Climate Change, Resilience and the Future of Food

Spring 2021

By Holli Cederholm

The weather instability that farmers are dealing with today is truly “unprecedented,” according to Laura Lengnick, a soil scientist and the founder of Cultivating Resilience, LLC, in Asheville, North Carolina. Farmers have always had to assess weather-associated risks, but not like this. “Never before in the history – the 10,000 year history of agriculture – have farmers ever had to manage the kind of variability that farmers today are faced with,” she said during her keynote address at MOFGA’s 2020 Farmer to Farmer Conference.

When Lengnick first started working in climate change adaptation in agriculture about 12 years ago, she was struck by the lack of research being conducted in the U.S. that asked farmers what kinds of weather changes they were seeing and how they were adapting to those changes.

This led Lengnick to conduct her own “climate listening project,” in which she asked farmers to share their stories. The project aimed at giving farmers a voice and grew into a book titled “Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate” (previously reviewed in the spring 2016 issue of The MOF&G, a second edition is forthcoming from New Society Publishers in July 2021).

“So for more than a decade, farmers and ranchers all over the U.S. are saying that weather is changing,” said Lengnick. Common changes being reported by farmers include: too much or not enough water, variable temperatures and rainfall, warmer winters and nights in some parts of the country, more frequent and intense heat waves, and new pest and disease pressures. “Sometimes these are just higher [population numbers] or longer seasons of traditional pests, but there are also new pests and diseases moving into different areas,” said Lengnick.

These changes are happening at different rates in different regions so farmers across the U.S. are not being universally burdened. In addition to location, the type of agriculture can impact how the changes are felt – with certain conditions being harder to mitigate for vegetable growers than livestock producers and vice versa.

Maine’s 2020 growing season was particularly challenging, due to a wet spring followed by a severe drought. Lengnick gathered clips from local media whose headlines announced “an unprecedented number of wildfires” as well as “historic drought” in some regions in Maine. One headline succinctly summarized what farmers everywhere are experiencing: “when it comes to weather, abnormal is the new normal.” Another way that Lengnick has heard farmers say it, “It is becoming predictably unpredictable.”

The fourth and most recent National Climate Assessment, released in 2018, published high-level findings from scientists regarding climate change and agriculture. Among them, it was noted that agriculture is going to experience reduced productivity and quality of crops and that soil and water resources will become progressively degraded “primarily because of the increased intensity and frequency of heavy rain events … punctuated by longer dry periods and droughts,” said Lengnick.

This translates to increased competition for declining water resources – this is true in for the Eastern U.S. as well as the West, where water has already been managed for 200 years, she continued.  Competition for resources – including land and nutrients in addition to water – will strain relationships between farmers and communities.

It’s going to get more difficult and more expensive to grow food, Lengnick cautioned. “Some farmers around some parts of the country have already experienced what it’s like when a city says, ‘No, we’re going to use that water. We’re shutting it off to farmers,’” said Lengnick.

“But the light in this story is that it turns out that agriculture and agricultural landscapes have kind of a super power,” said Lengnick. “Depending on how they’re managed and depending on the relationships that farmers and other growers make with the communities that they’re serving, agriculture can actually be part of the solution to climate change.”

How to Adapt to Unprecedented Conditions

While co-writing a USDA report, “Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States: Effects and Adaptation,” released in February 2013, Lengnick first discovered resilience science. It’s the perfect body of knowledge, in Lengnick’s opinion, to apply to climate change; it can also be used as a framework to adapting to any disturbance or shock, such as farming during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Resilience science is a 50-year-old system science that is rooted in ecology. “It doesn’t assume stability, and so it gives us language and tools to … manage and shape change,” said Lengnick.

Laura Lengnick

Resilient systems have three complimentary capacities: “response capacity,” “recovery capacity” and “transformation capacity.”

Many people think about resilience as recovery capacity or the ability to bounce back. “But it’s actually the other two capacities that I think are much more useful as we think about how we’re managing change in the food system,” said Lengnick.

Response capacity refers to the ability to design or manage a system so that when there is a disturbance, there is little or no damage. If farms and food systems are designed to navigate change effectively, there is no need to recover. Recovery capacity means that a system design can rebound swiftly and at a low cost. Transformation capacity is the ability of a system to recognize when it’s time to change in order to improve upon the response and recovery capacities.

The Three Rules of Resilience

According to scientific analysis, resilient systems of any kind – whether families, farms or food systems – tend to follow three important rules. “The first is that the systems are made up of diverse relationships of mutual benefit,” said Lengnick.

Within a farm system, the relationships include every aspect of the farm, i.e., between humans and plants and between plants and soil, as well as relationships formed with the community in which the farmer resides. Lengnick noted that organic farmers, with their emphasis on healthy soil as the foundation of any farm system, have a lot to offer the rest of agriculture.

The second rule is that resilient systems tend to have regional self-reliance, meaning community resource systems in a region are designed and managed to produce all of the critical resources necessary to sustain the region’s well-being. There is very little importing of critical resources like water, energy, nutrients and food as well as human resources including ingenuity, innovation, human capacity and management. It also means that these resources are not being exported to a large degree. While Lengnick thinks that organic farming has to lot to offer others in terms of adopting this second rule, she also expressed that there is room for improvement.

Lastly, resilient systems accumulate community-based wealth, which is a lot more than financial wealth. Resilient systems cultivate all the kinds of wealth that sustain community well-being including natural, human and social resources, along with locally adapted physical and technological resources.

The three complimentary capacities of resilience – response, recovery and transformation – are cultivated when these three rules are followed at different scales within the region, from individuals, to families, to businesses and community organizations, to regional governance.  

Resilience Thinking

Designing and managing resilient systems requires a shift in the basic assumptions of modern industrialism. Lengnick says that we can no longer assume optimum conditions in a farm or food system and must instead shift to a framework which embraces variability. “Remember, we have left a time in our 10,000-year-old history as a species in which we were living in a climate stability,” said Lengnick.

We also need to move from industrial design and management principles to ecological design. Likewise, a hyper-focus on efficiency should be shed and robustness prioritized. “The window of vitality” refers to “a sweet spot between not enough diversity and too much diversity,” said Lengnick. Modern, highly efficient systems do not have adequate diversity to sustain themselves through disturbances. Though too much diversity doesn’t bode well either.

Lengnick cited research developing around community supported agriculture (CSA) systems and the optimum level of diversity. “It turns out that CSAs that have sustained themselves over time, tend to reduce the number, the diversity, of species being grown on any particular farm to around … roughly 15 to 20 from maybe starting out with 40 or 50,” said Lengnick.

Resilience thinking emphasizes tailoring expert knowledge and scientific thinking based on place-based knowledge. Along with moving from imported to regional resources, resilience thinking also requires a shift from extractive to regenerative economies.

Resilience on the Farm

Lengnick sees many parallels between resilience thinking and sustainable agriculture systems, known for incorporating ecological principles, place-based knowledge, regional resources and regenerative economies. With her climate listening project, Lengnick sought out organic and sustainable farmers and ranchers across the country and asked them what weather changes they were seeing, how they were adapting, and if they were managing for resilience.

From conversations with 27 farmers, Lengnick identified several key resilience practices that “showed up no matter where the farmer or rancher was located, and no matter what they were producing.” She said, “I don’t think any of these will be particularly surprising to a group of organic farmers, but hopefully it will be encouraging.”

The key resilience practices are as follows: soil health; planned biodiversity; diverse, high-value markets; improved water management; physical protection; and recovery reserves. 

Managing soil health as a resilience practice buffers the extremes of temperature and precipitation that are becoming more frequent and intense. “These farmers and ranchers viewed this buffering ability of soil health, the ability to absorb heavy rainfall and then to store it for plants to use during dry periods in drought, as particularly important to managing the changing weather patterns,” said Lengnick.

Lengnick also found that farmers were utilizing diversity as a tactic both on the farm – assessing where and how to place different species – and in their marketing strategies.

Due to more variable water conditions, farmers spoke of increased need for irrigation during more frequent dry periods and drought as well as using physical structures such as hoop houses and plastic mulch to protect soils and crops from heavy precipitation.

Planning for recovery included having reserves ­– from financial capital to livestock feed – while also increasing land and water resources. “That was because they were seeing more frequent and intense disruptions to their farms that were requiring some kind of repair from a damage being done by weather,” said Lengnick.

The Future of Food

There are many different solutions being presented for farming and eating in a changing climate: from local agriculture to lab-grown meat. Lengnick said that resilience thinking can help determine which solutions can work for individuals and communities. She suggests interrogating any potential solution using the three rules of resilience: Does this solution cultivate diverse networks of mutually beneficial relationships? Does it cultivate regional self-reliance? Does it accumulate a diverse wealth portfolio for communities?

Lengnick cited several real-world examples of resilience thinking being used to re-imagine food systems. A sustainable development concept known as the “city region” offers a model of resilience thinking in regional planning. City regions strive to promote mutual, beneficial relationships between urban and rural areas. Essentially, rural areas provide urban areas with myriad benefits, including food, clean water and air, and open space for recreation. “The idea of the city region is that we begin to change the nature of the relationship between urban and rural areas to allow resources to flow back into rural areas, rather than just having urban areas extract the value out of them,” said Lengnick.

The New England Food Vision used the city region model to assess how realistic it would be for New England to feed itself. Another interesting example comes from Houston, Texas, with the Water as a Crop project. Houston’s municipal water and electrical suppliers, along with city breweries, paid ranchers in the surrounding watershed to implement conservation practices to increase water quality and quantity in the region.

Harnessing Hope

To stay positive while studying climate change, Lengnick has taken a “deep dive into hope.” And it turns out that psychologists have done so as well, delineating at least seven different kinds of hope in the process. Lengnick finds “grounded hope” to be the most relevant in talking about agriculture and food systems. “It’s the kind of hope that is generated by working towards a desired future in community,” said Lengnick. “Psychologists tell us that grounded hope creates a sense of agency.”

To practice grounded hope in the pursuit of a resilient future, Lengnick suggests applying resilience thinking to every phase of your life, from family to farming to community involvement. Everyone can practice grounded hope by supporting regional, diversified agriculture systems – though it’s going to “take more than just buying local food to slow and reverse climate change,” said Lengnick.

“We need to be looking every way we can in our lives to promote action on climate change: in all the different places that we stand in, all the different ways that we’re leaders. We need to act to stop climate change now,” said Lengnick.

During her career as a soil scientist, researcher, policymaker, educator, author and farmer, Laura Lengnick has worked to apply sustainability values to agricultural and food systems. As the founder and principal of Cultivating Resilience, LLC, in Asheville, North Carolina, she works with organizations, including small-scale organic farms, to integrate resilience thinking into their operations. Lengnick’s keynote address at MOFGA’s Farmer to Farmer Conference was broadcast on Common Ground Radio on WERU FM Community Radio on November 12, 2020, and is archived at weru.org.

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