The work of a scientist is in some ways clear-cut: A problem needs solving, and formal training directs researchers to hypothesize a solution, experiment and draw conclusions from hard data.
But some questions require more holistic consideration. What is the responsibility of a scientist to our communities? To each other? What kind of world are we trying to build?
Our organization, Green Lands Blue Waters (GLBW), is a network of agricultural, academic, government and business stakeholders in the Upper Mississippi River Basin – a region where 127 million acres of agricultural land is mostly planted to corn and soy.
Our hypothesis? That supporting the integration of perennial plants and other continuous living cover into the farm acreage of the Upper Midwest will create positive landscape-scale change for soil health, water quality, biodiversity and climate change.
These are ecological problems desperately in need of solutions.
With the loss of perennial plant roots that held together the subterranean landscape for millennia, the soil and nutrients that once made this land so valuable are being washed down the river.
Exacerbating the runoff is the reality that corn and soy acreage leaves the land mostly bare for two-thirds of the year, making the land – and nearby communities – more vulnerable to extreme weather like flooding.
The “what” is straightforward. We know that using more cover crops throughout the year, intentionally planting trees as crops and buffers, and introducing perennial crops for grazing and grains can all be profitable ways of improving soil health, preventing runoff and easing flood risk. The GLBW network is focused on the “how,” working with all stakeholders to achieve landscape change.
The “why” can be complex.
This is why in the summer of 2020, we began to ask those questions of students and emerging leaders in our field for our “Civic Scientist Series.” Better understanding the individuals who do this important work – what drives them to want to improve the way we grow food – is equally important in creating a more resilient, healthy agricultural system.
The premise was simple: As COVID-19 disrupted research in the lab and field, we asked, “What’s on your mind?”
Here in Minneapolis, where the killing of George Floyd last summer had sparked renewed calls for racial justice, it was also a moment that required a closer examination of the need for greater racial inclusion and equity in agriculture and conservation. If sustainability is inextricably linked to healthy and just communities, why don’t our fields include more of the diverse communities and leaders needed to co-create change?
In inviting written responses, we opened the floodgates, with entries pouring in from all corners of the Upper Midwest.
Our civic scientists are improving modern agronomy and other agricultural fields by applying their own cultural traditions to the work.
For one thing, our network is far more diverse than what some people might conjure when they think about farms in the Midwest. Our veteran researchers — along with the future leaders of this work — reflect our country’s diversity.
E. Britt Moore is a Ph.D. candidate at Iowa State University specializing in soil physics and sustainable agriculture. Britt writes, “As a Black man raised in the city, my experiences have indelibly shaped my identity as an agronomist. I know first-hand the disproportionately long shadow that an inequitable food system casts on communities of color.”
University of Illinois’ Fahd Majeed designs programs that incentivize farmers to sequester more carbon, and believes it’s his duty as an agricultural economist to build a legacy of work that prioritizes climate health and equitable access to the food supply chain.
Elsewhere, our civic scientists are improving modern agronomy and other agricultural fields by applying their own cultural traditions to the work.
An enrolled citizen of the Comanche nation, University of Wisconsin researcher Daniel Hayden is working to bring “Indigenous perspectives and ideas to the forefront of agricultural research,” noting the irony of the recent push to transition agriculture to “practices [that] were already in place … by the Indigenous peoples of these agriculture-heavy states for thousands upon thousands of years.”
Huong Nguyen, a Ph.D. candidate in Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, is originally from Vietnam. Focused on integrated weed management, Huong writes that “Seeing how weeds are conventionally managed in the United States was shocking when I first came to graduate school. In Vietnam, weeds (or wild plants) are widely used as additional animal feedstock, homeopathic remedies for common illnesses and in traditional beauty products.” In her own research, she explores more ecologically-driven weed management systems, which include potentially marketable companion crops that compete with the weeds.
Of the challenges we face as a nation – from systemic racism to climate change – Sienna Nesser of the University of Minnesota writes, “Scientific research requires a conclusion, but there are none right now.”
Year by year, the systems that once worked to grow food are no longer working like they should. A stubborn lack of diversity in the field of agriculture is limiting our potential for greater understanding and greater, faster change.
But listening to these students has given us hope. Young researchers and scientists are approaching these challenges with fresh, bold thinking.
To achieve landscape-scale change, we must elevate the type of expansive thinking proffered by these civic scientists.