Burger King has the meatless Impossible Burger. Del Taco boasts two plant-based burritos. Celebrities like J-Lo and Venus Williams have gone vegan. Seems like the message is out: eat more veggies and skip the meat. Not only for your personal health, but also for the health of the planet. Companies are responding to the demand for healthier and more sustainable foods. The intentions are good. The message is wrong.
As a Functional Medicine physician and founder of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, I’m the first one to tell my patients they need more plant-rich foods, especially vegetables. I also support people who choose vegetarianism or veganism for ethical reasons (although neither of those diets guarantee healthful eating).
My advice for everyone is to make at least half of every meal vegetables. In fact, we could reverse chronic illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease if we all started eating a plant-rich diet and avoided refined and ultraprocessed foods, gluten and most dairy. Research backs this up.
However, for the past few years, I’ve been exploring the quality of our food and how food—from field to fork to landfill—is at the root of climate change and many of the environmental crises around the globe. That’s why I wrote Food Fix, to expose the harm our food system is doing not just to our physical and social health, but also our environmental health. There’s no doubt we’re in a crisis—and our food system is a big reason. Food is also the solution. But it is not as simple as “No more meat.”
The real issues with our food
When we eat a hamburger, a chicken sandwich, a salad, or even a green smoothie, it is hard to imagine the vast web that produced that food, and its potential to heal or harm the environment. Where was it grown? How was it grown? What resources were used to grow it?
You probably don’t think about climate change, agricultural practices, or the potential for the extinction of our species when you chomp down on your dinner.
How we grow, produce, and distribute our food, from beef and eggs to soy and avocados, has tremendous implications not just for our waistlines, but also for our planet. Nearly every country and scientists outline a bleak picture for humanity if we don’t address this crisis. Yet few are linking it to our food system.
Our food system is responsible for almost half of all greenhouse gas emissions—from deforestation, destructive agricultural practices, and the fossil fuels used for processing, packaging, and refrigeration to food waste. One-fifth of fossil fuels are used for agriculture and our food system. That’s more than all transportation from cars, planes, and ships combined.
Another alarming example? Factory-farmed cattle release 220 pounds of methane per animal into the atmosphere, which happens to be 28 times more powerful at warming the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (the biggest offender emitted from vehicles). No one would deny that factory-farmed meat is bad for the planet.
Unfortunately, processed meat replacements like Impossible Burgers are actually made with GMO soy, which is low in nutrients, relies heavily on industrial soil-killing agriculture and chemicals such as glyphosate. It also contains 110 times the amount of glyphosate needed to damage your microbiome. Take a look at just a few of the other major problems in our food system:
- Nitrogen-based fertilizer runs off into our rivers, lakes, and oceans creating vast swaths of marine dead zones and killing 212,000 metric tons of fish in the Gulf of Mexico and there are 400 similar dead zones around the world the size of Europe on which 500 billion people depend on for food. Fertilizer production requires massive amounts of natural gas from fracking (which contributes a quarter of global methane emissions from the fracking wells). Once applied to soils, it destroys organic matter and is now two thirds less effective and we use 7 times what we did 40 years ago to get the same yields. Oh, and the nitrous oxide produced when applied to soils is a greenhouse gas 300 times more harmful than carbon dioxide!
- If we don’t stop erosion and soil loss, by 2050 we will lose 1.5 million square kilometers of farmland from production—equivalent to all the farmable land in India. We have lost one third of all our topsoil since the industrial era which has contributed about 30 to 40 percent of all greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The UN estimates that if we spent $300 billion on restoring 2 of the 5 million hectares of degraded land on the planet we could stall climate change by 20 years, enough time to work on more solutions.
- In 2019, much of our Midwestern farmland was unplantable, the victim of extreme weather, tornados, and flooding. The very way we grow food is threatening our ability to grow food. Crop production is threatened in the face of climate change.
- More than thirty percent of livestock breeds are facing extinction, and just three crops (wheat, corn, rice) account for 60 percent of our food. We have lost 50% of all livestock species, 90% of edible plant species and 75% of pollinator species on which our agriculture depends.
- Most farmers no longer grow local, resilient, genetically diverse and nutrient-dense varieties. They only use genetically uniform (or GMO) high-yield varieties that require intensive use of chemicals—destroying the organic matter and biodiversity of the soil that results in less nutrient dense plants and increased need for irrigation.
What went wrong?
How did agriculture get to this point? The short answer is government farm policy, changes in technology, and the unchecked power of corporate agribusiness. It started with good intentions to feed a hungry population with an abundance of starchy calories. But things went awry producing lots of obesogenic calories in ways that harms our environmental and drives climate change.
In the 1930s, the introduction of mechanized farm equipment used without ecological knowledge of soil and erosion combined with eight years of drought created the Dust Bowl—one of the worst environmental crisis in our country’s history. Then artificial nitrogen, pesticides, and herbicides dramatically increased after World War II as bomb factories and biological weapons like nerve gas were retooled into agricultural products. (If a biological weapon could kill an enemy, it could certainly kill a few insects, right?) The motivation was to improve yields and increase production.
Man conquering nature has always been our operating paradigm. We can plow the earth with machines, fertilize plants with nitrogen, kill weeds and pests with poisons, dominate nature, and use fossil fuels to supercharge the agricultural machine. It has worked for a while. Sort of. But along the way it has drained our natural bank account built up over millions of years—the soil, water, microbes, insects, and living systems that produce food. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization report determined that we have only 60 harvests left before we run out of soil. Consider how serious this is:
1. Our soil is turning into dirt. And dirt turns into desert. Livestock overgrazing as well as industrialized agriculture, monocrops (farms that grow only a single crop such as corn or soy), tilling, and bare ground all deplete soil, turning it into dirt. So both animals and plants are part of the problem. Plants thrive in soil, not dirt. Healthy soil rich in organic matter retains water, which reduces flooding and the effects of droughts. Soil traps carbon, which feeds all the microbial life that makes nutrients for plants, detoxifies pollutants, and more. Dirt needs fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, nutrients, and water to grow food. Soil doesn’t. Dirt causes climate change. Soil reverses it.
2. Groundwater is drawn out from our aquifers for irrigation of agriculture faster than it can be replenished. For instance, Saudi Arabia decided it wanted to grow its own food and used its ancient fossil aquifers. They were successful for five years, until all their water ran out. Forever. Closer to home, the 174,000-square-mile Ogallala Aquifer lies underneath the Great Plains and irrigates America’s breadbasket. It is also being pumped dry. We are currently taking out 1.3 trillion gallons a year more than can be replenished by rainfall. The World Economic Forum declared water scarcity the fourth-biggest global threat right after weapons of mass destruction, climate change, and natural disasters.
3. Much of our industrial agriculture also pollutes the water it doesn’t use. Confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are industrial farms where thousands of animals are crowded into massive barns and fed cheap grains and soy. The manure and urine from these barns are stored in nearby lagoons that can leak into waterways and aquifers and create pollution for people who live nearby.
4. I could go on and on about pesticide and herbicide use, but one example sums up the problem best: According to the EPA, glyphosate is sprayed on more than seventy different food crops. It increases our cancer risk and damages soil. It is used on corn, soy, canola, and wheat. If you eat a slice of bread, a bowl of Cheerios, a sushi roll, a plate of pasta, a slice of pizza, or a chicken nugget, there’s a good chance one or more of its ingredients was doused in Roundup before it left the farm. In fact your fortified Cheerios have more glyphosate than vitamin D or A.
As you can see the simple “plants are good, meat is bad” argument is not so simple. What plants? What meat? Nicolette Hahn Niman, the vegetarian cattle rancher who wrote Defending Beef, put it this way: “It’s not the cow; it’s the how.”
The food solution that gets it right
The good news is that the science of how to grow food that properly feeds humans, regenerates land, conserves water, and reverses climate change provides a path to fix it all: regenerative agriculture. This type of agriculture can start reversing environmental damage in just a few short years, and you can be part of the movement.
Nearly all studies on the harms of meat studied only factory-farmed meat. However, a recent independent life cycle analysis by the sustainability experts at Quantis revealed that you would have to eat one regeneratively raised beef burger to offset the net carbon emissions of one GMO soy burger (Impossible Burger). The soy burger is certainly far better than feedlot beef, but it adds 3.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide to the environment (where it does damage), while the regeneratively raised beef burger removes 3.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide.
Regenerative agriculture uses animals as part of the natural biological cycle necessary to create sustainable ecosystems. In fact, animals must be integrated into farms to regenerate soil, enabling it to store massive amounts of carbon and water. Currently, these farms only account for 1 percent of agriculture. We need more.
The regenerative concept is relatively new but is based on ancient principles to restore and enhance natural systems. While it can be organic (and ideally should be), it goes beyond organic. Regenerative agriculture is the most powerful force for fixing much of what’s wrong with agriculture while producing more and better food. And the practice can be adapted across diverse and global environment:
- Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystems.
- It helps to capture carbon in soil, reversing current global trends of carbon and methane emissions.
- It increases yields, the nutrient density of foods, and farm resilience to climate instability.
- It draws from decades of scientific research by the global communities of organic farming, agroecology, holistic management, and agroforestry.
The good news: It turns out that regenerative agriculture is more profitable (for farmers) and produces higher yields and better-quality food, even when used to grow commodity crops (soy, corn, wheat)! One regenerative farmer told me he uses no inputs, produces more food, better food, has built 29 inches of soil making his farm drought- and flood-resistant, and makes 20 times the profit of his neighboring farms. Not bad for a bit of soil!
Your food choices matter
Changes across the board from farmers and corporations to government policies can help shift the entire system (which I cover in Food Fix). And what you put on your fork is one of the most important decisions you can make for your own health and the health of our planet. Here are a few ways you can help:
1. Start locally and buy organic foods. Join a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program in your area for local organic produce. Go to Local Harvest to find one in your area. Shop at farmers’ markets too. They support local food systems. While the impact may be small, it provides a foothold into innovations in agriculture that eventually will spread.
2. Get a cow share from a regenerative farm. For example, you can get grass-fed meat for an average of $8 a pound from Mariposa Ranch and other regenerative farms and ranches across the country. That’s $2 for a 4-ounce serving or about half the price of a Big Mac.
3. Look for the new regenerative organic certified (ROC) label. ROC involves three areas: soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness.
4. Educate yourself and your community about regenerative agriculture. Films like Kiss the Ground: the Soil Story and The Biggest Little Farm are a good start. Check out The Carbon Underground to learn more. Take a tour of a regenerative farm to see how it all works.
5. Avoid GMO foods as much as possible. Everyone can do this to some degree. Buying non-GMO foods is one way to support better agricultural practices.
6. Vote with your vote. The Food Policy Action network created “An Eater’s Guide to Congress” scorecard rating each member on how they vote on food and agriculture policies. In the 2018 election, two congressmen with dismal scores on food policy were defeated by a targeted social media campaign focused on low-turnout voters.
Thankfully, farmers such as Gabe Brown, Allen Williams, Regi Haslett-Marroquin, and Bio-Integrity Growers farm in Australia are showing the world that we can do better farming. Many groups of very smart people are also tackling this issue, such as International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (see Towards a Common Food Policy for the European Union) and the UN Environment Program hosted an initiative called TEEBAgriFood. Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer has laid out a road map called “Growing Opportunities: Reforming the Farm Bill for Every American.”
In recent books like Growing a Revolution by David Montgomery and Kiss the Ground by Josh Tickell, the importance of rebuilding soil is being shared with new audiences.
Promising developments are also happening on the business front! One investment fund, Farmland LP, buys conventional commodity-farmed land and converts it to regenerative agriculture, turning conventional farms with profits in the single digits into regeneratively farmed land with profits of 40 to 50 percent, while increasing productivity, biodiversity, resiliency, soil carbon, and water conservation, and reducing pollution and agrochemical inputs, while adding millions in benefit to the environment.
Leading groups like The Carbon Underground are working with big businesses like Danone, governments, and grassroots groups globally to educate and support them to transform harmful systems of food production into healing systems. Exciting innovations in technology (like using bacteria to fertilize plants) and global recognition of the need to reverse the harms of our agricultural practices are cause for hope.
Whether we’re farmers, policy makers, Big Ag or Big Food CEOs, doctors, or everyday eaters, we can influence change in agriculture and our food system. Our actions, our voices, and our votes matter. Change happens from the margins to the center. We all must work together to make agriculture work for producers, consumers, animals, and the land that grows everything we eat. I wrote Food Fix to start a revolution that will do just that. I hope you’ll join me in taking positive action and turning one of the most urgent issues of our time into a story of renewal.
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