Level III. Down on the Farm

You have by now leveled up your nutrition IQ so that you are aware of the best foods to eat for your health. You know the hacks, how to do what's good for you. But it's also important to understand why the foods that are so good for you are also good for the planet. And how to access the planet-healthy foods.

You may be thinking: I don't have the time to grow my own food or shop at special stores or read labels or worry about where my food comes from. When I need to eat, I just want something fast, cheap, and easy.

This attitude is certainly understandable. We all have busy lives, we have budgets, and we're inundated with conflicting information from the media about everything—including food. In our culture, we value convenience and speed—especially when we're hungry. But our bodies need more than the packaged processed food so readily available to us, and so does the earth that gives us life. So it is worthwhile in a multitude of ways for you to level up your knowledge of agriculture, the negative aspects of industrialized food, and the positive options you can choose instead.

Level III will help you understand the importance of growing food in healthy soil—for our bodies, and for the earth itself. You will learn the difference between industrialized agriculture, sustainable agriculture, and regenerative agriculture, and which agricultural practices replenish the soil. In case you are unaware, we will discuss the drawbacks and dangers of factory farms, highlighting the value of small diverse farms over corporate-owned industrialized farms. We will introduce you to the possibilities offered by new farm technology, as well as the retro concept of wilding.

You will learn how all of this impacts us and the earth. And you will find out where to get access to the most nutritious food that's also supportive of planetary health.

Healthy Soil, Healthy Food

Healthy soil is becoming a scarce commodity due to the global acceptance of industrialized agriculture. But healthy soil means healthy food, and a lack of topsoil means food cannot grow. So it is essential for us to rethink our approach to agriculture.

Since 95% of food grows in the topmost layer of soil, this makes topsoil essential for survival. But in the last 150 years, almost half of the topsoil in the world has disappeared. In the US, the soil on cropland is eroding 10 times faster than it can be replenished. Topsoil filters water and helps with its storage. It also absorbs carbon. For every 1% increase in carbon in an acre of land, the soil will hold onto 40,000 additional gallons of water. Healthy soil also provides plants with nutrients we need. Recent studies of American crops indicate the amounts of certain nutrients in our topsoils—including protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, vitamin B2, and vitamin C—have been decreasing.

Healthy topsoil sequesters carbon, preserves water, reduces erosion, and provides what is needed for nutritious food to grow. Obviously, it is essential for our survival. However, industrialized agriculture is destroying our topsoil in multiple ways.

Pesticides are chemicals used to protect food crops (and garden flowers, trees, and lawns) from insects and animals. Unfortunately, these chemicals are bad for the soil. They can be highly toxic to individuals as well. So if you work with pesticides you can be overexposed, and if you live near farms that use them you can be harmed by residues. Each year, some 11,000 farmworker deaths are attributed to acute exposure to these toxic chemicals. Pregnant women have an increased chance of miscarriage, and their babies have a higher incidence of birth defects, autism spectrum disorders, and behavioral issues.

Pesticides accumulate in the food chain. They kill our important pollinators like honeybees, which pollinate 80% of the world's plants. They kill plant-destroying insects' natural predators like birds. And they pollute the land, water, and air.

Pesticides are damaging our environment and contributing to the ruination of our soil. The risks of continuing to use these toxic chemicals outweigh the possible benefit of increasing our food supply, which has, in fact, been questioned since the rich soil of organic farms often provides a better crop yield. Certainly the benefits of not damaging ourselves and the environment outweigh the risk of obtaining marginally lower crop yields.

The fact is, we produce enough food to feed the planet's vast and growing population. In fact, we could achieve this without the use of damaging chemicals. Widespread hunger in the world is not due to a lack of food but a lack of access to food. Hunger is an economic and geographic problem, not a food crops issue.

Certified organic food is by law grown without pesticides. Certified organic food is produced without synthetic herbicides, and there's no use of genetically modified organisms. (GMOs are engineered in labs, encoding genes in seeds to grow food resistant to herbicides and pests; food products containing GMOs may be labelled as "bioengineered.") Farms that have been certified organic must meet these and other strict food standards. Foods labeled as organic tend to be more expensive due to the requirements for farms to meet these special standards. However, this does not mean that organic foods contain zero pesticide residue. Unfortunately, industrialized farm practices have so contaminated our water, air, and soil that pesticide residues can sometimes be found in organic products as well. But generally the amounts found in organic foods are significantly lower than what one finds in foods from farms that do not use organic farming measures.

Growers of organic foods employ agricultural techniques that are good for the environment. They use natural compost instead of the synthetic fertilizers that cause contaminated runoff in our waterways. They keep pests at bay with natural pesticides and predators rather than poisoning with toxic chemicals. Organic farms produce eggs, dairy foods, and meats from farm animals with access to outdoor areas so they can graze and wander, leading a life in the natural world. Organic animal products are not from animals kept cooped up in cages 24/7. Organic farm animals are raised without the use of hormones, daily antibiotics, and other harmful drugs. The lack of overcrowding on organic farms eliminates the runoff of animal waste that comes with factory farms. This protects neighboring communities, and the water, air, and land we all share. (More on factory farms to come.)

Note that small farms may use organic methods to produce foods but are not certified organic. This is because certification is a long and expensive process. So locally produced foods from small farms can also be a healthful option.

Pesticides are made from toxic chemicals, but synthetic fertilizers are made from nutrients, typically potassium, phosphorus, and nitrogen. So what's wrong with enhancing the nutrient content of soil by adding these substances? The problem is one of too much of a good thing. The synthetic fertilizers used on large commercial farms don't stay there; excesses run off into our waterways, causing pollution and encouraging the growth of algae. Certain algae will feed on the fertilizer nutrients, expanding their populations and taking up too much oxygen in the water. This leads to fish kills. Some of the algae are also harmful to human health, making fertilizer runoff dangerous for those living on or near contaminated water.

Also, the problem with commercial fertilizers is one of not enough of all the good things. Soil health depends on more than the few nutrients included in synthetic fertilizers. Healthy soils are rich in a variety of organic compounds as well as soil microorganisms. When planted in and replanted in year after year, typically with a single crop (that is, monocropping), soil is depleted of nutrient value and can become infertile. Nothing will grow in what's left of the soil. Eventually, depleted topsoil is like dust that can blow away, leaving inadequate land no longer capable of growing food.

photo by Alexandr Bormotin on Unsplash

Rodale Institute estimates that only 8% of farms in the US produce more than four crops, which has led to a significant loss of diversity. The farming practices on the vast majority of our farms adheres to this monoculture model, with most farms specializing in a single crop. Industrialized farming practices have led to the destruction of our topsoil, which means we have untold acres of land no longer healthy enough to grow nutritious food. This is not sustainable.

Organic farming methods, on the other hand, work to preserve the topsoil and the biodiversity of the environment. On organic farms, soil is not tilled or is only tilled lightly in order to conserve the nutrients and microorganisms. When farmers reduce tilling, the organic matter in the soil increases, providing more nutritious food per acre and with less water use.

On organic farms, crops are varied and rotated, giving land time to recover after harvest and replenishing the soil with new microorganisms. When farmers use cover crops, organic matter increases even more, keeping nitrogen in the soil and reducing erosion. Without the addition of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, organic soil can remain healthy, rich in microorganisms, so that the foods grown there are high in nutrient value. Environmental damage and water, air, and land pollution are all avoided.

The worldwide expansion of industrialized, intensive agriculture practices is threatening biodiversity. Extension of these farming methods into global areas of rich biodiversity is especially worrisome. Human activity has already caused the loss of 83% of the world's wild animals and around half of the plants. Half of the natural grasslands and a third of the world's natural forests have been converted for food production. Obviously, modern methods for feeding humans are impacting global biodiversity. Meanwhile, food production is dependent on biodiversity for healthy soil, resilience against pathogens and climate crises, and an abundance of pollinators.

To preserve what's left of global biodiversity, we must put a stop to forest clearing for food cultivation, while protecting the remaining but endangered species. We need to reduce the use of agrochemicals and support the choice for organic farming.

But until our commercial agricultural practices change, organic foods will continue to cost more—and sadly, may prove too costly for some consumers. But the cost to our health and our environment is much greater—and we all pay the price for this. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, modern industrialized food production and global land use are creating $12 trillion of hidden costs annually. Such costs include damages to the environment and human health, and slowed development. In 2019, Americans spent more than a trillion dollars on food, but the external costs to health, environment, climate change, biodiversity, and food industry economics were over 2 trillion dollars. We all are paying for industrial agriculture's hidden costs.

The nutrition hack is this: buy organic foods as often as you can. You'll get more bang for your buck nutritionally while you help protect our beleaguered planet.

The Trouble With Agriculture

Farming and food production can harm the environment in a number of ways. But there are sustainable methods which can be practiced instead. Sustainable agriculture preserves the land, air, and water for future use, rather than depleting and polluting our most important natural resources. Regenerative agriculture returns them to their natural state, which improves the environment—now, and for the future.

Let's take a look at what this means in practical terms.

If you plant a food garden and tend to it using natural, organic methods, you can obtain the produce you need without harming the environment. By using compost and relying on natural means to control pests and weeds, you won't pollute your neighborhood or ruin the local waterways. So if you are able to plant a backyard food garden or replace your lawn with one, go for it. Gardening is relaxing and rewarding. It's a great activity for kids too.

However, this is not how most of us get our food. We live in cities, we rent homes in crowded suburbs, we have busy lives, so we shop for our food or have it delivered. We buy ultra-processed foods, microwavable, boxed, prepared. We dine out, often on the run. And when we feed ourselves this way, we unwittingly contribute to the continuation of an unsustainable agricultural system.

Fossil fuels are used in vast quantities to produce fertilizer and pesticides. Fossil fuels are also used for pumping water to irrigate crops, for plowing fields and harvesting them, for the processing and packaging, the refrigeration and transport of food. The average processed food travels some 1300 miles to reach us; our produce travels even farther, an estimated 1500 miles. That's crazy!

As you are probably aware, our fossil fuel overuse and decades of dependence on this source of energy have contributed to changes in our climate and a significant warming of the planet. Burning fossil fuels generates carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas responsible for trapping heat in the atmosphere. Too much CO2 is emitted from transportation, electricity, and our industries including agriculture. However, proper management of carbon sinks that remove and store carbon (e.g., forests, soils, plants, and trees) can act to offset our emissions.

Farm animals add to the problem because they emit methane during digestion, a planet-warming greenhouse gas which is 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat.

Farm animals also consume lots of corn, soy, and other crops produced on industrialized monocropped farms. Feeding grain to animals is much less efficient and produces significantly more greenhouse gases than eating the grain ourselves. If we ate the food from the farmland devoted to feeding these animals, it would significantly reduce the impact of agriculture on the climate.

Climate directly affects food production and the environment, and food production can directly affect climate and the environment. Up to 30% of global greenhouse gases, the kind that trap heat in the atmosphere and warm it, come from food production. Much of that can be attributed to the production of beef and lamb. If we adjusted our farming methods to more sustainable practices and reduced our production of red meat for food, we could reduce the climate-warming greenhouse gases by an impactful degree.

Land and water are not the only natural resources threatened by current food production methods. In addition to the pollution caused by fertilizers and pesticides, our water supply is threatened by the demands of irrigation for food crops. Climate change has diminished rainfall in certain parts of the world, forcing farmers to dig deeper wells and drawing on underground sources of water. In parts of the US and elsewhere, long periods of drought combined with heavy irrigation is making fresh water scarce.

Species extinction is another worrisome issue associated with industrialized farming. Our changing landscape now consists of acres and acres of monocropped farms, and diverse parts of the world have been turned into vast fields of unvarying food crops. Miles of just corn, or just soy, or just any one crop reduces the kinds of animals, birds, and insects that can live and reproduce on the farmland. Add to that the use of poisonous pesticides, and it's no wonder so many species are succumbing to or facing extinction. With sharp reductions in biodiversity, increasing numbers of species are unable to feed on and assist one another to survive. The depletion in biodiversity is occurring all over the globe and we are losing species everywhere at an alarming rate.

With the continued growth of the world's population, increasing numbers of people need to be fed. But the troublesome effects of climate change are hampering food production around the world. Excessive rainfall, droughts, floods, wildfires, and heat waves are impacting food production globally. This trend is worrisome. Continuing to feed the world while depending on farming practices that destroy the soil, water, and air while contributing greenhouse gases that heat up the planet is not going to work in the long run. We need to make changes to the agricultural system and we need to do this now.

The systems that provide us with food must move toward lower levels of pollution and greenhouse gas production. Zero environmental damage would be the best goal, but significant reductions at the very least must be obtained. The necessary changes to our food system require limits on the production of animal foods, limits in the use of toxic chemicals, and limits on fossil fuels used to produce, package, preserve, and transport foods. Local foods grown and raised sustainably need to be emphasized over industrial foods produced in the current manner and shipped from long distances.

We need to be able to feed MORE people HEALTHY food in a SUSTAINABLE way. This may seem like a daunting task because it is. Change is always daunting, and big changes are especially challenging. But if we want to be healthy and continue to thrive on a healthy planet, this is the direction we must move in. And everyone will need to join in, from farmers to ranchers to food companies to consumers.

Fortunately, there are some simple things you can do to participate, which we will get to soon.

photo by Gabriel Jiminez on Unsplash

The Trouble with Factory Farms

When cattle and other farm animals are let loose on land to graze on grasses and insects, when they can move freely as nature intended, the inefficiencies of turning animals into food are reduced. If farm animals were allowed to feed off the land naturally, then millions of acres would no longer be needed for growing corn and soy for feed. The savings could be measured in tons: tons less fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fossil fuels. The land, air, and water would be protected from the associated pollution. And greenhouse gas emissions would be significantly reduced, lessening the negative impacts on our climate.

But this is not the way our animal food is produced. In the US, more than 9 billion farm animals spend their lives on factory farms. Every year, many of these animals die before reaching the slaughterhouse. All sorts of illnesses and diseases, overcrowded conditions, drug reactions, and poor diets are to blame. The lives of factory farm animals are inhumane and terribly sad.

Factory farms, slaughterhouses, and meat packaging plants require a continuous supply of low-paid workers who must perform dangerous tasks. Immigrants and prison workers are often hired to do these difficult jobs, and they are widely exploited. Farm animals and those who work with them in these vast factories are seen as profit sources, therefore expendable. More on this topic in Level IV.

Most people don't like to think about where our animal foods come from. There are good reasons for this. Here are a few ugly truths for you to chew on.

Factory farm chickens raised for meat have been genetically bred to grow faster than normal in ways that are cruel and painful. Their breasts are so overdeveloped they have trouble standing upright. Factory farm cattle and pigs are given hormones to make them grow larger faster, which is uncomfortable and unhealthy. Factory farm animals are regularly given antibiotics and other drugs to make up for the fact they are kept in tight quarters, standing in their own wastes all day without access to fresh air, exercise, and sunlight. This is unhealthy and inhumane. The people who tend these animals are exposed to their wastes and their illnesses. This is also unhealthy and inhumane.

During the global pandemic in 2020, US slaughterhouse and meatpacking employees were forced to continue working despite a lack of protection, access to health care, or paid sick days. Many were infected with the virus, and a large number died. Meanwhile, worker shortages meant slowdowns in meat production, and the factory farm animals that grew too large during this time were slaughtered and dumped. At the same time, people were going hungry due to lockdowns, loss of employment, and illness.

Large scale farms specifically for feeding animals for human food have been appearing around the US since the 1950s, gradually making the normal pasture-based farms a rarity. A variety of serious problems are afflicting the communities where these massive factories are located. Also called CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), these facilities confine thousands of animals in vast hanger-like shelters that are crammed with growing bodies. The local results are predictable: offensive odors, contaminated air, polluted water, and unhappy neighbors. Public health is threatened as residents living near these factories are more prone to respiratory diseases, asthma, allergies, and other illnesses. Quality of life is downgraded, with entire communities sometimes becoming unlivable. Once a factory farm moves in, the local real estate becomes undesirable and equity is destroyed.

Factory farms are typically built in rural communities where residents lack the political power to protect themselves. CAFOs are disproportionately constructed in low-income areas. Residents are stuck, unable to sell their homes or move to safer environments. Thus, animals, workers, and people living near factory farms are forced to suffer so that the rest of us can have cheap meat for dinner. The situation is unfair, and not sustainable.

Think about this: US factory farms create more than 350 million tons of waste every year. That's more than 13 times the waste generated by the country's human population! We humans have sewage treatment facilities for our waste, but CAFOs do not. Instead, they store animal waste in giant open lagoons.

In addition to the hormones and antibiotics present in the animal waste, it contains heavy metals and dangerous pathogens like salmonella. Spillover pollutes waterways causing fish kills, creating toxic algae blooms, and ruining lakes, rivers, canals, and ponds. Occasionally, factory farms will spread manure over the land surrounding the pits. Spraying the manure emits hazardous pollutants including harmful microorganisms. The air stinks, and it's full of bad bacteria, and it's downright dangerous.

Industrial livestock production is putting at risk the people who live nearby, but it's also a danger to the rest of us. The use and overuse of nontherapeutic antibiotics has resulted over time in pathogens that do not succumb to the medications we have available. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are now a serious threat. And to make matters worse, massive factory farms can serve as perfect breeding grounds for pathogens that cause contagious disease, viruses and bacteria that can be passed from animals to humans...to become the kind of novel illness that spawns epidemics or pandemics.

The public is not being protected against the dangers posed by raising huge numbers of animals in industrialized livestock operations. These animal food factories make good profits for corporate entities while making life intolerable for the animals, the workers, and the surrounding communities. Factory farms pose a threat to you and everyone else.

Sustainability and You

The problems associated with our modern agricultural system can seem overwhelming and unsolvable. So you may be shrugging your shoulders at this point, saying to yourself that there's nothing you can do about the soil, and the food grown there. What could you actually do to protect the planet's water, air, and land? Or deal with a changing climate? After all, what can one person do to change the fate of this world?

Well, there are many of us with these same concerns, people all over the world worried about the fate of the planet. And fortunately, there are steps we can all take to try to move toward change. Ultimately, it will be up to our political and corporate leaders to legislate and enforce the big changes in the agricultural system that could help to save our resources, our planet, and our future. In the meantime, let's look at what we can do.

One simple step we can all make is to change the way we eat. If we all begin to consume fewer industrialized food products, eventually the corporations that produce them will feel the drop in demand and the financial impact of reduced sales. This will encourage food producers to adjust their product offerings to attract us as buyers again.

So what kind of demands can we make to stimulate this kind of change in food product availability? Here's a simple list of the choices we can make in this regard:

  1. Eat a diet that consists mainly of whole foods, and buy organic when possible.
  2. Choose plant foods more often, animal foods less often.
  3. Buy locally produced foods whenever possible, and buy food in season.
  4. Grow our own foods if possible.

You are already aware of what makes up a nutritious well-balanced diet because you leveled up to Level III via Levels I and II. So you know to select a variety of nutrient rich foods that emphasize healthy protein, complex carbs, good fats, vitamins and minerals, plus plenty of water. And you may already be eating a diet of whole, organic, mostly unprocessed foods. If not, you can move in that direction because these are also the more sustainable food choices.

At this point you are aware that the production of animal foods requires more natural resources and is more damaging to the environment than plant foods. So you understand why an emphasis on fresh, unprocessed plant foods is a good idea. Feeding and slaughtering and packaging and shipping animals uses up a lot of energy in the process of transforming cows or lambs or pigs into burgers or chops or bacon and ham. Eating the plant food directly is much more efficient than getting the energy via animal products. And there is less negative impact on the land, air, and water when no factory farms are involved in the production of our food.

This does not mean everyone must adopt a vegan diet, although that is always an option. Some people have stopped consuming all animal products out of a sense of duty or a belief that the treatment of farm animals is unjust and inhumane. Whatever your personal choice, a de-emphasis on animal foods is a helpful step for you to make for the sake of the planet.

This does not mean you must eliminate all of your favorite foods. But it can mean limiting the burgers, steaks, chops, bacon and ham to special occasions instead of daily meals.

Note that if you switch to dining on "fresh" produce grown in foreign countries or faraway states, your environmental footprint will still be too large. When food must be wrapped in plastic, refrigerated, and transported over hundreds or thousands of miles to get to our plates, then let's face it: we're kidding ourselves if we pretend it's fresh.

So where can you buy the real fresh foods you'd prefer to eat? Farmers markets are a terrific choice. These gatherings take place in cities and towns around the US. (In many countries, the local marketplace is the only option for food purchase.) Farmers markets bring to a single marketplace an array of local small farmers with their very fresh products: fruits and vegetables right off the trees and vines or just out of the ground; honey from backyard beehives; newly laid eggs; homemade cheeses, fresh-baked breads, and other delicious foods. These foods are in season, unprocessed, and in need of eating while still fresh. So if you frequent farmers markets, you can help local farms prosper while reducing your own environmental impact.

Local farm stands are also a good resource for freshly produced foods in season. As are CSAs, local clubs you can join that will provide you with freshly grown farm food. Community Supported Agriculture requires that you pay an annual fee to a local farmer, who then uses the funding toward growing and raising food for the year, guaranteeing you a share when products are ready. CSA food can include fresh produce, pasture-fed meats, eggs, and dairy, honey and herbs. Usually CSA food is delivered regularly (weekly, monthly, seasonally) to your home or a convenient pickup area. You may find yourself enjoying local fruits and vegetables, herbs, honey, and fresh foods you've never tried before.

Now that you are leveling up your nutrition, you might decide to plant a garden and grow some of your own food. For those of us who live in areas where this is possible, it can be worth the effort. Gardening is a commitment: it's hard work, it takes time, and you'll need the yard space, access to water, and the patience to do what is necessary to grow fresh food. In some urban areas, community gardens are an option. Kids love gardening and will often eat the fruits and veggies they grow themselves, even items they would normally avoid. If you have a patio, tomato plants can be fun and productive. Even growing a few herbs on your kitchen counter is a step in the direction of sustainability.

It's interesting that a diet composed of the foods which appear to decrease the incidence of chronic disease and mortality in human studies can also help to meet environmental sustainability goals. That is, eating fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and olive oil is healthy for you while doing less damage to the environment than diets rich in red meats like beef, lamb, and pork and the ultra-processed foods so ubiquitous in our lives.

Significant changes in planetary sustainability will require a lot of us making the best food choices possible. The kind of food choices that can steer the food system in a safer, healthier direction. Our personal food choices may seem like small potatoes, but they do add up—ultimately helping to reduce the human impact on the natural resources that sustain life on this planet.

Back to the Future

There's a lot that the modern farm system can do to improve the world's soil and preserve our health while addressing the other important issues we've been discussing. Some farmers are doing what needs to be done and enjoying surprising levels of success. Organic food grown in sustainable ways is increasing in popularity, leading to the adoption of these practices by more and more farms.

As has been discussed, sustainable agriculture maintains soil health while protecting the air, water, and land. This is a rational system of agriculture, one we need to adopt in the US—not just on our small organic farms but on all our farms. We need to re-adopt our grandparents' farming practices, but with the addition of updated knowhow and helpful technology. That is, we need to evolve into a land of diverse local farms utilizing the kind of technology that can ensure their success.

Tech can help improve the results of agriculture in a variety of ways. Special farming software can determine the nutrients plants may be lacking and the exact amounts required. Precision agriculture is extremely useful to growers who can address their crop needs without having to second guess. This can save farmers from crop devastation due to the unpredictable influence of climate change. Tools include drones, satellite data, and autonomous farm machinery. This sounds like futuristic farming, but it's already in use.

Another place where tech is helping farmers is vertical farming. Vertical farms are indoor farms that grow mostly greens and herbs using artificial LED lighting and a recycled water supply. No fertilizers or pesticides are necessary. The produce in vertical farms grows super-fast, has good nutritional content, and can be sold locally. This makes indoor farms a helpful addition to large cities, especially where climate change is impacting the outdoor farms.

The energy used by vertical farms is high and prices for their produce are not low. Hopefully, the vertical farm industry will iron out these issues as they expand in volume and diversity. Because if cities can get fresh produce from a local vertical farm at reasonable prices, then the negative impacts of climate change on the food supply will be lessened. And the fossil fuel use for transporting produce long distances will be curtailed.

Regenerative farming is sustainable farming, but it takes sustainability one step further.

Regenerative practices rebuild organic soil matter and restore soil health. This is important due to the need for farmers to both protect and regenerate the diminished, weakened topsoil found on billions of acres of cultivated farmland, pasture land, and forest land. Regenerative farms create a closed loop system by feeding animals with crops from the farm, and allowing the animals to create the fertilizer used to grow crops. Farmers use very little plowing in order to preserve soil microbes, they conserve water, and they protect the topsoil with cover crops, crop diversity, and other regenerative practices. Additional regenerative techniques include mobile animal shelters and pasture cropping. All of these methods help restore the nutrients and microorganisms to the soil, bringing back wild animals, birds, and insects to regenerate diversity as well. Regenerative farming restores the biodiversity of a farm by adhering to this high standard of land management and prioritizing both animal welfare and fair working conditions for farmers.

Soil is our planet's greatest carbon sink. And here lies an amazing hack: carbon can be drawn down into soil with regenerative farming methods. This is thought to be beneficial in the slowing of climate change, so possibly worth pursuing on a large scale.

Further study is needed, but in the meantime policy makers are looking at the idea of paying farmers to switch to regenerative farming in order to reduce greenhouse gas impacts, sinking carbon and burying carbon dioxide in untilled soil.

When farmers are better stewards instead of pushing to reap the maximum harvest, they usually find their land is much improved. Healthy farmland can better withstand heavy rainfall, drought, heat, and wildfires. There are also cost savings with regenerative farming as there is no need for synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and crop yields are increased from the richer topsoil.

Wilding takes sustainability another step further by returning farmland, pasture land, and cultivated forest land to their original wild states. Humans do not control the wilding process, but must step back and allow natural processes to re-establish themselves. There is some human intervention in the form of informed guidance, but no chemical pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers are used, and only natural means for controlling pests are utilized. Animals for grazing may be brought in, and technology can be used to keep track of plants, animals, insects, and crops.

Wilding a large area means allowing nature to take over and trusting that what happens over time will be good for the earth. When topsoil is so poor nothing can grow, wilding can be the only option left for a farm. It's also an option for those places where land is no longer cultivated or developed, areas that could benefit from an increase in biodiversity. Wilding allows an endangered ecosystem to recover, bringing back a wide array of wildlife and restoring the soil to health.

Sustainable ocean farming is another method for producing healthy food without damaging the environment. Seaweed farms are underwater gardens that grow kelp and other sea vegetables in vast amounts. Seaweed is nutritious and healthy as a food, and it makes a terrific organic fertilizer which can be used sustainably on land and in ocean farming. Seaweed is also being made into a plastic substitute to be used as biodegradable packaging material. It's added to cosmetics and used as biofuel. And growing seaweed is actually good for the planet, storing and removing the carbon that is rapidly warming up our oceans.

Scientists are experimenting with growing other food crops in the ocean including rice. Made-in-the-ocean foods could help to preserve precious soil while reducing ocean temperatures and acidity. But all forms of ocean farming must be sustainable. Overpopulated and massive concentrations of farmed fish, for example, can spread diseases and waste, threatening wild marine populations. And the introduction of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides could seriously harm marine wildlife. Like farming on land, ocean farming must be done wisely and sustainably.

Sustainable, regenerative farming methods need to be more widespread. Small local farms can provide us with healthy food without damaging the area's natural resources. Sustainable vertical farms and ocean farms can add more diversity to local food choices while allowing our topsoil to recover. Ultimately, these are the kinds of farming practices that could and should be widely adopted, replacing the ongoing destruction of industrialized agriculture. In this way, agriculture could begin healing us and our planet.

Level III Summary

When you imagine a farm, what do you picture in your mind? Most of us will visualize a smooth plot of green with a pretty red barn, a grazing cow, some golden corn stalks and bright red tomato plants shining in the sun. But this is an outdated image of the American farm. The vast majority of US farmland is owned by large corporate entities that use highly industrialized farming methods to get the most yield from the least expenditure. Modern farming is about profits, not nutrition. Not preserving the soil. Not improving the health and lives of the people who farm or the people who eat what our farmers produce. This is why modern agriculture is a threat to the environment rather than the best way to feed the world's growing population.

photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

Fortunately, the many serious problems associated with modern agriculture are not insurmountable. There are techniques we can use, methods we can adopt that will turn destructive farms into sustainable, regenerative sources of nutritious and healthful foods. We can commit to changing the way we farm in order to prioritize what's important, that is, to protect the soil, foster farm animal health, control the impacts of climate change, and take advantage of technology with an understanding of what's best for us and our environment.

As soon as possible, we will need to see farm production and policy changes that protect our health and our natural resources. Farmers need to be funded to maintain soil health. They need policies that pay them to keep soil surfaces covered with living ground covers in order to prevent erosion, and to keep living roots in the soil to feed soil microbes. Farms should be encouraged to grow a wide array of plants in order to enhance the diversity of soil microbes and biodiversity in the environment. The US government will have to make policy changes that can decrease the amount of land used for growing animal feed grains; increase the amount of land for perennial crops and local diverse crops; and support the growth of smaller, more diverse farms.

Good agriculture policies could create a workable plan to transition the corn belt to a carbon belt. Hundreds of millions of acres currently devoted to monocropped corn and soybeans would be farmed in a different way in order to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in deep-rooted plants in the soil. The billions we spend annually on crop insurance for marginally productive acreage could be used for permanent carbon sequestering plantings: grasses, trees, diverse crops, and native plants. Livestock raised on the land rather than in polluting and unhealthful factories should receive government support. If we made such changes, we might then opt to sell our corn and soybeans to other countries; that way we could help keep rainforests from being cleared for growing grain to feed food animals like cattle.

And in the meantime, what can you do? You can influence the changes you want to see by making food choices that support better forms of agriculture. This means eating mostly whole foods instead of ultra-processed and fast foods. It means choosing plant foods more often than animal foods, and searching for organic meats and dairy foods. It means shopping at local farm stands and farmers markets whenever you can. It may mean planting your own food garden. And trying seaweed! But mostly it means being aware. And seeing where that awareness takes you.

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All of the following questions are multiple choice. Select the best answer for each question by clicking on it.

1. A drawback associated with the use of synthetic pesticides is:
a) increased food costs
b) chemical buildup in the food chain
c) air and water pollution
d) destruction of pollinators
e) b, c, and d
f) all of the above

2. Organic farms produce foods without:
a) the use of synthetic pesticides
b) the use of synthetic fertilizers
c) the use of GMOs
d) any kind of pest control
e) a, b, and c
f) all of the above

3. Organic farms produce foods from animals that:
a) have access to pasture land
b) have access to the outside
c) are kept in cages 24/7
d) do not receive hormones
e) do not receive daily antibiotics
f) a, b, d, and e
g) all of the above

4. Nutrients found in synthetic fertilizers include:
a) phosphorus, potassium, and nitrogen
b) protein and essential fats
c) hormones
d) all of the above
e) none of the above

5. Fossil fuels are used in farming to:
a) make pesticides and fertilizers
b) pump irrigated water
c) run farm equipment
d) truck food crops
e) refrigerate food crops
f) all of the above

6. The typical processed food travels how many miles from farm to plate?
a) 20
b) 200
c) 500
d) 1300
e) 13,000

7. Which kind of climate activity poses a threat to food production?
a) excessive rainfall
b) drought
c) wildfires
d) excessive heat
e) floods
f) all of the above

8. Approximately how many animals are living in factory farms (CAFOs) in the US?
a) a few hundred
b) 9 billion
c) 9 million
d) relatively few compared to pasture-fed farm animals
e) none of the above

9. What kind of problem does a community encounter when a factory farm moves in?
a) none, they are safe
b) the potential for spread of pathogens
c) air pollutants
d) water pollutants
e) animal waste spillover
f) soaring real estate values
g) b, c, d, and e

10. Approximately how much waste is created annually by US factory farms (CAFOs)?
a) 350 million tons
b) 350 tons
c) much less than human waste
d) about as much as New York City residents create
e) none, it is all recycled

11. What can the average consumer do to encourage a move to more sustainability?
a) grow food in a home garden
b) shop for organic foods
c) reduce meat intake
d) look for pasture-raised meats
e) eat a plant-heavy diet
f) all of these

12. You can get fresh, whole foods from:
a) your own garden only
b) CAFOs
c) CSAs
d) farmers markets
e) c and d
f) b and d
g) all of the above

13. An example of a regenerative farming method is:
a) conservation tillage, that is, not plowing heavily to maximize soil microorganisms
b) composting, or using organics instead of synthetics to fertilize soil
c) use of cover crops to replenish the soil instead of replanting crops year after year
d) use of crop rotation to rest soil and replenish it with nutrients
e) mobile animal shelters to move pasture-fed animals around, allowing the land to regenerate
f) pasture cropping so pastures are allowed to rejuvenate
g) all of the above

14. What does the practice of wilding entail?
a) the exertion of tight human control over the environment
b) a planned reduction in insect populations
c) allowance for soil regeneration
d) the return of lost biodiversity
e) the return of wildlife
f) a and b
g) c, d, and e

15. A significant drawback of ocean farming is:
a) seaweed has no viable use
b) fish waste can spread to wild populations
c) synthetic fertilizers and pesticides must be used
d) rice can be grown, saving topsoil
e) underwater gardens attract marine life, creating biodiversity
f) a, b, and c
g) d and e

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