A Soil Scientist With a Plan for a More Resilient Food System

Author: Kai Olson-Sawyer | Published: July 14, 2017 

Laura Lengnick is a big thinker on agriculture and the environment. She has been guided in her work by the understanding that the problems generated by the U.S. industrial food system have been as significant as its ability to produce vast quantities of food. As she sees it, it’s not enough to produce food if there’s not a reckoning of costs and benefits from an unbalanced system.

This comprehensive outlook is a hallmark of Lengnick’s work, as is her positive vision for a more equitable and sustainable future. When it comes to her career, the question is not what work Lengnick has done to explore resilient, sustainable agriculture, but what hasn’t she done. Soil scientist, policymaker as a Senate staffer, USDA researcher, professor, sustainability consultant, advocate—Lengnick has done it all.

With her home nestled in a sunny cove in the North Carolina mountains, she bio-intensively tends to her 3,000-square-foot micro-farm. (She grows everything from greens and radishes to figs and sweet potatoes.) Based on her rich experience and deep expertise, Lengnick now views herself as a science interpreter in her interactions with farmers, public officials and the public at large. (She calls it “science-in-place.”)

Lengnick is the author of many articles and papers for scholars, practitioners and the general public, including the useful and engaging book Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate. She was also selected as a contributor to the Third National Climate Assessment, the authoritative U.S. climate report.

Over the years she’s traveled throughout the United States to meet with farmers to investigate the challenges and successes in the field and present her findings to many different audiences. Most recently, Lengnick has been invited to collaborate with the world-renowned Stockholm Resilience Centre, which will bring her views to an even larger audience. In a series of conversations, Lengnick and I spoke about her background, career, and philosophy to better explain where she is today.

Don’t Discount the Future

Innately curious, Lengnick didn’t start out imagining that she was on the road to food and agriculture—she thought of farming as grueling labor, an upbringing which her grandparents were eager to leave. In college she went into a pre-vet program, then photography and the visual arts. After she entered into landscape architecture and took a soils course, things came together. As she dug into soil science she knew she’d found her calling.

As she says, “Coming at it from the front I didn’t see all this connection and relevance you see now. But what I remember, and I think it is what’s sort of served me well in my whole career, is that if I had an option about work or if I was trying to create options for the next thing, it was always something that I was really passionate about.”

After acquiring her degrees in soil science, including a Ph.D., Lengnick was motivated to make an impact. With the passion and knowledge of soils and sustainable agriculture, she turned to a monumental question: How can we feed humanity while maintaining the health of the planet? What she observed was an out-of-whack food system where ever-greater yields and production came at a price to the surrounding environment. From plowing under healthy soils for depleted, monocropped fields to the impairment of clean air and water, she knew the current American agricultural model must do better.

To change the scenario, Lengnick went into the policy realm and became a staffer for South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle, a prominent voice on farm and environmental issues, in a role where she worked on soil, water, and wetland conservation programs for farmers. She then moved on to ag research in the USDA, after which she left and spent five years on the outside, lobbying and crafting policy for sustainable ag producers at the federal level.

While Lengnick was successful in her efforts at the federal level, she felt the pace of change was too slow, and decided to leave government. It freed her to be a leader for sustainability in the academic and advocacy worlds, where she had more flexibility to address the challenges of the industrial mindset, of which the industrial food system is just one form. What she identified earlier in her career had become even clearer upon further analysis: The industrial food system was simultaneously productive and brittle, and it degraded natural resources and social bonds.

“The cost-effectiveness of the food system is the same as many other systems that are created by the industrial mind, the neoliberal mindset,” she explains. “I don’t think the food system stands out as particularly good or bad. It is another expression of industrialism, and so I see the same kind of quality in the food system. I also see the same kinds of costs in education system and in communities and any sort of modern industrial assembly of communities and materials and energy.”

Lengnick notes that the industrial system is based on a philosophy that is “laser focus[ed] on technology as being the source of solutions and the source of wealth.” While technological innovation is welcome and necessary to create a good society, the fixation on it is not. This narrow focus perpetuates the concentration of wealth and defines success as the accumulation of material things beyond the point where they retain their value.