Celebrating the International Day of Women and Girls in Science
On the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we’re talking to Marcia DeLonge, a senior scientist and agroecologist in the Food & Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) about working in environmental science.
“How we grow and process our food is complicated – and many people are shocked to find out that farmers receive less than about 20 cents out of every dollar spent on food in the United States.” But scientists around the world are working to research and develop innovative, diverse farming systems that better serve people and the planet.
Why did you first decide to study/work in environmental science?
It’s hard to pin down a precise time, maybe in part because it always just felt like the right fit, for a few reasons. For one, I was fortunate to grow up in Wisconsin in a family that valued the outdoors, and a love for nature rubbed off on me. I was also drawn to science and math, so, when I found out it was possible to get a degree in Environmental Science (and maybe even to spend time working outside), it was an easy decision.
The more I learned, the more fascinated I became with the elegant complexities of the earth systems and cycles that surround us each day. Even though we don’t always notice, we have them to thank for the air we breathe, water we drink, food we eat, clothes we wear, and so on.
What I love about agroecology (which combines ecology and agriculture), is that it acknowledges, and leverages, these amazing connections between the natural environment and our modern lives.
What has been the specific focus of your research and what are the practical implications?
As an environmental scientist, I have worked to better understand how what’s happening on our land affects the world around us (plants, weather, climate, etc.), and vice versa. As an agroecologist, I focus on farms and ranches, looking for ways to manage land that can improve profits for farmers while also bringing other benefits.
For example, my colleagues and I have been researching how practices like crop rotations, cover cropping, and grazing management can protect soils, reduce runoff and erosion, and help soil absorb and store water. By reducing runoff and erosion, these practices reduce pollution from “inputs” like fertilizer. By making soils healthier, they can also drastically reduce the need for these “inputs”, which can be expensive, helping farmers to save money. Not only that, but soils that absorb and store water more water have greater resilience - and higher crop yields - during extreme weather, such as during droughts and floods.
What do you wish other people knew about our food/agricultural systems?
Although we all eat food several times a day, there are many things about the food system that we tend not to think or talk about much. Some of the statistics that shock me the most are that we waste about 40% of the food we grow, and that farmers receive less than about 20 cents out of every dollar spent on food in the United States.
But the one thing I really wish more people better understood is that are many ways to grow anything and, as growing food affects us in ways we don’t often think about, these differences matter. Unfortunately, finding information about how food is produced and processed is not always easy. However, I believe that the more we express interest in the stories behind our food, the more these will be made available, and the more power we’ll have to nudge the system the directions we’d like to see it go.
Which scientific developments do you find particularly exciting regarding regenerative organic agriculture?
I am excited that scientists are starting to have the interest and tools to research innovative, diverse farming systems. For example, new sophisticated experiments (such as Iowa State University’s research on prairie strips and crop rotations, and Illinois State University’s research on agroforestry) are demonstrating how redesigning farms can keep yields and profits high, while benefitting surrounding ecosystems. In the meantime, recent investments and advancements have been helping scientists find ways to tweak farms for the better (such as by breeding perennial plants, like Kernza, that can help build soil health), and to make it easier to measure changes from shifts in management (for example, by improving in soil health science). I’m also encouraged by increasing interest in social science, which can help ensure that novel farming practices actually work in the real world.
What advice would you give to other women who are interested in a career in environmental science?
Environmental and food systems sciences are wonderful, satisfying fields that are grounded in rigorous analysis and that address some of today’s most complex challenges. Because these career tracks are inherently interdisciplinary, I think it’s helpful to establish a diverse background, with some elements of field, laboratory, and quantitative analytical skills if possible. Experience with social sciences and synthesis methods may also give young scholars an edge.
Fortunately, this broad field includes many possible career directions. So, my most important piece of advice is to find an angle you love. It’s important work, and we need all the inspired help we can get!
Senior Scientist, Agroecologist
Marcia DeLonge is a senior scientist and agroecologist in the Food & Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). She has a Ph.D. and M.S. in environmental science from the University of Virginia and a B.A. in environmental science from Northwestern University.