Lock-out - Agriculture & Climate Change #3: Innovation
Innovation is one of our greatest tools for adaptation in agriculture. However, innovation lock-out can stifle the development of potentially game-changing technologies (termed ‘disruptive innovations’ by Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma in 1997), which are likely to be uncompetitive in the mass market when they are first released. Established technology systems ‘can act to lock out the development of … more sustainable technologies, which have high unit costs and are yet to benefit from scale economies, learning effects, adaptive expectations and network effects’ (Foxon, 2002). These technologies need either significant investment to reach maturity, or ideally, a place in a niche market where they can adapt to consumer needs, and become competitive with mass market high emissions or low adaptive capacity products. Many of the best adaptive innovations, when they had a niche market that helped them to escape the lock-out effects of existing technologies, completely replaced the technologies that prevailed when they were first developed. For example, the first steamships couldn’t compete with sailing ships at sea, but developed in the inland waters market - where sailing ships were less effective - until they could compete in the seas and replace sailing ships almost entirely (Christensen).
Disruptive innovations need testing and developing before they can be trusted with farmers’ livelihoods. In some cases, niche markets are available to help develop sustainable practices or technologies, such as organic markets which allow farmers to command a higher price for products produced using more expensive agroecology practices, which are currently too expensive to compete in mainstream agricultural markets. However, if no niche markets are available it will be difficult for them to flourish without significant government, or other institutional, support. Farmers are uncertain about whether they can make the technology work; and they are uncertain about how good it really is - and so are their bank managers and insurance agents. Everyone would rather stick to the technology they know. While some large-scale industrialised farm owners and corporations may have enough of a financial buffer to gamble on new low emissions or adaptive capacity enhancing technologies, smaller scale systems will usually find the risk, and the cost of the new technology, prohibitive. People in developing countries are likely to suffer from climate change ‘more, and earlier, than in (mainly mid- to high-latitude) developed countries, due to a combination of adverse agro-climatic, socio-economic and technological conditions’ (Parry et al., 2007). Therefore, particularly in these regions, adaptive actions will be essential for agriculture to remain productive. However, adaptive actions themselves will contribute to the path dependence of agricultural systems so that a decision to increase resilience in one dimension is likely to increase vulnerabilities in another. Indeed, Chhetri et al. suggest that yield reductions are likely unavoidable ‘because the inherent variability of the climate system will result in adaptation choices that will be suboptimal for some years’.
This variability under global warming may mean that farm viability will depend on the capacity of farmers to organise their farm systems with an increased emphasis on flexibility. In recent history, highly flexible local knowledge based farming practices have been replaced (usually with aid organisation or government facilitation) with more ‘productive’, but less flexible industrialised methods, which have damaged the long-term adaptive capacity of the system. When Balanese community water temple irrigation and cyclical planting systems were replaced with the technology packets of the green revolution, the communities became locked into the high external input systems reliant on technology packs, which reduced self sufficiency and flexible water management (an example from Thriving Beyond Sustainability) - and once that has happened it is hard to go back.
That said, there is a question around the ability of traditional systems to cope with the challenges expected from climate change. Are traditional methods likely to be able to respond to such changes? Ultimately, development approaches must recognise the value of local and indigenous flexible systems while accounting for the unpredictability that will come hand in hand with climate change. They must consider the trade-offs between productivity and flexibility when planning for adaptation. As Metz et al. argue, there should be less emphasis on the search for ideal and general instruments, and more attention to local and fragmented processes for marginal changes, which, added up over time, could lead to more sustainable development paths and lower emissions.
Strong governance and supportive institutions will be crucial for climate change adaptation and mitigation. Switching away from locked in agricultural systems which inhibit adaptation or mitigation may incur cultural and financial costs, or increase risk. Financial and institutional support will be needed from the private sector and from governments to reduce the costs and risks of switching. Innovation and appropriate local solutions must also be made possible. Developing countries, where climate change vulnerability tend to be highest, tend to have weaker institutions and governance than developed countries - indeed Acemoglu and Robinson argue in Why Nations Fail that very often their ‘extractive political institutions’ are the very reason they are ‘developing’ rather than ‘developed’ countries at all. In order to deal with the multi-faceted problem of climate change, development policies must adapt to facilitate the development of mitigative and adaptive strategies in agriculture. Governance must be strengthened to help societies overcome lock-in; it must support innovation, technology adoption and local and appropriate approaches to local climate change challenges, and weigh up trade-offs between productivity and flexibility when planning for adaptation.
- Thanks to lrargerich for the photo