NRT director speaks at university’s Grand Challenges event

Craig Allen, director of the NRT, spoke to about 50 University of Nebraska-Lincoln faculty and staff on September 28 about the new agricultural research network he directs and the ways it addresses sustainable food and water security, one of seven Grand Challenges identified at the university for research investment.

Allen said farmers around the world face the issue of growing more food on their land to feed the growing global population while not knowing how that push for productivity may harm the environment.

His research centers on the related subject of resilience, a measure of the ability of a system, like the current U.S. agricultural system, to withstand disturbance and still maintain its structure and function.

“We have these new hyper-efficient agricultural systems here in Nebraska and we’re exporting them all over the world, but there has really been no test of time to any considerable extent for these systems,” Allen said. “So, we don’t really understand where the resilience is and how vulnerable they are to exceeding a threshold and collapsing, and it’s incumbent upon us to know that.”

In response to this need, Allen and colleagues have developed a network of agricultural research networks, with funding from the university and the National Science Foundation’s Dynamics of Integrated Socio-Environmental Systems program.

Craig Allen at Grand Challenges talk
Craig Allen, NRT director, spoke at a recent Grand Challenges luncheon about the new resilience network he directs across the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The DISES-RCN: Network for Integrated Agricultural Resilience Research includes the USDA Long-Term Agroecosystem Research network of 18 United States sites, the Living Laboratories Initiative in Canada, ResNet Canada, the international Resilience Alliance organization and agriculture sites in Mexico.

“Merging these together, we’re hopeful that we can be greater than the sum of the individual networks and have convergence and have some interesting insights,” Allen said.

He spoke of the tension between resilience and efficiency and of the tradeoffs land managers have to make.

“Many of the management failures in agriculture that recently we have observed have been because we focused entirely on efficiency,” he said.

He suggested that people applying resilience theory in real life, might ask questions like, “How do we prevent the regime shift that is coming? Say, trees invading grasslandsand we know that is cominghow do we prevent it? What do we do? How do we do so? How can we enhance the resilience of systems that we think are desirable, like agricultural systems?”

Allen stated there are also many systems that are highly resilient and highly undesirable and their resilience should not be maintained.

“If we want to transform systems to a favorable state, we actually have to erode the resilience of that system and then foster its reorganization,” he said.

He took audience questions about how social scientists might fit in with his resilience research.

“I guess you can think about it in two ways,” he answered. “When we talk about anticipating regime changes and what do you do if you know the trees are coming and you’re a rancher. That’s a social question. Who’s willing to do something and what’s their willingness to embrace novel approaches?”

Second, he said social scientists might look at the resilience of people in the system and how to maintain them.

“For example, demographic thresholds in rancher communities,” he said. “You pass that threshold at some point where everybody is too old to ranch, and ranching collapses in Nebraska. So, there are thresholds to that. You can think of it as resilience in social systems having multiple entrée points that the problems stem from.”

He also discussed how resilience science has included the humanities in past papers on subjects like mental health and resilience and music and health.

“We have also worked closely in trying to up communications and look at visualizations like photography linked with actual data, if you can visualize data with time lapse photographs,” he said. “Resilience has a long history of linking with the arts, and the last resilience conference [of the Resilience Alliance], which is every three years, really featured the link between art and resilience and people trying to capture the idea of resilience via art.”

In the Grand Challenges initiative of which this luncheon talk was part, the Chancellor’s Office and the Office of Research and Economic Development have committed $40 million over four years to invest in research into solutions to at least one of seven Grand Challenges identified by the university community.

In September and October, interdisciplinary faculty groups have been meeting to form collaborations on sustainable food and water security, anti-racism and racial equity, climate resilience, early childhood education and development, health equity, quantum science and engineering, and science and technology literacy for society.

Shannon Bartelt-Hunt, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Byron Chaves, professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology, also spoke at this first meeting of faculty interested in the challenge of sustainable food and water security.

— Ronica Stromberg, NRT Program Coordinator

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