UC Berkeley study promotes resilience in agricultural systems through diversity

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UC Berkeley researchers co-authored a study about how diversity helps agricultural systems endure sudden changes. The study outlined two different ways, simplification and diversification, that the agri-food system currently responds to problems. (Photo by Wonderlane under CC BY SA 2.0.)

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A study co-authored by UC Berkeley researchers identified the importance of diversity in helping agricultural systems withstand sudden changes.

According to campus doctoral candidate and lead co-author Margiana Petersen-Rockney, the study outlined two different ways the agri-food system currently responds to problems — simplification and diversification. The researchers compared two responses across five different case studies in the United States, focusing on challenges including foodborne pathogens, drought, marginal lands, labor availability and land access and tenure.

Simplification, Petersen-Rockney said, has been done in agricultural and food systems for a long time. According to the study, simplification includes processes that narrow the types of crops and livestock raised to maximize production.

Diversification, on the other hand, relies on “social-ecological complexity” to maximize social outcomes, benefit natural systems and increase agricultural resiliency, according to a Berkeley News release.

Petersen-Rockney said, while diversification in agri-food systems could result in broader adaptability to sudden change, simplification in agri-food systems may lead to a narrow and brittle adaptive capacity instead, as seen with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When COVID-19 hit, an entire sector of the food industry died overnight,” Petersen-Rockney said. “People were going hungry, and farmers were forced to dump milk down the drain and kill their livestock. It shows brittleness to this kind of problem. We saw our food system basically break when a new, unforeseen problem hit.”

According to the Berkeley News release, the study was conducted for more than two years. The team consisted of an assortment of graduate students, postdoctoral students and faculty members. The researchers were led by Petersen-Rockney, UC Berkeley environmental science, policy and management assistant professor Timothy Bowles and campus alumnus Patrick Baur, according to graduate student and fellow researcher Aidee Guzman. 

Petersen-Rockney said all researchers were part of the Berkeley Food Institute’s Center for Diversified Farming Systems, and were interested in farming systems despite coming from different disciplines and departments. The researchers worked in subgroups based on their individual research interests and expertise, and their work eventually developed into the five different case studies.

Both Guzman and Baur emphasized that the framework of diversification is an ongoing process, rather than a final state. Baur said thinking of diversification and simplification as end states is often the default for research that examines the capacity of different systems to quickly adapt.

“Farming systems can be in simultaneous levels of diversification (social, economic, or ecological),” Guzman said in an email.

Baur said the study noted several other takeaways, including that simplification and diversification exist as self-reinforcing feedback loops. According to the paper, the study also found that diversification of farming systems can be done by implementing multiple goals across different domains and that diversification “offers a pathway to embrace complexity and uncertainty.”

Contact Tarunika Kapoor at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @tkapoor_dc.