Climate change is causing us to rethink everything from how we plan our cities to how we grow our food. And the ways in which farmers are adapting is familiar territory for sustainable agriculture expert Laura Lengnick—author of the book Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate. Recently, The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple got a chance to talk with Lengnick about an idea you’re probably going to hear a lot more about in the coming years—resilient agriculture—which could become the new food paradigm in an era of climate change.
Allegheny Front: So what exactly is resilient agriculture?
Laura Lengnick: Resilient agriculture is an agriculture that has the capacity to respond to climate disturbances in ways that help the food system avoid damage and recover quickly from damage. And there’s a part to resilient agriculture that’s about transformation. It’s about recognizing when you need to change a system because it’s no longer serving you well in the conditions under a changing climate.
AF: And you write in your book that we’ve done this before. About 10,000 years ago, we went through a major climate shift and we had to adapt as human beings. Can you talk about that?
LL: We’ve got this great story about how, because of agriculture, we developed civilization, the arts, writing—all the wonderful things that define us as human beings. But as I began learning more about climate history, I noticed that there was this very interesting stable part in our climate history that started about 10,000 years ago. And agriculture itself—this transition from being foragers to farmers—was spurred by climate change. Then I started thinking about the possibility that we could actually use the disturbance of climate change to transform our food system in ways that address the harms of our existing system. So we could actually bounce forward as a result of climate change into a better way of eating.
AF: So what would that look like?
LL: Well, we have a food system in this country that is fairly vulnerable to climate change. It’s dependent quite a bit on imports. It’s dependent on one state for a large portion of our fruits, nuts and vegetables. And that state, [California], is going through a pretty incredible drought. And we grow much of our food in monoculture. To improve the climate resilience of the U.S. food system, we would have to do two things. And they’re not small things, but we’re completely capable of doing them. The first is we need to restructure the agricultural system. Rather than depending on global supplies of food and California, we need to move food production closer to metropolitan areas around the country. And the second thing we need to do is diversify agriculture—placing agriculture in healthy landscapes mixed with forestlands and wildlands in a patchwork around our metropolitan areas. Both of those things together have been called a “metropolitan foodshed.” And there’s been a lot of work to suggest that this would actually provide climate resilience benefits as well as public health and nutrition benefits.
LISTEN: “Reinventing Agriculture for the Climate Change Era”
AF: You talked with 25 sustainable producers from all over the country. Can you tell me about one of those farmers—how they’re managing a changing climate and what strategies they’re using?
LL: Elizabeth Henderson is a vegetable farmer in Newark, New York. She has been farming on her farm for about 20 years and in the area for about 30 years. The quote that I think captures what she had to share with me about the changes she’s seen in climate is: “You have to be so nimble these days.” And what she’s referring to is the large increase she’s seen in more variable weather: heavier rainfalls, more frequent drought, heat waves—to the point that she’s concerned about her field workers and herself. She’s added irrigation—something she never needed prior to the last five years or so—because rainfall is coming in fewer and heavier downfalls, and there are longer periods of drought.
AF: And what about consumers? How can they participate in resilient agriculture?
LL: One of the key aspects of a resilient system is diversity. So you can use your food dollars to encourage diversity in your local area. As much as possible, eat from farmers who are growing using sustainable methods. Do what you can to support local farmers and a diversity of farms within your local or regional area. And another step you can take is to grow a little bit of food yourself—even if it’s just on the balcony of your apartment.
AF: The challenges of climate change are sometimes pretty daunting. But there are also opportunities for producers because of climate change. Can you talk about that?
LL: That’s kind of a ticklish question, because it’s a little hard to think about looking for positives in climate change. But the way I think about that is it’s here, it’s happening now, and even if we take dramatic measures to reduce emissions, it’s going to be a while before we would see a reduction in climate effects because of the slow response time in the global atmosphere. So the reality is for the next 40 years—at least—we’re going to need to farm in a changing climate.
One thing that is getting a lot of attention in the Southeast is the idea that, as California increasingly struggles with climate change effects, we may be able to move some of the fruit and vegetable production back to the East. Some farmers are really seeing that as an opportunity. I would say that’s a great opportunity with one caveat. What I’m hearing in the Southeast is that we’re going to become the new Central Valley. Basically, the Central Valley is the fruit and vegetable and nut producer for the entire country. And I would strongly encourage people who are thinking about this to rethink creating the Central Valley in the Southeast. We don’t want to maintain or build a 20th-century approach to food production in the 21st century. So let’s build a resilient version of the Central Valley if that’s what we decide we’d like to do.
Laura Lengnick is the author of Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate.