The “Cs” That Challenge Agriculture and Represent Opportunities for Resilience


This piece is authored by:

  • Tim Durham is a 5th generation farmer, growing leafy greens, root crops and herbs on Long Island, New York.  Tim is also an Associate Professor of Crop Science at Ferrum College, Virginia and is a member of the Global Farmer Network. 
  • Dirk Voeste is a former Senior Vice President for Regulatory, Sustainability & Public Affairs, Agricultural Solutions for BASF in Limburgerhof, Germany. He was in this role at the writing of this article. Dirk supports the Global Farmer Network as a member of the GFN Industry Advisory Council.

In these dangerous times of food insecurity, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have taken on new names. They are the four “Cs” of climate, crisis, conflict, and costs, as identified by a pair of sustainability experts in their draft of a working paper.

Yet this bad news is even worse. We’re going to add a couple of C-words to the mix of challenges in a world whose farmers must grow more food than ever before.
Fortunately, we also have some good news: We’re going to present three C-words that represent reasons for hope and opportunities for resilience.

Let’s start with the threats, as farmers struggle to feed a planet of more than 8 billion people in what is truly the biggest job on earth.

• Climate: This is the most important menace, whose effects are just beginning to harm us and whose long-range consequences are potentially cataclysmic. Farmers will feel them profoundly, as rainfall patterns shift, droughts and floods increase, and pests and diseases move into new ranges. These changes will hurt yields. A study from 2017 warns that each degree-Celsius rise in the global mean temperature will depress harvests of wheat by 6 percent, rice by 3.2 percent, corn by 7.4 percent, and soybeans by 3.1 percent.

• Crisis: The results of climate change will occur over decades, but a crisis can strike swiftly and at any moment. The COVID-19 pandemic and its government lockdowns are perfect examples of a sudden and major disruption, exposing the deficiencies of global supply chains. Restrictions on travel and commerce led to both labor and food shortages. In the United States, according to one expert, it wiped out two decades of food-security gains. The nature of the next crisis is anyone’s guess. It could be a major volcanic eruption or a geomagnetic storm. The only certainty is that there will be a next one.

• Conflict: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has revealed how a war between two countries touches everyone. The World Food Program of the United Nations has estimated that war exacerbated the effects of the pandemic, and that the number of people suffering from severe food insecurity would jump from 276 million at the beginning of the war to 323 million by the end of 2022. As this devastating war grinds into its second year, other potential conflicts loom in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. They threaten to make a bad problem worse.

• Cost: Farmers have felt the effects of global inflation more than many others, as they’ve seen their input prices soar. The cost of fertilizer alone has doubled or even tripled. Farmers can absorb only so much of this. They have no choice but to pass on many of these expenses to consumers, who in turn must pay more for their food.

Here are two more Cs that we’d like to add to this already-troubling equation.

• Cities: Urban centers are booming. By 2050, more than two-thirds of the world population will live in cities, up from 55 percent today, according to an estimate from the United Nations. As cities grow, they gobble up land for housing, resources, and infrastructure, often burying productive farmland beneath asphalt. This adds additional pressure to food systems. Moreover, as they seal the soil, they damage the quantity and quality of groundwater.

• Consumption: In a world with too much hunger, we waste an extraordinary amount of food—about 40 percent of it in the United States, says the nonprofit group Feeding America. This suggests that although farmers can produce a bounty of food, we fail in getting it to the people who may need it most. Meanwhile, we’re consuming one of our most precious resources: productive land. We’re losing 23 hectares of it every single minute.

Now for the good news: We offer three Cs of restorative solutions.

• Collaboration: Private and public partnerships are creating new ways to preserve farmland, through the purchase of development rights programs that allow farmers to keep the title to their property but also guarantees that it will remain productive in agriculture, even as cities expand, and families transfer ownership to a new generation. Additionally, new mentorship programs pair land-rich and cash-poor veteran farmers with younger aspirants who are the key to future food production.

• Choice: Farmers enjoy a vast range of choices about what to grow and how to grow it. They can take up conventional approaches or go organic, responding to what the market demands. Moreover, new technologies offer amazing opportunities with biotech seeds, precision irrigation, crop protection, satellite mapping, and self-driving vehicles. When farmers have access to these tools—and more of them need better access, especially in the developing world—they have a chance to flourish.

• Communication: Farmers have strong credibility as storytellers, and in this age of direct and instant messages, they can share their knowledge and describe their needs to anyone with a social-media account. In the conversation about food security and resilience, they must have a powerful voice—and they’ve never had a better chance to use it.

If we are wise about collaboration, choice, and communication, we’ll rise to the challenges of climate, crisis, conflict, cost, cities, and consumption.

Photo source: NASA

Tim Durham

Tim Durham

Tim is a 5th generation farmer, educator, and agvocate. His family operates Deer Run Farm – a 30 acre
“truck” farm on Long Island, New York – where they grow leafy greens, root crops, and herbs. Though conventional, the farm fashions itself biointensive, using Integrated Pest Management, naturally-derived biorationals, and organic amendments. Fractional monoculture is also a focus: small-scale, intensive cropping punctuated by rotations and cover crops. As a result, Deer Run Farm was hailed as a “national model” by the New York State Agricultural Environmental Management program for its stewardship. As one of a handful of farms outside of New York City, it faces unique challenges, especially those associated with urban-edge agriculture.
In 2005, he enrolled in the University of Florida’s Plant Medicine Program – an interdisciplinary “plant doctor” degree that parallels an M.D. or D.V.M. In the offseason, he’s an Associate Professor of Crop Science at Ferrum College, VA.

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