FEW PEOPLE know that I have a (very) weak spot for science fiction.

Not the typical alien versus humankind type (unless we’re talking about Captain Kirk and the Tribbles of course!), more the futuristic type scenarios, dystopian questions and what our environments and systems may one day look like.

These stories often pose big questions which don’t just concern science but culture, politics and philosophy – and our moral obligations towards each other and our planet.

One of my all-time favourites, The Expanse, has an amazing ability to capture problems realistically and head-on (as far as a fictional story can be realistic of course!).

In one episode Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon (bear with me please!), which has become an agricultural station to supply food for those living in space, is attacked. The systems required to sustain food production on the base start to break down one by one.

It’s called the cascading effect and is eloquently explained by one of the protagonists: “In real nature, there is enough diversity to cushion an ecosystem when something catastrophic happens. Nothing that we build, our ships, our stations, has that depth.

“In an artificial ecosystem, when one thing goes wrong, there’s only a certain amount of pathways that can compensate for it. Eventually those pathways get overstressed and then they fail, which leaves fewer pathways, and then they’ll get overstressed, and then they fail.”

… “And Ganymede is a simple complex system. Because it’s simple, it’s prone to cascades, and because it’s complex, you can’t predict what’s gonna break down next or how.”

Sound familiar?

Of course it does. Every industry we’ve created, every system we manage, can be and every so often is affected by the cascading effect, a chain reaction following one event that impacts on a system.

That can be anything from an overloaded powerline trip causing further line trips, to the loss of an apex predator in a specific ecosystem and the imbalance it creates as a result of the prey population exploding.

Whilst cascading effects are relevant in all human-made constructs, they are particularly critical in our food industry, because, you know, it is sort of one of the most important industries we have.

Think of the impact that difficult crop harvesting conditions in many countries coupled with biblical flooding in Germany could have on arable farm profitability and the feed costs that livestock finishers have to cope with.

The struggles faced by subsidiary industries when the 2015 CAP reform resulted in heavily delayed payments to farm businesses, highlighted just how much of that money is usually immediately passed on and recirculated within the wider economy because it is an essential income support to most farmers and not just an added profit that can simply be pocketed.

Think of the outcome if we were to lose the critical mass in some of our sectors, its impact on other farming sectors, subsidiary businesses, countryside communities, rural and domestic economies, and our ultimately higher reliance on imports?

I believe the last time this country became more and more dependent on imported foods was during the war and we all know what happened when these imports were disrupted.

Not to mention, as somebody said in a meeting last week, the moral obligation we have to try our best to contribute towards sustainable global food security for a growing population.

Now imagine what would happen to our agricultural and environmental resilience if our policies were to just focus on and support a small handful of farming sectors and production systems because the focus of policy design is on simplicity of administration, rather than effectiveness of delivery?

Simplification of scheme delivery is paramount to minimise the amount of time farmers are tied up in tedious compliance paperwork, but simplicity should not be a priority for officials to keep the workload for the government to a minimum because it always comes at a cost to effectiveness.

Simplicity does not like diversity and flexibility, two key factors of industry, business and national resilience.

Imagine we were left with just a small handful of production systems of a common type and size because agricultural policy makers couldn’t be bothered to be flexible and inclusive, or have deemed other sectors and systems as ‘inefficient’ or ‘less climate friendly’ because of less than rudimentary analysis (or political agenda?), and drawn the support away from them.

What would happen? The few remaining businesses would likely have the same strengths, but also the same weaknesses and if one is negatively affected, they all are.

If the global market crashes for one agricultural commodity, they have no buffer if it affects them. Their land management would probably be similar if not the same – that land would ideally have some sort of biodiversity value, but would only be capable of supporting specific types of plants and animals.

Meanwhile, the important landscape scale inter-connectivity between other more marginal habitats would be lost, because alternative sectors no longer exist to provide a habitat mosaic.

So what’s the answer (to everything)?

Well, first of all we need to appreciate that nature actually knows quite well how to achieve ecosystem balance, stability and resilience.

She’s been doing it for quite some time now and has a little bit more experience that the (not so) humble homo sapiens. That means appreciating that human-made constructs and systems are fallible, despite our best intentions and advancements.

Secondly, we need diversity. Everywhere and in every aspect.

The farming industry needs different sectors and production systems, a diverse pattern of land ownership and tenure, small and large operations, family farms, habitat mosaics, meadow pastures, agro-forestry, hill cattle and arable cropping, and everything in-between.

To achieve that, we need flexible policy that embraces this diversity as an opportunity because every system brings its own benefits (despite what some may think).

If our new CabSec does not receive the support she should be getting in implementing such a policy, we won’t be able to stop the cascade, because ‘it’s not the thing that breaks you that you need to watch out for’.