Researchers argue agriculture needs to remember its primitive roots. Today’s agriculture’s most important metric is yield: how many cows, bushels, or tons can be grown per acre. This relentless pursuit of efficiency means that U.S. farm output has risen more than 158% since 1948.
That’s a good thing in many ways, and vital for feeding a growing population. It works by elevating a few winners (corn, wheat, and Hereford cows) to maximize their output at the expense of most everything else. It also happens to eliminate less efficient, but possibly irreplaceable alternatives.
We need these options, say scientists at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in a recent paper. As climate change remakes today’s farming map and the global biosphere, farmers will have to adopt new crop traits that can survive hotter, dryer, and in some cases, wetter conditions. This biological insurance relies on wild stocks and traditional farms around the world. Despite crop gene banks, these are disappearing.
"Policies, subsidies, research, and intellectual property rights promote a few modern commercial varieties and intensive agriculture at the expense of traditional crops and practices," says lead author Krystyna Swiderska, a senior researcher at IIED. "This is perverse as it forces countries and communities to depend on an ever decreasing variety of crops and threatens with extinction the knowledge and biological diversity that form the foundations of resilience."
Instead, scientists say we need to cultivate diverse agricultural systems that buffer shocks and harbor biological insurance policies against changes in climate. We are "ignoring a vast store of knowledge—generated over thousands of years—that could protect food supplies and make agriculture more resilient to climate change."
It’s the difference between an all-or-nothing bet and keeping your options open. Given the uncertain future, a Hail Mary pass that just relies just on today’s species is almost certain to leave us without the crops we need. Traditional knowledge is a hedge against uniform commercial agriculture, argues Swiderska, through locally adapted pest control, extreme tolerance for droughts and floods, and human networks to share biological diversity between communities.
For now, developed countries have ramped up their spending on agricultural R&D that focuses on genetic engineering and breeding common plants to survive more extreme conditions. Traditional solutions offer a simpler, if somewhat less efficient, approach to preserving options open for the future.
We’ll need both.