Resilience is a subject of great interest in science and policy. Farming systems are faced with major risks and uncertainties, just think of the consequences of climate change. Politicians and policymakers are therefore keen to know how resilience can be stimulated.
This is not easy, says Miranda Meuwissen, personal professor at Business Economics (BEC). In practice, resilience is often narrowed down to risk management: anticipating the risk and making provision for it. For example, through insurance or a financial safety net. ‘We also look at other forms of resilience, namely at the ability of systems to adapt to changing circumstances or to achieve a transition. These forms are needed when a system no longer meets the needs and demands of the economy or society, as we are currently seeing in some of the farming systems in the Netherlands, for example.'
In the European SURE-Farm project, under the leadership of BEC, the various aspects of resilience are being investigated by a team of scientists from 16 institutes across Europe. Meuwissen: 'Farming systems are largely formed in a regional context. That's why we took this approach and included 11 regional farming systems in the project, ranging from the arable farming system in our own Dutch Peat Colonies to the extensive livestock system in the Massif Central and the fruit and vegetable growing system in the Mazovian region in Poland. A system includes the farmers, but also the other parties with whom dependency relationships exist. These include, for example, local advisers and local processors, but may also include NGOs, local water boards, banks and farmers from other sectors with whom there is close cooperation. We have also included the farmer's family members. Resilience is about this whole system, not about individual farmers.'
Kitchen table talks
The project uses mixed methods: much qualitative research looking at aspects from different angles (farmer, household, other actors in the farming system), but also quantitative methods, such as statistical analyses of various forms of robustness, adjustment and transition in the past, modelling of the impact of having or not having business succession, and effectiveness of new forms of insurance.
‘Figures alone do not tell the whole story of resilience,' says Meuwissen. ‘That's why many and repeated kitchen table talks have been held. With the farmers, but also with their partners and other family members and with other parties in the system.'
The research has provided a lot of insight, on the one hand into factors that hamper resilience and on the other hand into strategies that promote resilience. ‘Resilience, for example, is hampered by lock-ins as a result of vested interests and mutual dependency, for example in chains,' says Meuwissen, 'As one farmer in the Peat Colonies put it: we hang on to the boob of the cooperation. It was once set up as a safety net and has worked that way, but now it seems to stand in the way of a necessary transition.'
Resilience means continuity
These are complex situations. Many of the solutions require substantial change compared to current practices and policies. Also because it's not about individual companies, but about a complete system. That requires long-term vision and courage, Meuwissen observes. ‘Farmers' power is needed, so to speak. And there is. Strikingly enough, it often comes from outside, for example from a partner who works elsewhere, in healthcare or in education. That, in turn, underlines the importance of the kitchen table. That's where it happens!’
The study offers plenty of starting points to make farming systems more resilient, observes Meuwissen. And that's important, because resilience means continuity for the systems involved. But at the end of the day it concerns society as a whole. ‘It's about the continuity of food production. If we don't respond properly to risks and threats, food production, processing and distribution may eventually grind to a halt. During the COVID-19 pandemic we saw that that is not a situation you want to end up in. What once is gone does not just come back. That is why investing in resilience is very important. Because where there is resilience, there is also room to respond to the risks and uncertainties of today and of the future.'