Diversification can increase biodiversity, mitigate risk, broaden the nutritional portfolio of what is grown, and allow farmers to engage with new market opportunities. Diversification is, therefore, one of the key strategies for building resilience for smallholder farmers. There have been some cautionary voices, however the dominant narrative is that diversification is good and should be widely promoted. For example, at the 2017 Global Food Security conference (Dec 3-6, Cape Town, South Africa), many presenters continued to promote the important role of diversification as a means to enhance resilience and improve food security.
Understanding diversification is important because resilience plays a key role in the Sustainable Development Goals. Thus, our understanding of how to strengthen resilience is critical. critical. Based on research we have conducted on food security in multiple areas of Ethiopia, we believe diversification can have positive impacts, but we also find that some forms of diversification are, in fact, maladaptive and reduce resilience, causing some individuals and households to become more vulnerable. Seeking to better understand diversification has been the result of years of in-depth qualitative, participatory research. This by highlighting key questions about the impacts of diversification.
Consider a smallholder farmer in rural Ethiopia with a plot of land less than one hectare. Even in a good year, her household will encounter a lean season of food shortages. She can opt for higher yielding cereals, but these require sufficient rainfall. As a means to mitigate the total loss of a crop, the field is diversified. Hence, due to rainfall variability and a lack of irrigation – crops with shorter growing cycles are added. This makes sense, and risk is being proactively managed. However, these crop diversifications have lower overall yields, and as a result the household experiences a longer period of food shortages during the year.
These diversifications are well reasoned choices, but promote rather than reduce vulnerability in the long-term. Malnourishment and micro-nutrient deficiencies increase. The vulnerabilities expose the family to new challenges. Namely, taking on higher debts to manage the lean season, or pulling children from school to obtain temporary work. Essentially these are the least bad of the available array of poor options.
Taking a more nuanced look at diversification suggests is does not necessarily enhance resilience, and that it is critical for us to re-assess what constitutes as resilience-building lest these objectives become embedded within indicators of the Sustainable Development Goals, while they may not reflect the objectives. This is important. Two SDGs (9 and 11)* and seven targets (1.5, 2.4, 9.1, 11b, 11c, 13.1, 14.2)** outline resilience as the objective. Yet resilience is not defined. Our research raises questions and challenges assumptions. To what extent decision makers have considered these aspects?
- *Source: Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform. Available: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/
- **Source: 100 Proposed Global Indicators for the SDGs. Available: http://indicators.report