From Fragility to Resilience:

Lengnick Headshot

NOFA-NY Winter Conference Keynote Speaker

As I prepared to speak to you today, I couldn’t help but see both the light and the dark of these times. The events of this past year offer us so many lessons, both large and small, about fragility and resilience, and about what it means to be healthy, as an individual, as a family, as a community, and as a nation.

Just about a year ago, while we were busy attending meetings, making seed orders, and putting the final touches on our spring plans, we didn’t know it, but the world was changing. The pandemic reached our shores in March and our “good life” began to tremble, to bend and finally to break under the stress of shutting down our communities and sending many of us home.

Soon after, we found ourselves living in the midst of the largest protest our country has ever experienced – a protest led by our youth demanding an end to systemic racism.

All spring and summer we watched as the virus made its way across our nation and climate change flattened millions of acres of corn across the Midwest. In the fall, while the West was burning, we were witness to unprecedented efforts to suppress the vote. And just last week the peaceful transfer of power that is a defining characteristic of our democracy was disrupted by an angry mob.

These unprecedented events have come together in our food system to reveal the fragility of a way of life built on the relentless exploitation of land, people and community. The evidence is clear and compelling – agriculture stands at the threshold of a paradigm shift.
This sense of the need for change is bubbling up all around us in the many silver-bullet solutions being promoted today. We all seem to understand that “business as usual” is no longer an option. The question is not about whether we change, but HOW we will change the way we eat. As I searched for answers to this question, I ran into resilience.

I want to share some resilience thinking ideas that I’ve found useful in my search for holistic solutions to the fragility of our agriculture and food systems.

The first is that resilience is about a whole lot more than simply bouncing back. Resilient farms and food systems actually have three complementary capacities:

Recovery capacity is the ability to return to normal function swiftly and at low cost in the event of a damaging disturbance. This is the idea of “bouncing back” that is usually what people mean when they talk about resilience, but I think it is actually the least valuable of these three capacities.

Response capacity is the ability to avoid or reduce damage from disturbance by making changes in system relationships so that there is no need to bounce back. When there is a damaging event, we can invest in improving response and recovery capacity rather than simply repairing the damage to the existing system. This is sometimes referred to as “bouncing forward” and it makes a lot of sense, particularly when the system needing repair does not serve us well.

When there is a damaging event, we can invest in improving response and recovery capacity rather than simply repairing
the damage to the existing system.

Transformation capacity is the ability to make fundamental changes in order to enhance response and recovery capacity. Managing for transformation capacity is uniquely valuable as we wake up to the need for a paradigm shift in agriculture and food systems.

Another useful idea is that resilient farm and food systems tend to follow three rules. First, they cultivate diverse networks of equitable relationship throughout the system – in soils, between soil, plants, animals and people, between people in community, and between communities within a region and beyond. Second, they cultivate regional self-reliance by reducing the need to import materials for production or consumption and discouraging the export of products or wastes. Finally, resilient farms and food systems promote the accumulation of local wealth, including natural and human resources, social and cultural resources, and financial and physical/technological resources.

Over the last decade I have listened to organic producers growing food all across the U.S. who have followed these rules to cultivate resilience on their farms and ranches – to climate change as well as a multitude of other disturbances and shocks, both expected and unexpected. All of these producers depend on three key strategies to cultivate healthy relationships on farm and in community: soil health, managing for functional and response biodiversity, and diversified, high value marketing. These strategies also cultivate regional self-reliance and the accumulation of community-based wealth.

I want to share two other big ideas that can help us shift from fragility to resilience.

The first one is the city region, a sustainable development idea that invites us to reimagine relationships between cities and the land and the people that support their well-being. We can use city region design principles to transform today’s extractive relationships into equitable relationships that cultivate the well-being of land, people and community in both urban and rural spaces.

We can use city region design principles to transform today’s extractive relationships into equitable relationships

The second useful idea invites us to imagine the potential sustainability and resilience benefits of a nationally-integrated network of metropolitan foodsheds designed to deliver food equity, nutrient-dense whole foods, and improved public health through regional production, processing, and distribution systems.

As I reflect on this last year, resilience thinking helps me understand the context of our times – our current way of life breaks every one of the rules of resilience. The rules of resilience also help me imagine the kinds of changes we must make to achieve the shift from fragility to resilience – to transform our way of life to a way of living that regenerates and sustains the health of land, people and community in changing times.

There seems to be a lot of evidence that we – as a people, as a nation – may be incapable of achieving this transition.

For too long, we have been living a story that feeds the dark side of human nature: the side that is greedy, that always wants more, the side that sees relentless competition as the path to success. It is human nature to discount the future, to favor our tribe over others, and to live in denial of the damage done. This story has pushed our planet to the threshold of collapse.



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