Known Unknowns - risk, uncertainty and doubt are stalking global farming

| 15th October 2013

Farming is an intrinsically risky business, a fact highlighted by the recent outbreak of Coffee Leaf Rust in Central America

Peter Baker argues that finding solutions to the challenges facing modern agriculture will not be found in market-based mechanisms or further intensification of land, but by harnessing the diversity of human ingenuity.....
Farmers believe in climate change because they are experiencing it

"We are unlikely to be able to make confident statements about circulation, hence about droughts, flooding, etc."

[Ted Shepherd, Grantham Professor of Climate Science, Reading University. Royal Society 3rd October 2013.]


Confidence about uncertainty

As World Food Day approaches (16 October), and the world reflects on how to better tackle hunger and food security, farmers face ever greater uncertainties in agricultural production. It is clear from the newly published 5th Assessment Report of Working Group 1 of the IPCC that questions remain about the future effects of climate change on farming. As the quote above suggests, rain is especially difficult, or in IPCC-speak: "multi-model results for precipitation indicate a generally low predictability."

This is a serious problem for farmers and those of us trying to help them. If you talk to farmers the world over, most of them now believe in climate change because they are experiencing it. They tend to worry most about the sheer unpredictability of the weather - sudden unseasonal violent storms, prolonged periods of wet or dry weather, which lead to a range of problems - from washing away of newly sown seeds to post-harvest losses.

What the IPCC report means for farmers is that although we believe that the recent spate of weather extremes are very likely to continue and get worse, we cannot easily advise them on a plausible adaptation strategy. Should farmers invest in water storage and irrigation equipment in case of drought? Should they install drainage ditches to reduce flooding risk? Should they improve post-harvest drying facilities? Should they take action about avalanches if near steep slopes, or flooding if near rivers? The answer to all these questions and many more is - ‘yes, if you can afford it' - but we know that nearly all of them can't.

The farmers' risk trap

The dilemma can be seen very clearly in the recent upsurge in Coffee Leaf Rust in about ten countries of Latin America. We are struggling to understand why it happened (lack of field data, meteorological stations) and therefore when it might happen again. Should farmers pull up their coffee and plant a resistant variety? Or change to a new crop? Or just improve and intensify spraying with fungicides? We cannot give them accurate advice on a cost-effective choice because we don't know how frequently rust will reappear, nor calculate whether any pre-emptive action will be worth it.

Farming is all about controlling risk, principally from fickle weather and markets. Climate change means we have to re-rate farmers' risks. When risk levels rise, prices should also rise to compensate, but this often does not happen because of global markets. To understand this, consider a cabbage farmer of 100 years ago who experiences bad weather, which leads to a disease outbreak and he loses 50% of his crop. However, it is likely that many farmers in his district will have experienced the same problem. This leads to a shortage and prices rise - the farmer will not be happy (they rarely are) but the price increase will defray some of his costs.

Now fast-forward 100 years - the farmer tells the supermarket that they will get fewer cabbages and that he wants a better price. They will refuse his terms, award a contract to another country and he may end up ploughing in the whole crop. It's called the free market. As Robert Stavins once said, "Markets can be efficient, but nobody ever said they're fair. The question is, what do we owe the future?"(1)

What should farmers do?

Whenever you are confronted by risk, you hedge your bets. We insure our houses, bookies lay-off bets and speculators go long and short. Farmers do the same, they may grow several crops, or down-scale their farm work and find employment off-farm. Many already do this, but because of climate change they are going to need new crops and new ways of growing them - and for this they are going to need help because they don't have the time and resources to figure out answers quickly for themselves.

A problem with this is that the dogma of the past generation has been that the market will provide the solutions and accordingly many countries have reduced public services to farmers. As we have seen from the recent economic crisis, markets are not always good at responding to a crisis and everyone expects governments to step in as the last resort. In the event of a global food shortage however, governments cannot generate food in the way that they have just been printing money.

Time for change

Anyone who tells you that they know what is going to happen - to our climate and food supplies - is delusional; this is what the IPCC are really telling us. There is no shortage of remedies, from business-as-usual, fossil-fuel intense farming, through to low-intensity agroforestry. Where, along that continuum, lies the ideal answer for any particular country or farmer? We simply cannot say with certainty.

And there is a terrible paradox now operating - because of scarcity of natural lands, many agree that we need to intensify food production on the same land, but intensification means concentration of effort on a few things, maybe just one crop - this activity automatically makes farmers more vulnerable and less resilient because something can always go wrong, a disease like coffee rust for example. With increasingly chaotic weather the likelihood of this happening increases.

Complexity rules

The global climate-food-water-energy nexus is what scientists call a complex system. This means that there are so many components, acting in highly non-linear ways, that full understanding is impossible. The logical way to tackle such ‘wicked problems' as they are sometimes called, is through a diversity of approaches. This is a value-free tactic which puts the emphasis on encouraging scientists, farmers and anyone else, to develop a wide range of approaches. These are monitored and the best are selected for further testing and modification whilst the worst are killed off, in true Darwinian fashion. In the face of so many mounting problems, the greatest resource available is the diversity of human ideas and it is this that must be exploited.

Rural renewal

Such a crowd-sourcing approach needs funding, but not so very much considering the primacy of food supply requirements. There are many young people, lacking worthwhile jobs, who are keen to try new approaches, given some time, modest encouragement and above all training in the diverse skills they need. Give them that and they will produce a gamut of answers. Until about 100 years ago, all food production innovation came from farmers - in the future so it should be again, but accelerated by sympathetic and knowledgeable collaborators who are experts in the wide range of techniques and sciences that we are going to need to survive such an uncertain and risky future.

(1) The Economist, 4th July 2002

Dr Peter Baker is Senior Scientist of Commodities and Climate Change at CABI. He has over 30 years' experience in research, training and consultancy in the broad area of science for development with particular experience in coffee, including sustainable coffee production, farmer participatory approaches, biodiversity, climate change and smallholder farmer issues. He is currently developing and rolling out a climate change adaptation project for coffee farmers.


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