The dominant paradigm for agricultural development at the start of the green revolution focused on intensification of a limited number of energy crops to enhance human well-being through food production. This approach has been largely successful in terms of reaching its goal - enhancing food production and reducing acute hunger. However, the food system is now more than ever highly centralized and simplified. While we see increasing change and disturbances as a result of the Anthropocene Era, this simplified and centralized food system is likely to have increased vulnerability of both food supply, food distribution through globalized markets, and the external environment. This loss of resilience comes at the same time as food production has emerged as the main driver for global environmental change, and food consumption being the main driver for loss of human health. However, in as much as agriculture is highlighted as a primary driver of environmental degradation, we believe that substantial changes in food production practices can broadening agriculture’s contributions to environmental sustainability, social justice and health challenges globally. This has led to an increasing call for systems and resilience based approaches in agricultural development. Yet, there is little understanding of what these approaches mean and how they can be operationalized without reducing the needed intensification of food production in many regions around the world.
Here, we explore how to operationalize resilience in agricultural development by focusing on seven principles of resilience (Biggs et al. 2012) and the role of ecology in helping to link ecosystems and people. Adopting these principles requires a fundamental shift in thinking, where the agricultural systems needs to be understood as being both complex and adaptive, and the overall goal of agricultural development as a moving target. In such, we need to integrate productivity-based approaches with approaches to manage uncertain pathways of complex adaptive systems. While there have been tremendous inroads to increasing agriculture’s contribution to sustainability, the challenges to production system transformation remains significant especially as it needs to combine efficiency and intensification, with resilience and sustainability. The transformation needed is thus fundamental to reaching the global sustainability targets and will require concepts and tools from multiple disciplines, particularly ecology.