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Nature and Environment

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Farms and Food in an Era of Climate Change: Resilient Agriculture

Winds roared above, storms lashed the land, and fires of extraordinary scope and ferocity flared through the summer of 2015. In this turbulent, historic context, climate scientist James Hansen stepped forward to report on the big picture. He said our future is closer and more intense than we have so far imagined. Climate change is real, is underway, is intensifying.

Our current state is hazardous and our impending reality is escalating intensity.

We must reckon with reality, or be overwhelmed. To maintain adequate production of food, fiber and fuel through the 21st century, we must make changes that will enhance the adaptive capacity of agriculture. This is not an academic debate. This is a stark reality that no amount of billionaire-funded denial and corporate disinformation can make go away. In the context of deliberate corporate intransigence and governmental gridlock, this is a responsibility we the people must take on.

Knowing this full well, when I saw Laura Lengnick’s new book mentioned in a posting to the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SANET) Listserv, I was impelled immediately to contact her and to exchange books. Lengnick’s visionary volume – Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate – is a direct response to the climate realities of today. Her survey of actualities and possibilities offers a deep and wide-ranging assessment of what is needed to respond intelligently.

I’ve come to regard climate change in much the same way Lengnick expresses it in her book: The facts are plain and convincing. We're at the point of no return. There’s no time to dither. We must respond now. In this matter agriculture and our food system are critical matters, and they must be at the foundation of our responses. That basic realization has also motivated me. It’s why I wrote Awakening Community Intelligence: CSA Farms as 21st Century Cornerstones, the book I offered to Lengnick as my part of the exchange.

The cornerstone metaphor is also given respectful treatment among the ideas expressed in Resilient Agriculture. A long-time farmer, educator, and policy maker on local, state and national levels, Lengnick acknowledges our food system as the essential cornerstone of necessary overall responses to what is so radically unfolding in our world.

Resilience is the capacity of a system to adapt and thereby to buffer the impact of climate change on a system. In the context of climate change, resilient agriculture is about equipping farms to absorb and recover from a multiplicity of climatological, economic and social stresses and shocks to their food production and their livelihoods.

The dominant and domineering industrial food system of our passing era lacks resilience. Industrial agriculture significantly intensifies the man made causes of climate change. And it’s a system critically dependent on oil supplies not only for transport and power but also for the herbicides, pesticides and fungicides that fuel the profits of industrial agriculture, and at the same time seriously compromise human, animal and environmental health. This is the antithesis of resilience.

A resilient food system is one that, rather contributing to the problem, instead actively helps to mitigate global climate change while at the same time producing abundant nutrient rich food, restoring healthy ecosystems, and rebuilding communities.

The ten chapters of Lengnick’s book give a comprehensive picture of how we may cultivate a resilient food system. She sets out the key characteristics in chapter nine (New Times, New Tools). Following the wisdom of nature, resilient food systems embody diversity, modularity, abundance, broad community linkages, and feedback loops for adjustment and correction. Resilient agriculture systems produce their own energy from solar, wind, biomass and other non-polluting sources and recycle wastes skillfully to complete the nutrient cycle. This approach may be less labor and land efficient, she concedes, but it’s vastly more energy and water efficient.

Of special interest to me, since it’s a topic I’ve written about extensively, many of the 25 farmers profiled in Lengnick’s book are involved with Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). They see the CSA model as lending itself naturally to the principles of resilience. Through interplay and mutual cooperation, the farms and the communities establish a higher degree of resilience. That’s the way I see it as well.

Lengnick cites many more systems and possibilities than just CSA, yet she also writes that resilience inherently embraces the inescapable fact that agricultural, ecological and social systems do not operate independently. They exist as part of the continuum of nature and culture, and remain in a perpetual state of dynamic interplay, interdependence and metamorphosis.

Gathering together in her book the voices of experienced farmers and informed researchers, Lengnick advocates convincingly for resilience in our agricultural systems. She offers a substantial array of case histories, illustrating practical pathways that together form a map of opportunities to guide us as we move in a direction we must now go: toward resilient agriculture.

You can find links to all of Steven McFadden’s blog posts for MOTHER EARTH NEWS here.


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