Written by Christy Wyble and Kate Vachon of Pomelo Seattle
Pomelo is a community and resource dedicated to using better food to fight climate change. We educate and inspire people to support our local food system in our community through events, in the workplace with workshops, and online. Find us @pomelo.seattle on instagram
Industrial agriculture is one of the world's largest polluters - emitting more greenhouse gases than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined. These emissions include methane released by cattle and rice farms, nitrous oxide from synthetic fertilizers, and carbon dioxide from cutting down rainforests and converting other natural ecosystems into cropland. Agriculture also uses 70% of the world's fresh water and is one of the largest drivers of species extinction.
Needless to say, a radical transformation in our food systems is urgently needed to improve environmental sustainability and human health. Luckily there is a beautiful alternative to industrial agriculture; a farming method that promotes biodiversity, increases the nutrition of our food, and fights climate change. Sounds too good to be true, right? Well everyone, meet regenerative agriculture.
Regenerative agriculture is an approach to farming and grazing animals that focuses on topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity, improving the water cycle, enhancing ecosystem services, biosequestration and increasing resilience to climate change! Regenerative agricultural practices include: no tillage, diverse cover crops, no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, use of animal grazing, and multiple crop rotations. All together, these practices pull carbon out of the atmosphere, build organic matter in our soils, and ultimately fight climate change.
When we talk about sustainable eating - the best thing we can do is take joy in knowing where our food comes from, and support the food systems that nourish our bodies and ecosystems. Finding and supporting farmers in your city that are practicing regenerative farming is the absolute best way to have a positive impact!
Okay so how do you support regenerative farming? Follow these five guidelines that will help you do that!
Guideline #1 - Shop local
Shopping locally is a powerful first step to eating more sustainably. Not only does shopping locally reduce food miles, (on average food from the grocery store travels 27 times further than food purchased locally,) but supporting your local food economy makes the communities we live in more resilient. Buying local from regenerative farmers increases community resiliency by ensuring we have access to food in times of natural disaster and economic collapse. Local food systems are able to adapt, transition, and work together to keep communities fed in ways large corporations can’t. In other words, in an economic collapse (Covid-19 anyone?) you might not be able to rely on General Mills to keep you fed, but the regenerative farm a few miles away growing fresh fruits and vegetables certainly will.
Finding a co-cop, farmers market, or signing up for a local food delivery service like Kinfood, is a powerful way to eat more sustainably.
Guideline #2 - Eat less processed foods
The vast majority of processed foods in America are made from corn, soybeans, and wheat; commodity crops that are cultivated in monocultures. Today the United States is the largest producer and consumer of corn, in 2019 alone the U.S planted 91.7 million acres of corn. Monocultures are essentially the poster child of industrial agriculture, a model of farming that is built off of extraction and environmental exploitation. Farmers are incentivized, through government subsidies, to grow a single crop, year after year, without ever giving the soil a chance to rest and regenerate. The goal of this farming model is to grow as much of the commodity crop as possible, create a surplus on the market, and keep prices for processed foods and animal feed extremely low.
Monocultures deplete the soil of nutrients so, in order to maintain high yields, farmers utilize synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. These synthetic fertilizers require massive amounts of fossil fuel energy to produce, they destroy the natural biodiversity in soil, and the excess fertilizer (which there are tons of) runs off into our waterways where it causes eutrophication and eventually massive die-offs in marine life.
Each time we eat highly processed foods, or factory farmed meat, (which are fed commodity corn and soy), we support this industrial agriculture machine. By no means are we suggesting to never indulge in one of your favorite snacks - we do, and believe it's an important part of living a balanced life. But choosing fresh, less processed foods, and regenerative farmed meat whenever possible, especially if you have the finances for it, is a super impactful way to reduce your environmental footprint!
Guideline #3 - Eat less meat. But when you do, support regenerative animal agriculture!
This is by far one of the most impactful moves you can make to ensure you are eating more sustainably. Responsible for producing polluted air and water, toxic waste, and deadly pathogens, industrial animal agriculture is possibly the most destructive activity humans do on this planet. But there is an important distinction to be made, all animal agriculture is not created equal! The list of negative impacts below are the result of industrial animal agriculture, characterized by densely populated groups of animals that are confined to cages, barns or feedlots, also known as “factory farming.” Animals raised on grass in a regenerative farm model, on the other hand, are an essential part of regenerative agriculture because they provide natural fertilizer for grasses and crops, and grazing animals is essential for pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it in soils. So again, animals raised on corn in feedlots are not equal to animals raised on grass in a regenerative model.
Okay, so why remove factory farmed meat from your diet? One, because it is incredibly inefficient, in fact, 50% of the 90+ million acres of corn grown in 2019 went to feed animals in factory farms. Clearing natural ecosystems to grow crops for animal feed is an inefficient use of agricultural land, and supports the industrial agriculture model built off monocultures, mentioned above. Second, industrial animal farming is a leading driver of species extinction. Millions of acres of rainforest are cut down and countless other natural ecosystems are cleared every year to grow crops to feed and graze livestock. Third, feedlots are huge polluters. The manure from feedlots, considered toxic waste, contains high amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, pathogens, heavy metals, hormone residues and persistent chemicals, which leeches off the farm into waterways and destroys marine life. Ruminant animals also produce methane, a greenhouse gas 28 times more potent than CO2. Lastly, factory farming is contributing to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Due to poor sanitation, cramped living spaces, and grain diets, most animals in feedlots are extremely sick and receive daily doses of antibiotics. In 2014, 80% of all antibiotics sold were used for livestock. It is well documented that this misuse of antibiotics is resulting in new strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that render life-saving antibiotics ineffective and that infections from resistant bacteria are both increasingly common and more difficult to treat.
The moral of this horrible story is, if you do anything to eat more sustainably, remove factory farmed meat from your diet. Do some research, or find a local farmer at a farmers market to buy grass raised meat from! And, take great pleasure knowing that your meat was part of a beautiful regenerative system.
Guideline #4 - Eat with the Season
Eating with the season goes hand in hand with eating locally. It’s a great way to reduce emissions and support regenerative farmers. It's pretty intuitive, whatever is in season in your area, you will be able to purchase from a local grower or maker! On the other hand, if you’re not eating seasonally, you might buy strawberries from the grocery store in December that were shipped from California, Mexico, or South America, giving them a huge carbon footprint. Getting in tune with the seasons hugely reduces food miles, and most importantly allows you to support local growers! Not to mention food in season tastes better and will be more nutritious! In our opinion, there are few things as pleasurable as looking forward to and eating a fruit or vegetable that has just come into season. As we write this, the first strawberries of Spring are available at the farmers market.
Guideline #5 - Reduce Food Waste
One third of all food produced is thrown away, 94 percent of which ends up in landfills where it decomposes and produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Food waste is a huge global problem that fuels climate change and food insecurity. Globally, 1.3 billion tonnes of food are wasted every year, and yet, an estimated 871 million people are malnourished. This problem is massive, but luckily, there are many things we can do to reduce food waste in our homes and eat more sustainably. Some include: meal prepping, learning fridge storage techniques, learning to preserve, ferment, pickle and can fruits and vegetables, freezing items before they go bad, and prioritizing eating leftovers before making or buying more food! All super important for eating more sustainably.
Okay, let’s wrap it up.
Our food systems are very complex and there is a lot to consider when choosing what to eat! But hopefully these five guidelines provide some clarity. Most importantly, eat local and support regenerative farmers as much as possible! We get it, this won't happen all the time. During the winter there might not be a ton of fresh produce available, and sometimes you can’t get to the farmers market, it's okay! But do your best. Eat fresh, less processed foods whenever possible, always choose regenerative farmed meat, eat with the season, and minimize your food waste.
We also realize how much of a privilege it is to have access to fresh local food! Food access is a huge issue and not all communities have the opportunity to follow these guidelines. For those that do, please realize the great privilege it is to have access and take advantage of it whenever you can. And remember, the higher price point for fresh local food represents the true cost of producing food! “Cheap food” is an illusion, and does not represent the billions of dollars we pay for environmental pollution, degradation, and negative health outcomes that result from industrial agriculture.
And if you’re on a budget, there are resources through the Farmers Market, such as Fresh Bucks and EBT for those who receive food stamps, so you can still experience the beauty of your local food system.
All in all, stay educated and do your best. Most of all take pleasure in your food!
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Stay tuned for guideline #2 next week. We will follow up here and in the mean time you can read our interview with Christy and Kate here!