As a Brooklynite, I often feel as though I’m floating in a world where veganism, Paleo devotees and flexitarians are the driving force of society, each person on their own quest to define “good eating.” This is nothing new: Americans have been obsessed with diets for at least the last 150 years, beginning with Sylvester Graham’s whole-grain fad in the 1830s. Since then we’ve jumped from yogurt enemas (true story) all the way to veganism. Even the Ancient Egyptians detoxed. Throughout time and all around the world, humans have always searched for ways to ensure their ultimate health and wellness.
But our generation faces an added challenge – managing the health and wellness of the planet. We read headlines about rising sea levels and, with a queasy stomach, click away so we don’t need to think too deeply about it.
But Dan Kitterage, founder of the Bionutrient Food Association, is pushing a new message through the chaos: Good eating can have a positive impact on climate change. “A lot of people feel like we’re just fucked, and getting pretty depressed about climate change,” he told me over the phone. “But eating good food is one of the most radical actions we can take that has all of these systemic effects.” This all starts with a very basic thought: Whether you are a locavore, clean eater, juicer or FODMAP believer, we all rely on nutritious plants. Even meat lovers find their steaks and chops influenced by the diet of livestock. And growing nutrient and flavor-filled foods relies on healthy soil. This healthy soil can help the environment as well as eaters.
“Most of the time the perception is that agriculture is a big time problem,” says soil scientists Rattan Lal. “Yes, agriculture done improperly can definitely be a problem, but agriculture done in a proper way is an important solution to environmental issues including climate change, water issues, and biodiversity.”
The central issue is that dominant farming practices lead to less nutritious plants as well as strips the nutrients that all plants (and humans) need to survive. Due to methods like excessive tilling, and pesticide and insecticides usage “we’ve probably lost 50-80 percent of the soil organic matter, called soil humus, over the last 150 years,” explains Richard King, rancher and Holistic Management Educator. Why should any of us care about soil humus, AKA topsoil? Because it stores carbon, an element that’s essential to grow plants. Carbon is so valuable to farmers and gardeners many of them call it “black gold”. Without carbon all soil becomes dead dirt. And when carbon is released from soil where does it end up? In the atmosphere, where it contributes to a polluted ozone layer and global warming. “Studies have shown that cover cropping, crop rotation and no-till farming could restore global soil health while significantly decreasing farms’ carbon footprint,” writes Pollan. Currently, cover crop use and no-till agriculture only accounts for 10 percent of all U.S. cropland.
But as Kitterage points out, there’s a delicious way to improve this situation: By changing the way we farm, we could grow more nutrient-dense foods and sequester carbon (putting it back into the soil) instead of releasing carbon. “If we can restore the carbon that used to be in the soil, it’s a win–win, baby,” Richard King states with a grin. And the good news is, we can. As foodie fever gains steam across the country, a focus on nutrient-dense, flavor-packed, organic farming could result in elevated culinary experiences as well as a healthier planet and eased conscience. As Kitterage plainly puts it “eating good food is one of the most radical actions we can take.” So, to help make the world a better place all we have to do is eat?! Who wouldn’t be on board with that?!
Just as consumers have pushed (and won) for pesticide-free, antibiotic-free foods, we can help move the needle toward more Earth-friendly agriculture and healthier, more nutritious food. Consumer dollars and habits not only have a huge impact on determining the direction of the markets, it also impacts government policy. “If we took the subsidies that go to fossil fuels today and put that into restoration of soil, we could deal with climate change within a generation, easily” claims Larry Kopald, co-founder of The Carbon Underground.
One way to push the needle on this movement is to buy more cover crops. Farms are incentivized to use rotational crops when they make money on them. Common cover crops include amaranth, barley, rye and clover (yes, you can eat clover). The other way? If you see articles online about soil carbon sequestration, or why today’s plants don’t taste as great as they could — share it! Help spread the word! The Internet gives us all great power in disseminating information. We don’t have to (and shouldn’t) leave solutions to climate change in the hands of governments, or technology companies alone. Regular citizens can help to address this critical issue of our time through greater foodie-ism and more sustainable farming practices.
Most diets have pros and cons. And there’s no reason to believe that the diets of today won’t become passé as nearly all diets before them. But I hope we move away from focusing our diet on particular grain protein or ancient fable, and turn our attention toward how to eat the most nutrient-rich foods possible. If we happen to be helping to leave this Earth healthier than how we found it, I’d say it’d be the most successful diet of all time.