Global social and economic changes, alongside climate change, are affecting the operating environment for agriculture, leading to efforts to increase production and yields, typically through the use of agrochemicals like pesticides and fertilizers, expanded irrigation, and changes in seed varieties. Intensification, alongside the expansion of agriculture into new areas, has increased harvest, but has also had numerous well-known impacts on the environment, ultimately resulting in a loss of resilience and lack of sustainability in agro-ecosystems. Combined with features of agricultural systems such as the differential movement of ecosystem services, and interactions among ecosystem services driven in part by management choices, such intensification has disrupted key feedbacks in agricultural systems. These changes have tended to perpetuate the management choices that have led to efficient, productive agriculture, often at the expense of nature and the provision of important nonfood ecosystem services. Here, we explore how agriculture functions as a complex adaptive system. We assess how recent changes have interacted with agro-ecosystem features to result in a loss of resilience, and suggest key research directions to help harmonize production and ecosystem function, drawing primarily on Canadian examples. Enhancing the resilience of agricultural landscapes is critical to the long-term sustainability of agriculture in a rapidly changing world.
Advances in Ecological Research, Volume 64, January 2021,