Teaching and Learning as an Agroecologist in the Age of COVID-19: Lessons in Food System Resilience

Blog Post by Alexandra Gulachenski, PhD student

July 2020

I never thought that my first experience as a teaching assistant (TA) in graduate school would be during a global pandemic, but we do not often expect or plan for disturbances. However, in late March during our final TA meeting for the spring class ‘Sustainability and Agroecosystem Management’, we got news that our course of 60+ undergraduates – which includes guest lectures, discussions, farm trips, and an ongoing cover crop and grazing field experiment (now in its 4th year) – was, like everything else around us, moving online. In a mere two-weeks, we rapidly restructured, scrapped, and reimagined our way into the first online version of this course.

As the class progressed through the unknowns of April, May, and June, from the first Zoom lecture, through many iterative and adaptive changes to match our online pace with students’ needs, and through awkward and then lively online Zoom discussions, I found myself reflecting constantly on individual resilience, institutional resilience, and of course, as an Agroecologist, food system and agricultural resilience. What are the properties of a system that allow it to respond, adapt, and thrive in the face of disturbances, both small and large?

At the close of the class, I had the opportunity to give a guest lecture on Agricultural and Food System Resilience. It felt fitting to end this course on sustainable agricultural systems with this topic, in this moment of Covid-19. The pandemic, over just a few months, has exposed the glaring structural vulnerabilities of our ‘just-in-time’ globalized food system built from highly connected and inflexible food supply chains that lack the redundancy and fail-safes necessary to fend off disruptions to our food supply. It is these qualities that have allowed millions of pounds of produce to be left in the field and are leaving farmworkers unprotected. However, Covid-19 has also brought about stories of adaptability, strength, and solidarity across the food system, from the rapid rise in support for small scale community-supported agriculture to the advancement of mutual aid for farm workers. Perhaps most interesting, to address food insecurity in their community Great Plains farmers began planting harvestable fruit and vegetables as cover crops between rotations of commodity crops of corn, wheat and soy that are traditionally used for feed and processed products and subject to unstable prices. These farmer-led actions are not only utilizing diversified practices to build up field-scale ecological resilience, but they are also using this moment to begin addressing longstanding food insecurity in rural farming communities. This community-led action is one of many in the broader food sovereignty movement, defined by the National Family Farmer Coalition as ‘the rights of peoples to healthy and culturally-appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own agriculture.’

One of the major challenges in resilience research from a biological or systems-perspective is understanding how management practices shape an agroecosystem’s ability to maintain ecological functioning (such as soil carbon and nutrient cycling) across a wide range of disturbances of varying intensity and length (e.g. droughts, floods, heat waves). Here in the Gaudin lab, where we are primarily biophysical scientists, we work with farmers to study the implementation of ecological principles that employ biodiversity to build resilience at the field scale, using strategies such as crop diversification, livestock integration, and perennial systems design. However, as we are learning through the Covid-19 pandemic, resilience is neither solely ecological nor restricted to agricultural food production. Instead resilience must be emphasized across the entire food system, from the environmental response at the field scale to the social and political systems that determine distribution, access, and consumption. To achieve this harmony, policy and research initiatives will need to ensure that the needs of those who ‘produce, distribute and consume food’ are at the heart of the food system, as agroecological and food sovereignty movements call for. This may be achieved if policy and research initiatives support diversified farming practices, farmer and farmworker autonomy-building, as well as broader food chain strengthening and diversification as has been demonstrated on a smaller scale in response to this pandemic.

As I close out my first quarter as a TA, an online teacher, and a graduate student in the midst of a global pandemic, I find myself wondering more and more, what does a resilient agricultural system look like in practice? I can’t help but wonder what aspects of our agriculture and food system must be left behind if we are to learn and adapt from our experiences. For all of its uncertainty and disruption (and extreme grief), many communities, individuals, and researchers have used this moment as a time to challenge the status quo (our ‘baseline’ state) and imagine the qualities of a resilient system for our future. I think that, as agroecologists and researchers interested in how we produce our food, we too must question the status quo. How do we plan to adapt and change to ensure that the agricultural system reflects the qualities of a system that is socially, ecologically, and economically resilient? We must ask what is it our food system is resilient to. Where is it lacking? What voices are overrepresented, and who isn’t at the table? Or, who does the table belong to in the first place? The scientific community is already beginning to understand the principles of an ecologically resilient system (such that we taught our students this quarter: foster biodiversity, diversify production at the farm scale, invest in soil health). Outside of these tools of agricultural resilience though, what constraints do we face in the context of the broader food system? It is clear that a farm exists within the network of our food system and that a farmer’s ability to make decisions is controlled by powerful political, economic, and social forces. And surely the principles of resilience-building will look very different as it works across the many facets of our food system. This question, however, becomes quickly convoluted when considering the entirety of our food system and is one that I can not begin to answer within the scope of a blog post, but it is one I believe all agricultural researchers, consumers, and participants in our food system must continually ask themselves.