by Judy Hopkinson
One of the most powerful tools available for combatting climate change is the opportunity to transform current agricultural practices. Agriculture accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than several forms of transportation combined. (1) Yet, farmland could become a net carbon sink if sustainable and regenerative farming practices become more widely used. When we think of agriculture, we generally think of farmers. But, consumers are part of the system. Consumer choices directly shape the speed with which our agricultural system exacerbates or transitions into a solution for climate change.
Here are a few things consumers can do to help reduce the negative and increase the positive impact of our agricultural system on our planet and our communities.
A. Buy only what you need.
On average, the United States wastes an estimated 125 to 160 billion pounds of food each year. (2) So much, in fact, that the carbon footprint of U.S. food waste is greater than that of the airline industry.
Thirty-seven percent of U.S. food waste occurs in the home. Composting food waste helps by reducing methane emissions in garbage dumps. However, the carbon released during production and transportation remains in the atmosphere. So, buying the right amount of food — only as much as we can reasonably eat — is important whether or not we compost. When we do slip up and buy excess food, it can be gifted to food banks or neighbors (as is, or in the form of casseroles or cookies or whatever), thereby strengthening relationships in our neighborhoods — which is another important part of building a resilient future.
B. Buy food from farmers who improve soil health.
• Increase carbon sequestration
Managing farms, ranches, and public lands so as to increase soil health increases carbon sequestration in the soil and reduces the need for fossil fuel.
Experts estimate that farming practices that increase soil health could draw down a net 250 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gasses every year in the United States alone. (3)
• Increase water-holding capacity of soil
Experts estimate that each one-percent increase in organic matter helps soil hold 20,000 gallons more water per acre. (4) Heightened water-holding capacity means crops need less irrigation and are more resilient in times of drought. More water retention also means reduced nutrient runoff, soil erosion, and flooding in surrounding areas. Retained water remains in the highly structured soil, nourishing crops and refilling aquifers. And all of this occurs while improving crop yields. (5)
Many names are used to describe this type of farming including sustainable, regenerative, organic, biodynamic, and more. Most of the practices are similar to those used by indigenous farmers around the world and were common before industrial agriculture shifted the focus of farming to mono-cropping with exclusion of animal species from crop areas and introduction of inorganic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Regenerative farming operates with a different philosophy. These farmers attempt to work with nature rather than suppressing it. Here is the way Gabe Brown of Brown’s Ranch, North Dakota, describes regenerative agriculture:
It means … “Farming and ranching in synchrony with nature to repair, rebuild, revitalize and restore ecosystem function starting with all life in the soil and moving to all life above the soil.”
• Washington SB 5947
Practices appropriate for a particular piece of farmland vary — but they all require hard work, patience, and resources to implement. In 2020, Washington state passed the Sustainable Farms and Fields bill (SB 5947), which provides grant funding to incentivize farmers to adopt regenerative and sustainable practices designed to sequester carbon or reduce emissions. Priority for grant applications is given to projects that “Increase the quantity of organic carbon in topsoil through practices including, but not limited to, cover cropping, no-till and minimum tillage conservation practices, crop rotations, manure application, biochar application, compost application, and changes in grazing management) (Section 4.2.a of SB5947).
The Whatcom Conservation District helps farmers and landowners access grant money, plans strategies for improving their operations, and implements strategies that regenerate soil health. Financial assistance may be offered in exchange for development rights, thereby insuring that farmland will be preserved for future generations.
• Regenerative agriculture regenerates quality of life on farms
As the value of these practices becomes recognized, more and more farmers are transitioning to regenerative and sustainable management. The success stories are beacons of hope in a challenged world.
White Oak Pastures in Georgia is a great example. (6) This former industrial beef ranch converted to regenerative agriculture over a number of challenging years and now produces grass-fed beef, goats and lamb, and pastured pork, turkey, chicken, duck, goose, guinea, and rabbit on 3,200 acres as well as 60 different varieties of organic vegetables. A “life cycle assessment” or LCA by a third-party sustainability science firm found that the farm now offsets more than 100 percent of their cattle greenhouse gas emissions and 85 percent of the farm’s total carbon emissions. That means they are storing more carbon in the soil than their cows emit in their lifetime (carbon negative), and are, step by step, getting close to a carbon neutral operation overall.
The transition was difficult, but here is what Will Harris, the proprietor of White Oak Pastures would like consumers to know:
“When I was an industrial farmer, I’d have said that I wish that you knew how hard it is, how stressful it is, how complicated it is, how much work there is …
Now that I farm differently, that is not what I would wish for you to know … I wish that you could know how much fun it is, how great it is to work with friends and family, how good it is to be in touch with the changing of the seasons, how rewarding it is to see the condition of the soil improve, how peaceful it is to watch animals express their instinctive behavior, how pleasing it is to watch our community start prospering again …”
Every time we buy food raised on farms that improve soil health, we participate in one of the most promising climate-friendly transitions of our era.
If you are curious about local farm practices, some information including stories about local farmers can be found on the Whatcom Conservation District website, on farmerspal.com, on the Sustainable Connections website, and on Facebook — here are some pages to get you started: (7).
C. Buy food from local farmers:
Most of the small farmers who show up at our local farmers’ markets are actively working to improve the soil and increase carbon sequestration. Many work with the Whatcom Conservation District to achieve these goals.
When you buy from local farmers, you have a chance to learn about the challenges they face and the practices they use to improve their land and our ecosystem. Every farm is unique, and, every time I speak with one of our local farmers, I learn something new about this landscape. At the last Bellingham Farmers Market, I met a young farmer (and his farmhand mom) from Skagit Valley who raised the most incredible elephant garlic I have every seen. He was proud of the fact that they have improved their soil sufficiently that they produced this latest crop with almost no irrigation!
Farmers may not have much time to talk at the farmer’s market, but you can get in a few questions. Farm tours are also a great time for these conversations. Wherever you do it, it means a lot to farmers to know that consumers care about the challenges they face and support their efforts to improve the land. The more we understand each other, the easier it will be to build a resilient future together.
When you do talk to farmers and farm workers, try to be curious and avoid buzzwords like “regenerative agriculture” and “sustainable farming,” since they can mean a lot of different things to different people. Also, keep in mind that transforming to climate-friendly practices costs money. Most small farmers are operating on a razor thin margin, sometimes netting less than minimum wage. They sell what they can at the local market and to local shops and restaurants and often donate excess to the local food bank.
• Buying locally helps the local economy
Buying from local farmers helps our local economy. On average, for every $100 spent at a chain store, $43 stays in our community. Spending the same amount at a local business means $68 remains in local circulation. More money locally means more people employed, better wages, and a stronger tax base, as well as more successful local proprietors. A strong “buy local” culture means that even chain stores are more inclined to purchase (and advertise) locally produced foods.
• Buying locally means fresher, tastier, more nutritious foods:
Produce purchased at a farmer’s market is almost always harvested within the previous 24 hours. Think crispier greens, higher vitamin C content, longer storage life. For some foods, the sooner it is consumed after harvest, the sweeter it tastes and the more antioxidants it provides.
• Buying locally means reduced transportation emissions:
Buying local food reduces carbon emissions needed to get the food to market. Of course, some food that is not local may well be produced in ways that significantly offset transportation costs. Sometime local merchants offer food from nonlocal regenerative farming operations that offset transportation emissions. They will be happy to share their stories with you if you ask.
D. Buy less meat.
• Reduces greenhouse gas emissions
According to the United Nations, eating vegetarian food for a year can reduce emissions by the same amount as taking a small car off the road for six months. Living off a vegetarian diet produces around 2.5 times less carbon dioxide than a meat-based diet — and greenhouse gas emissions (kg of carbon dioxide equivalents per day) are 7.19 for a meat-heavy diet, 3.81 for a vegetarian diet, and 2.89 for a vegan diet. (8)
Replacing beef with chicken and cutting out dairy would achieve almost as much greenhouse gas reduction as a fully vegan diet. (9)
• Pastured meat from regenerative farms is better for the climate
The actual net greenhouse gas emissions associated with meat consumption depends to a very large extent on how the meat was raised. If you cut down a forest to raise cattle, the net impact on the environment is massive. This is why beef produced in Brazil, for example, has two to four times the negative environment impact as beef produced elsewhere. On the opposite end of the spectrum, grass-fed beef or dairy cattle raised as part of a regenerative farming operation with parcel grazing can provide a valuable benefit to soil health, increasing carbon sequestration in the soil and thereby offsetting much of the impact of raising beef, including the methane released by belching cows.
• Grass-fed beef is healthier
Coincidently, grass-fed beef is also nutritionally superior to conventional beef. It contains a healthier balance of omega fatty acids. On average, grain-fed cattle contain nine times more omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids, while grass-fed beef contains only two times more omega-6 than omega-3. Lower ratios of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids in the diet decrease the risks of inflammation, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disease, and the rates of cancer cell proliferation. (10)
So, if you are going to purchase meat, your body and your planet will thank you if you opt for grass-fed or pastured animals raised with parcel grazing by a farmer who has incorporated cattle into a multifaceted, regenerative farming operation.
E. Buy fewer processed foods.
Processing foods requires more energy, which generally equates with more greenhouse gas emissions. Plant-based meat alternatives, for example, are created by separating proteins from plant sources, like soya bean, wheat, or pea. The protein extricates are then subjected to warming, expulsion, and cooling to create a meat-like product, and various additives are mixed in to give the desired color, flavor and texture. The carbon footprint for plant-based meats is significantly higher than that for the source plants, thereby undermining the environmental impact of a vegan diet.
F. Skip the plastic packaging.
G. Advocate for climate-friendly provisions in the 2023 Farm Bill
Both our food choices and our voices are powerful tools for fighting climate change, building resilience, and growing relationships.
About every five years, Congress revises and reauthorizes a legislative package that sets food and farming policy in the United States. This will happen again in 2023. The Farm Bill has a profound impact on farmers’ choices and their ability to adopt practices that sequester net carbon and improve soil health. Farmers know that they cannot continue conventional agriculture either from a financial or an ecological perspective. But, they need policies in place to help them make the necessary transitions. According to the American Farmland Trust (AFT), the 2023 Farm Bill is arguably the most important farm bill in a generation. (11) One of the many valuable things this farm bill could do, if we raise our voices, is to provide provide matching funds for Washington’s SB 5947. The AFT includes this proposal in their list of recommendations for the 2023 farm bill. Here is what they want to see added:
Advance Innovative Soil Health Programs
• Provide federal matching grants to enable existing state soil health programs to expand while encouraging other states to start their own innovative programs.
The full list of AFT recommendations for the 2023 farm bill is posted on their website and lobbying is already underway. (12) Consumers, farmers, and climate activists can work together with AFT and others to make this bill a win-win in Washington state, the country, and the entire planet.
2. Gunders, Dana. “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food From Farm to Fork to Landfill.” Natural Resources Defense Council, 2017. Retrieved March 7, 2019, from https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/wasted-2017-report.pdf
7. #eatlocalfirst, #knowyourfarmer , #whatcomfarms , #whatcomcounty, #farmher, #threegenerationsofwomen
Judy Hopkinson is a retired nutrition scientist who moved from Houston to Bellingham in 2008 with her husband, David. In Houston, she conducted research and taught at Baylor College of Medicine and trained medical professionalsinTexasandelsewhere in breastfeeding management. The couple are actively engaged in climate justice work.