For more than 30 years, Laura Lengnick has explored agriculture and food system sustainability as a researcher, policy-maker, educator and farmer. But it wasn’t until 2009 that she fully came to realize how dramatically climate change was influencing agriculture.
“I was invited to attend a conference on climate change,” said Lengnick, during a recent visit to Clemson’s campus as part of the university’s Sustainability Café seminar series. “And when I started to do some research in preparation, I became shocked that I had been so asleep at the wheel. What I learned was that climate change is here, it’s happening now and it’s influencing food systems all over the world.”
Since that eye-opening revelation, Lengnick has met with farmers and ranchers in the Southeast and other regions of the United States to explore the connections between climate change, food, business and community. In her book “Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate,” Lengnick writes that “resilience requires us to see with new eyes, to ask different kinds of questions, to embrace uncertainty, and to find opportunity in change.”
“I learned that climate change is requiring many farmers and ranchers to change the way they operate,” said Lengnick, who is well-known for her work in soil quality and sustainable farming systems. “Farmers and ranchers all over the country are being challenged by more variable weather, longer and more severe drought – as well as by more frequent and intense weather such as heavy winds and flooding rains. There have also been subtler effects: earlier blooms, mismatches of pollinators with flowering crops, and warmer winters that increase pest populations.”
It became Lengnick’s mission to work with farmers to understand the detrimental effects of climate change on agriculture, exploring not just problems, but potential solutions.
“No matter where people sit on this issue, the changes in our weather create unprecedented challenges to communities all over the country, and these challenges are just going to become more difficult in the future,” said Lengnick, who collaborates with the Climate Listening Project, a storytelling platform for conversations on climate change and how it relates to community. “We need all perspectives at the table – and all the tools. Not just engineering solutions, and not just money. We also need to restore our natural resource base, repair our communities and build human capacity for innovation.”
The concept of climate change is as contentious as it is complicated. Some doubt its existence, saying that our planet has always had natural heating and cooling cycles. Lengnick believes this controversy is due – at least in part – to the fact that some areas of the U.S. are undergoing different climatic consequences than others.
“Some regions of the U.S. are warming faster than others. Paradoxically, other regions, like the Southeast, have actually become a little bit cooler,” Lengnick said. “So when I first started looking at the data, it occurred to me that it’s no wonder we’re arguing about this. Our lived experiences have been different.”
Nonetheless, the climate science that backs up the stories she collected from farmers and ranchers across the country motivated Lengnick to act. Comprehensive data that confirms the world is warming, global sea levels are rising and that incidents of extreme weather are becoming more frequent and severe are reported to the American public at the website GlobalChange.gov.
According to data supplied by GlobalChange.gov and other sources, Lengnick created a general breakdown by season of the effects of climate change in the Southeast:
- Winter: more warm days, fewer very cold days and less snow cover. “This results in less pest die-back, so we have higher populations of pests on many of our farms,” Lengnick said.
- Spring: more late-occurring frosts, but also more warm days, more intense storms and more hail. “More late frosts are particularly hard on fruit tree growers because they are at risk of losing the whole crop if a frost hits during spring bloom.”
- Summer: hotter temperatures, with night-time temperatures rising faster than daytime temperatures. “If livestock, plants and people can get some rest from heat stress, they deal with it far better. But if a hot day is followed by a hot night, this stress really starts to create issues. We’re also seeing more frequent periods of short, intense rain followed by prolonged dry periods and droughts.”
- Fall: more warm days and nights and more risk of hurricane damage. “As the fall season lengthens, crops stay in the field longer, making them more vulnerable during hurricane season.”
Farmers have been managing risks associated with weather throughout history. But the nature and pace of the changes in weather associated with climate change create a new kind of production peril that is called “climate risk.”
“Climate adaptation experts have developed a framework to manage climate risk more effectively, and I think it can be very useful to farm management,” Lengnick said. “This ‘vulnerability framework’ simplifies climate risk by splitting it into three components. The first is related to what specific kind of climate effects are experienced in a particular place. The second describes how the crops and livestock in that place are affected by those climate effects. And the third is called ‘adaptive capacity,’ which describes how well all the parts of that place interact to cope with those climate effects.”
Lengnick says that state climate offices throughout the nation are focusing more on statewide issues, adding that climate risk should be dealt with locally and place by place, rather than over large areas that contain a wide range of varying conditions. She also emphasizes that bouncing back from climate events is usually less effective than having plans in place that resist damage through a system of resilience.
“Resilience really is much broader than just bouncing back,” Lengnick said. “Resilience involves three capacities that together protect a system from disturbance: response capacity, recovery capacity and transformation capacity.”
Response capacity involves assembling a plan in advance that protects a system from a disturbance. If this is done properly, damage can be avoided altogether. Recovery capacity is about preparing for a disturbance in ways that promote recovery from damage. Transformation capacity is about recognizing when a system is no longer working well and then making changes to that system.
“Transformation capacity provides the opportunity to bounce forward instead of bounce back,” Lengnick said. “Rather than spending a lot of time and money rebuilding a system that is not performing well, we could instead spend it to make adjustments that will work better in a changing climate.”
One example of resilience in South Carolina was on full display at the South Carolina Botanical Garden. A 2013 flood that washed away bridges and annihilated rare plants prompted measures to be put in place that were designed to avoid a repeat of the destruction in the future. In October 2015, a historic storm pummeled the garden with almost 10 inches of rain, but this time – due to the addition of swales, canals and nature-friendly bridges – the prized 295-acre venue escaped relatively unscathed.
“We learned from what happened in 2013 and applied what we learned – and it worked,” Botanical Garden director Patrick McMillan said. “It really showed what happens when you do things right.”
Lengnick says that the key to creating an effective plan for resilience lies in having a full, balanced and healthy portfolio of assets under management.
“I argue in my book that industrialism tends to favor financial and technological assets,” Lengnick said. “But if we are going to successfully meet this challenge and create community well-being in the future, I think we need to divert resources into regenerating natural, social and human assets.”
While doing research for her book, Lengnick spent much of her time with a group of award-winning sustainable farmers who had all been managing commercial farms and ranches in one location for at least 20 years. When Lengnick asked this experienced group which assets were most helpful in managing climate risk, they all recognized at least three: high soil quality, diversified production systems, and diversified marketing. According to these producers, the three assets worked in collaboration to reduce climate risk on their farms and ranches. High soil quality buffered variable rainfall, diversified production spread risk across a number of different enterprises and diversified marketing increased profitability.
“We already know a lot right now about how we can build climate resilience into our food system,” Lengnick said. “The development of sustainable agriculture and food systems over the past 30 years has laid a foundation for a climate resilient food system in this country, so we are not starting from zero.”
However, Lengnick is often asked how she is able to sleep at night while knowing all that she does about the effects of climate change on agriculture.
“I choose not to focus on the negative. Instead, what I focus on is what gives me hope,” she said. “I found a lot of hope in the people that I met across the country. But hope is not a plan. I know that we have the knowledge and resources to make the transition to climate resilient agriculture. There’s never been a more critical time for us to come together to turn this hope into a better future for everyone.”