Our Diet’s Impact on Climate Change
As you’re hopefully aware by now, the planet is warming. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached levels never before seen in the history of human civilization. Clearly, it’s occurring as a direct result of human activity.
We are literally changing the earth’s climate at a painfully alarming rate. It’s only natural to feel profoundly concerned. As a result, those of us who have recognized the climate crisis for what it is are now wondering what to do about it.
What’s perhaps less commonly known however, is the impact that industrial agriculture has on climate change. For one thing, industrial agriculture produces copious amounts of heat-trapping greenhouse gases (GHGs). These include methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide. Indeed, some reports indicate that industrial agriculture currently represents 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s huge!
What We Eat Matters
In addition to all these gases, the industry also requires massive amounts of water and energy. We expend so much to get food to our tables, and what we don’t eat ends up in landfills. Recent reports estimate food waste to represent as much as one third of all food produced (worldwildlife.org)!
So we consume so many resources to produce our food, and on top of that, we use even more to package, distribute, and ultimately recollect our food items. As well as the obvious waste, there’s also a pretty extensive array of chemical waste that was utilized in growing the food to begin with. These agrochemicals represent a complex chemical soup that enters our soil, water systems, and ultimately ourselves.
As If That Wasn’t Bad Enough
Not only does industrial agriculture contribute poisons to our living systems, but it is also a significant source of deforestation. Global deforestation as a result of agriculture is an enormous issue across the planet. It’s also especially prominent in the destruction of our rainforests.
If it sounds nuts, that’s because it is! The very plants that can help soak up all our excessive atmospheric carbon, are the very ones being chopped down at terrifying rates. The egregious faults of the agriculture industry are both plentiful and incredibly dangerous. They clearly threaten our sustainability.
Things obviously need to change. What we eat should not have such a detrimental impact on our environment. We are quite literally wiping out our rainforests, depleting our water aquifers, and diminishing the capacity of our soil to absorb carbon. We are severely corrupting the very systems that sustain us.
It has become increasingly evident that industrial agriculture is not the way. What we do to the environment, we do to ourselves. Nature and the environment are a sophisticated web of interconnecting ecosystems.
Regardless of our ignorance of all these connections and interdependencies, we are a part of it. Not only are eventually impacted by environmental destruction, but all those chemicals we use to grow our food will naturally find their way into our bodies. This includes of course our children’s tinier bodies).
Once in our biological systems, they are directly linked to an increase in birth defects, cancer rates, autoimmune diseases, Parkinson’s disease, and the list goes on. It’s painful to even continue cataloguing the horrors equated with all these chemicals. Suffice it to say, it’s bad. So what are we supposed to do about it?
Eat Your Vegetables
No, we need not all starve ourselves or become vegan (although eating less meat will certainly help cut carbon emissions). There are less drastic changes we can make that will already help reduce our environmental burden. For instance, buying (or growing) organic is already a step in the right direction. Contrary to common misconception, chemically enhanced industrial agriculture is not the solution to the planet’s food needs.
The planet can support us all through sustainable organic farming and regenerative agriculture. To be sure, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and the countless other chemicals in use through conventional agriculture do produce greater yields, in the short term. However, this extra surplus is temporary. Furthermore, it comes at a terrible cost to human, animal, and environmental health (See The Stuff of Life).
Organic Farming for the Win!
Over time (and here the data is just beginning to emerge as a consequence of it taking so long to compare), the constant need to re-inject nutrients into the soil for conventional farming implies that crops would not keep up without human intervention. In the long run, organic farming does outproduce conventional farming.
I had the good fortune to learn in detail some of the organic farming practices during my very own farming experience in Japan. The more you dig into the topic, the clearer it becomes that organic farming is the better option!
Despite this, conventional farming at an industrial scale is still a dominant force in the world today. What’s worse, it has the potential to wreak even more damage than it does at present. There are so many additional concerns for the future if we continue down this path of industrial agriculture. For instance, attempting to exert so much control over our produce (at a genetic level) has also severely limited biodiversity.
Having such narrowly engineered produce therefore makes us susceptible to significant and devastating risks. Should anything afflict these mono-cultured (click to learn more about Problems with Monoculture), multi-cloned (literally the same plant is replicated, as with potatoes, corn, bananas, etc.) crops we’ll all be in serious trouble.
Aware of the Danger
The return to permaculture is one means of averting disaster. Permaculture is the practice of using different complementary species as they exist in the natural world.
Choosing to eat organic is another way to help the planet. Eating organic supports the real food movement. Your purchase helps support the farmers who are supporting the soil. In doing so, you are also helping to divert some of the countless industrial chemicals that have now impregnated our food and water.
The Brighter Path
By opting for organics, you are also contributing to your own health (click here for more on this). Although some of the chemicals used in conventional farming are more immediately impacting than others (see Monsanto Guilty of Chemical Poisoning in France), it might take years before we truly understand the consequences of what’s been entering our diet.
In the meantime, this doesn’t mean we should run out and buy the first organic label we see (as your grandparents might have said, appearances can be disbelieving). Rather, we should simply know what it is that we eat.
The More You Know
The first step therefore, is being better informed. This includes reading the ingredient labels and looking up what we’re unfamiliar with. It requires a clearer understanding of what we’re putting into our bodies and the environment. That’s essentially the basis for a healthy and sustainable food culture. Developing this habit will in turn contribute to our own healthy, long-term survival!
To recap, selecting organic food and getting better informed of ingredients is the way to go! Such practices will help to reduce our environmental burden and potentially improve human health. Now that I’ve piqued your interest in sustainable eating practices, perhaps you’re wondering if there are any other tips?
It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Buying local is a wonderful way for you to get in touch with your food! Moreover, if you’re especially excited about what you eat, a way to take it up a notch is to grow your own. While we might not all have the luxury of garden space, even large cities now offer community gardens or other urban alternatives.
Growing even a little of your own food items is a great way to connect with the process. For instance, fresh herbs on your balcony or window sill can help enhance your meals and add to the appreciation of those who are eating them.
Otherwise, simply buying from a local producer is already a substantial way diminishing your environmental impact and potentially improving your health along the way. When you purchase from a local supplier, you are cutting down on transportation and thus significantly reducing your carbon footprint. In addition, you are supporting the local economy (bonus)! In my personal experience, I have even found that having your food travel less actually tastes better!
Having said that, I do acknowledge that we might not be able to find everything we need locally. There are certain ingredients that we might prefer from specific regions (for example Indian pepper or Spanish Saffron, etc.). However, for our everyday nutritional needs, looking locally is a great way to satisfy your appetite. It’ll help you learn more about your own region as well as the historic & seasonal specialties of your home environment.
For those of you living in urban environments, there are options for you as well. Not only at your local farmer’s market, but there is also an increasing trend towards developing urban agriculture and rooftop farming.
Now that we covered some of the benefits gained from choosing to eat local & organic, this is normally the point in the discussion where the issue of cost comes up. Is it really more expensive to go green?
The True Cost of What We Eat
Admittedly yes, there is a price differential. At least in the short term. Until the market adequately responds to the growing need for local organics, you will likely have to pay a premium for it. At the same time however, it is vitally important to attempt to understand the true cost of conventional farming.
The hidden price is tucked away in those lower-cost products that, are imported from industrial farms where labour workers may be getting paid pitiful wages and tons of chemicals are being introduced into the soil, air, and water. Ultimately the equation needs to balance itself out. Those potentially lower prices are merely deferring the true cost over to our bodies, the planet, and our future.