Local Food Is Not Enough. We Need Resilient Agriculture.

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Planting cover crops is just one of the ways that farmers are exploring increased resilience. NRCS Soil Health [CC by 2.0]/Flickr
cover of Resilent Agriculture book

Dr. Laura Lengnick has been actively exploring sustainable agriculture for more than 30 years. As a researcher, policymaker, activist, educator and farmer, she has learned countless ways that farming can reduce its impact on the planet. Still, as farmers find themselves increasingly on the front lines of global climate change, drought and biodiversity loss, she became convinced that sustainability is not enough. Farming will have to adapt and evolve to help meet the myriad challenges our society is facing.

That's the concept behind her new book "Resilient Agriculture," which looks beyond reductive and sometimes divisive labels like "local" and "organic" and instead begins exploring what a truly resilient food system might look like.

We got on the phone to talk more about how food and farming is changing.

Treehugger: 'Sustainable' and 'organic' and 'local' have been buzzwords in farming for a long time. How is 'resilient' different, and what does it bring to the mix?

Laura Lengnick: My understanding of resilience is it is about three different capacities:

  • One, a capacity to respond to a disturbance or event to avoid or reduce damage to the existing system.
  • Two, a capacity to recover from damaging events.
  • And three, a capacity to transform or change the existing system to one that is more resilient to disturbance.

Public discourse is only now beginning to develop, and the term resilience sometimes gets oversimplified. It is about much more than just bouncing back when things go wrong. It is a much richer idea that involves careful cultivation of community assets. I wanted to bring some of the richness of these ideas into the conversations about climate resilience so we don’t lose those going forward.

In many ways, farmers are at ground zero on an issue like climate change. So why have so many farmers seemed resistant to the concept, and is that changing?

Farmers are in an industry where climate has a huge impact on their success and profitability. Along with other natural resource industries, they are experiencing climate change earlier and they are having to adapt.

In terms of the resistance, what many farmers heard was a finger being pointed at them by environmentalists and animal rights' activists. The message was that it’s your problem, you fix it. And by the way, it’s going to cost you a lot of money and it will not reduce your actual climate risk.

Yet there is now a shift in the conversation.

And what has shifted it has been bringing adaptation into the conversation. What that’s done is it has made the conversation local — there is a toolkit for adaptation, but each tool works in some places and not in others. The solutions will be locally based, and any investment in adaptation immediately benefits the people who invested in it. Bringing adaptation into the picture completely shifted the focus on solutions, and the cost benefit analysis too — if I spend money, I am going to directly benefit.

The other cool part is that adaptation is still also about mitigation, right? Farmers can actually help sequester carbon and make their farms more resilient in the process.

Yes, it's absolutely a win-win approach to the problem. The best adaptation strategies also mitigate global warming. We are talking about sequestering carbon, reducing emissions, and investing in soil health at the same time. So far, the focus on this has been in the international development world, but farmers here in the U.S. are beginning to join the conversation too.

The farming debate has sometimes been presented as 'sustainable' versus 'conventional,' yet there seems to be more crossover of ideas than there once was. Is that true?

There is definitely more cross-pollinization of ideas between industrial and sustainable agriculture than there once was. The full-on model of industrial agriculture — meaning replacement of ecosystem services with fossil fuels and other chemicals — has been degrading the landscape to a point where resilience has been undermined. As farmers have begun to experience climate change disturbances, they are seeing diminishing returns and they are looking for solutions.

The boom in interest in cover crops and soil health is a prime example. There was a groundbreaking event in February of last year: a national convention focusing specifically on cover crops. Warren Buffett was involved. Gabe Brown [a North Dakota innovator of cover crops, also featured in the video below] was one of the featured speakers. Farmers all over the country gathered in their local USDA office and viewed the national presentations, and then spent the day discussing the challenges ahead and how cover crops can help.

If the benefits of resilient agriculture are so great, why isn't it the norm yet?

Sadly, the answer is often policy: The taxpayer is paying for farmers to not use resilient practices.

Crop insurance is a prime example: Not only does crop insurance disincentivize farmers from using more resilient techniques (because they make a profit, even when their crops fail), but some of the farmers I feature in my book — like Gail Fuller — actually found they were ineligible for federally subsidized crop insurance once they began using cover crops.

So how do we switch agricultural policy from being a barrier to being an incentive for resilience?

When you have such a massive, powerful, distributed institution like the USDA — which has a presence across the country in local farm services offices — it has immense power to transform the farming industry. You already see signs of that in the cover crop conference I mentioned, for example. So while many farm policies may be counterproductive right now, holding things back, if we can switch them to incentivize better stewardship, more resilience, you have this tipping point where an impediment to change becomes a catalyst instead.

There is a concept in resilience science called the adaptive cycle. This four-part cycle describes the organization of resources over time in systems and is observable in natural ecosystems and social systems processes such as politics and finance: Growth. Conservation. Release. Reorganization.

I believe we are in the very late stages of the conservation phase. Remove the barriers, release the resources, and we get the reorganization of food and farming that we so desperately need to help maintain our well-being in a changing climate.

You have argued that a purely 'local' food system is not truly resilient, and we should be focusing on a regional scale instead. Why is that?

There's an increasing recognition among sustainable food system folks that “local” just won’t feed us, and it won’t provide resilience either — you have to have a land base capable of producing the resources necessary to grow food. One of the characteristics of resilient food systems is that they are supported by the natural resources of a particular region — the food system doesn't import significant resources or export waste. The minute you include that characteristic, you have to increase the scale. The challenge, though, is that as you increase the scale, it’s gets harder to achieve the other values of sustainable food — for example the social benefits of direct connections between farmers and consumers.

It's not that we need to be 100 percent local, 100 percent regional or 100 percent globalized — but rather the degree to which we do each of these things. In terms of resilience, it's actually also desirable to have some inter-regional and international trade — it helps to create the social connections we need to promote peace and equity, and it provides some redundancy if there is a shock to any particular region. But to cultivate resilience, the primary focus needs to be on meeting our needs within our own region.

As Herman Daly says, "We import Danish butter cookies and export our cookies to Denmark. Wouldn't it be much simpler to exchange recipes?"

What can each of us do to create a better, more resilient food system?

The ideas of Alice Waters still hold true: consumers are creators. What we consume shapes our world .We create the world with every dollar that we spend. Consumers can play an important role by choosing products that enhance the resilience of their community when they are able, and when they have good options. The other thing consumers can do is grow something and eat it. That simple act, builds our awareness of how our choices impact in the greater world.

And the last piece is to get involved in community. Get involved in a food policy council, and if you don’t have one in your community, create one. When you have an opportunity, advocate on the federal level. Let your representatives know that you want to see a change in the food system.

Every decision you make helps to create our world. If you don’t like the world we’ve got, consider how you can change the way you are making decisions to cultivate resilience.

"Resilient Agriculture" by Laura Lengnick is available for pre-order from New Society Publishers. It will be ready for shipping on May 5.