Agricultural resilience in the spotlight during the pandemic

Climate-proof rural and urban areas

The Dutch intensive farms pose a challenge when it comes to resilience. Photo: Shutterstock

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The European SURE-Farm project studies the resilience of agricultural systems. The Covid pandemic turned out to be the ideal stress test, revealing the strengths and vulnerable spots. “The coronavirus gave us a unique opportunity, one you won’t find in textbooks.”

Uruguayan sheep shearers are normally flown into Spain in spring to shear the sheep, as they are the best in their profession. Air traffic largely came to a standstill during the first Covid lockdown but the sheep shearers were still able to get to Spain on time thanks to the intervention of the Spanish government. “It turned out a lot was possible when the pressure was on”, says Miranda Meuwissen, project coordinator and agricultural business economics expert at Wageningen University & Research (WUR). “Another problem was that the farmers were left with lamb and mutton that would normally have been sold to restaurants; an export route to Saudi Arabia was found as a solution for that meat.” This is an example of the resilience in the system for sheep farming in Spain. Resilience is the ability of companies and systems to adapt and survive in the face of sudden or drastic changes in the circumstances – for example due to climate change.

WUR’s added value in this project lies in its knowledge and experience with researching how resilience works

The corona pandemic stalled the international sales market, leaving farmers with an oversupply of potatoes. Photo: Shutterstock

For the past four years, the resilience of agricultural systems has been studied in the European SURE-Farm research project. These agricultural systems encompass farmers and stakeholders such as banks, businesses that process agricultural products, suppliers, nature managers and water authorities.

Resilience in the research

That the world would be engulfed by a pandemic during an EU-wide study of resilience in agricultural systems was obviously not foreseen in the project proposal, but the sixteen European research partners realised at once what an opportunity this was. It was hard to imagine a better practice run of the major changes ahead for the systems. The researchers were therefore all prepared to put in the extra effort to learn from the pandemic. Meuwissen: “The coronavirus gave us a unique opportunity to analyse the resilience of systems in practice. It was a major trial run for businesses, one you won’t find in textbooks.” The study produced some useful insights. There were big problems in Romania, where the agricultural sector consists of lots of small-scale farmers who mainly sell their products locally, because local people stopped coming to the markets. Meuwissen: “So while you might expect a small-scale system to be robust, in practice it turned out not to be. The farmers in Romania didn’t have links to cooperatives and supply chains. In Belgium, dairy farmers had to deal with falling prices and couldn’t work out why. They didn’t realise that it was because of the international supply chain and the fact that international sales had stopped.”

Building resilience of farming systems is complex and requires a regional approach. Miranda Meuwissen and her team are proud to have managed to come up with priorities.

The same factor led to a surplus of potatoes in Britain. Farmers wanted to give the potatoes away for free to supermarkets, but once potatoes have been sprayed to stop them sprouting – which was the case here – they can no longer be sold to consumers. Meuwissen: “In this way, the coronavirus crisis revealed many different issues that we had not been aware of. These issues pinpoint where the system is insufficiently flexible and where problems could arise in the sustainability transition. The current agricultural system is pretty inflexible, in particular as regards financial constructions.”

Final nudge

The pandemic also showed some bright spots. The Polish fruit and vegetable sector, for instance, was able to contact labourers in Ukraine via Facebook during the 2020 lockdown and bring them over to Poland to help with the harvest. Another successful measure in Poland was the switch during this period from labour-intensive crops to labour-extensive crops, for example from cauliflowers and broccoli to pumpkins and beans. Meuwissen says this switch had been coming for a while but the pandemic gave the final nudge.


These findings on resilience are not just about dealing with unexpected situations: they are also relevant for periods of change. That is a major topic in agriculture because of all the developments affecting the sector, for instance climate change, environmental legislation, globalisation (international competition) and the ageing population (labour shortages). Carrying on as before is simply not an option. Meuwissen: “Agriculture needs to get better at dealing with risks and change, and to build the capacity for making transitions. That means overhauling the entire system, not just relying on contracts and insurance policies; after all, insurers themselves are rethinking their role.” To get a picture of resilience under changing conditions, SURE-Farm is looking at eleven areas in Europe and the challenges they face. These are regions with a lot of family-run businesses or with many intensive farms, as in the case of Dutch arable farms. Agriculture is facing challenges due to the changing climate and weather conditions but also due to price shocks and financial risks. SURE-Farm analysed retrospectively how these systems adapted to the changes they had to deal with.

While you might expect a small-scale system to be robust, in practice it turned out not to be

The intention is to reduce agriculture at the Veluwe to tackle the nitrogen problem. Photo: Shutterstock

During the research, they unearthed a new problem, as Meuwissen explains. “We call it the ‘the young farmer problem’, referring to the lack of anyone to take over the farm. The solution often lies in looking more carefully at what young farmers want and what they wish to do differently. If you key into that, it often becomes possible to find successors after all.”

Learning from one another

The added value of WUR in this project lies in its knowledge and experience with researching how resilience works. WUR set up the structure and the scope for the research project. Meuwissen: “Other groups in Europe put flesh on the bones of the case studies, using our definitions and analyses. Our particular strength is in combining different disciplines, such as risk management with plant science and knowledge of the soil with policy.” Meuwissen also thinks we could learn a lot in the Netherlands from other countries. What works and what not when dealing with risks? Which systems turn out to be shockproof? “We can look at the implications of these conclusions for the Dutch situation because we are encountering the same challenges as in other EU countries. At present, the debate about problems in agriculture is focused on regional measures, for example restricting agriculture in the Veluwe to tackle the problem of excess nitrogen. What level of risk can those regions bear and what is their resilience? That is different for a nature area than for an urban area; take the nitrogen legislation, for example.” There are various small-scale initiatives to improve the resilience of farmers. “There is resilience when you have greater diversity – so less homogeneous agriculture – and when the system has more reserves, not just in financial terms but in all respects, such as a support base among the local populace and reserves in the soil. But the overarching conclusion is that the system’s capacity for making a transition definitely needs to grow.”

European research context

SURE-Farm addresses the following European policy challenge: The development of a sustainable, resilient form of agriculture that takes account of the climate, a healthy economic basis and food security Wageningen University & Research groups involved: Business Economics, Public Administration and Policy, Strategic Communication, Plant Production Systems Countries involved in Europe: Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and United Kingdom Duration: 2017 – 2021

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