the use of landscape-based approaches to describe interactions; 4) the impact of governance decisions; 5) the learning and adaptive capacity to external influencing factors.

The ecosystem service and resilience framework for agricultural landscapes which highlight the five unique components of agricultural systems.

Refocusing our efforts

The authors argue it is crucial that operational frameworks capture these components, if they are to be integrated into the Sustainable Development Goals. To do this, they propose five core principles that reflect the features of agricultural landscapes and serve as guides for research and interventions:

Core principle 1: Meeting the needs of people is fundamental

Ecosystem service-based approaches must move beyond biophysical measures of impacts to better demonstrate the impact of ecosystem change on human well-being.

Core principle 2: People use, modify, and care for nature which provides material and immaterial benefits to their livelihoods

Methods of ecosystem service analysis need to be capable of matching ecosystem service providers to beneficiaries. Management decisions need to take into account their effects on ecosystem functions and flow of services.

Core principle 3: Cross-scale and cross-level interactions of ecosystem services in agricultural landscapes can be managed to positively impact development outcomes

Impact of changes at different levels of an ecosystem need to be monitored at appropriate points in space and time to the decision making need. Management needs to embrace a cross-scale and cross-level approach.

Core principle 4: Governance mechanisms are a vital tool for achieving equitable access to and provision of ecosystem services

Governance interventions must take into consideration the biophysical structures and processes that underpin service provision and the existing social context and realistic governance options.

Core principle 5: Building resilience is about enhancing the capacity for communities to sustainably develop in an uncertain world

Management options for agricultural systems are subject to, and must be responsive to constantly change environmental and social condition.

"In the absence of perfect information, resilience approaches provide a capacity to adapt food production in agriculture in the face of change,” DeClerck and his colleagues conclude.