It’s part of our language now. A black swan is an event that is random and unpredicted and that brings broad consequences. The term originated in the late 1600s after the discovery of black swans in Western Australia. Until then, everyone believed swans could only be white. The discovery meant sometimes we get what we don’t expect.
Lebanese-American scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable used the black swan to describe unpredictable outlier events that have been massively disruptive in history. These are events that disrupt otherwise sound existing systems, and can be powerful catalysts for change.
Food revolutions are black swans that change the course of agriculture and food, says Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute president and CEO Don Buckingham.
Buckingham told Farm Management Canada’s Agricultural Excellence Conference in December that agricultural black swans have ranged from the domestication of animals all the way up to the introduction of new foods such as potatoes and tomatoes to Europe in the 1500s.
Agriculture gets sideswiped by non-agricultural events too, like the stock market crash of 1929 and the OPEC oil embargo of 1973. Many farmers still have painful memories of interest rates in the 1980s.
And they keep coming. African swine fever is just one example, Buckingham said in Fredericton, N.B. “This is a devastating unexpected black swan event which will change the way we do agriculture.”
Black swans are “a reality” and, arguably, we should expect them to arise even more frequently than in past.
“The black swans are swimming faster than they used to,” Buckingham warned.
The speed of these shocks means agricultural and food systems require new and improved ways to maintain their resilience, so they can not only absorb them but also adapt and transform based on them. Black swans, Buckingham said, “tend to change winners to losers and losers to winners” but also contribute to agriculture’s growth through new forms of innovation and resilience.
“Black swan events will either test and kill, or test and grow, a particular system,” he said.
There are positive signs Canadian agriculture is building resilience to face the unpredictables, Buckingham said.
One sign is collaboration, and the growth of super clusters such as the one for protein industries now at work in Western Canada, he said.
Much more is needed in terms of business risk management tools, though, as they are critically important to give farmers the reserves they need to ride out a particular crisis, he said.
But economic resilience by itself is not enough, said Buckingham. “That’s not the only meaning of resilience.”
We must turn our attention to other forms of resilience for building our transformation mechanisms, he said.
We have long had producer associations but Buckingham also pointed to the number of peer advisory groups farmers are participating in. Farmers getting involved in them realize they’re stronger together and that “we can’t face black swans alone,” he said.
“The way you make yourself more resilient is having common modes of intellect around how to plan and move forward. (Peer groups are) trying to understand what’s making a difference in their business so when a black swan event happens, you don’t have one person who has a solution, you have five or six or 10 farms that are building support and resilience.”
To face black swan events like weather, price and similar shocks, we must also adopt and enhance management practices that facilitate producing more units more efficiently, or that offer protection against income losses, he said.
“That’s called absorption,” he said. “That’s ‘I’m resilient because I’ve got some gas in the tank to ride out this particular bad price market or this particular weather event.’”
Environmental risk management and social risk management are therefore important too.
Agriculture becomes more resilient when producing goods and services for maintaining and enhancing natural capital, he said.
“I’m thinking here of incentivizing some of the practices which would make our systems more resilient, like being able to have better soil health and enhancing carbon soil sequestration.”
Likewise, today’s conversation around mental health in agriculture points to a sector increasingly looking for ways to withstand the emotional toll agriculture takes on its farmers.
Black swans demand more of us — to not only be able to adapt to change, but transform with it over time.
“I think that is key to understanding resilience at a systems level … having resources to absorb, having ideas to adapt and having courage to transform.”