Ecological and financial strategies provide complementary benefits for smallholder climate resilience: insights from a simulation model

T.G. Williams, G. Dressler, A.E. Stratton, B. Müller

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


© 2021, Resilience Alliance. All rights reserved.Researchers and development organizations regularly grapple with competing ecological and financial strategies for building climate resilience in smallholder agricultural systems, but rarely are such approaches considered in tandem. Using a social-ecological simulation model, we explored how different combinations of legume cover cropping, an ecological insurance, and index-based crop insurance, a financial insurance, affect the climate resilience of mixed crop-livestock smallholder farmers over time. The model simulates interactions between soil nutrient dynamics, crop yields, and household wealth, which is carried solely in the form of livestock. We assume legume cover cropping provides biological nitrogen fixation, thereby increasing soil fertility and productivity over time, whereas microinsurance gives payouts in drought years that provide ex-post coping benefits. Our model results indicate that the benefits of cover cropping to mean household income strongly complement the shock-absorbing benefits of microinsurance. Specifically, we found: (1) insurance always provides larger benefits during and in the wake of a drought, while cover cropping progressively reduces poverty in the medium-to long-term; (2) the use of crop insurance solely as an ex-post coping strategy may not reduce the incidence of poverty; and (3) legume cover cropping offers larger relative benefits in more degraded environments and for poor farmers. These results underscore the complementary roles that ecological and financial strategies could play in building resilience in smallholder agricultural systems. The stylized model constitutes an important social-ecological foundation for future empirical research to inform agricultural innovation and sustainable development priorities.
Original languageEnglish
Article number14
JournalEcology and Society
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2021
Externally publishedYes


The authors sincerely thank the three anonymous reviewers, whose suggestions greatly improved the quality of the paper. TGW was supported by funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF-01LN1315A) within the Junior Research Group POLISES, as well as a U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) CNH Grant (Land transactions and investments: Impacts on agricultural production, ecosystem services, and food-energy security; DEB-1617364). GD acknowledges financial support by the BMBF within the project NamTip - Understanding and Managing Desertification Tipping Points in Dryland Social-Ecological Systems (FKZ: 01LC1821D). AES was supported by the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program and Rackham Graduate School at the University of Michigan. BM was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) in the project SEEMI (Social-Ecological Effects of Microinsurance; 321077328).

FundersFunder number
CNHDEB-1617364, 01LC1821D
Rackham Graduate School at the University of Michigan
National Science Foundation
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft321077328
Bundesministerium für Bildung und ForschungBMBF-01LN1315A


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