I have crouched over rain-soaked fields in the spring and made ball, after ball, after ball of soil in my hand. I have rolled these packed clumps around, dropped them on the ground, and then once more, just to be sure, during monsoon spells of utter inundation and concluded---“Nope, too wet to work these fields.” Why should I or any other farmer care whether a packed handful of wet mud is indeed, packed and mud? How will the future of our food systems be shaped by farmer knowledge and treatment of fields today? The answer is: soil health. The structure, integrity, and potential of our agricultural soil is paramount to the health of our collective growth as a society.
Soil health refers to the tilth, water holding capacity, compaction rate, and both nutrient content and ability to share those nutrients with plant life. Soil health means robust microbial activity and the long-term ability to support crop production, livestock graze, browse, or forage, and surrounding bioregion vitality. By treating soil as one of our most prized commodities—water sources, forests, fields, and local fauna also benefit as pieces of an interdependent system. Our soil is also our cradle within the food production cycle. We cannot incubate successful farms without solid platforms for growing nutrient dense farm products. There is no substitute for a diverse, biologically sound growing medium. Soil health begins with research, education, and dissemination of best practices to farmers young and old alike.
Research universities, organization, and on-farm demonstrations yield tremendous insight into sustainably managed soil health. Let’s look at cover-cropping as one example (as just one of many sustainable soil health improvement techniques). As farms trial various cover-cropping combinations aimed at equally various goals (tillage radish to remediate compaction, buckwheat to mine for phosphorous, winter rye to assist with organic matter) crucial research is also being executed. The results of these trials amount to hugely important educational opportunities for the entire national and global sustainable agricultural community. As we improve our methods of results transmission, such as the work of NCAT, we are creating a fibrous root system capable of tapping into the soil health of many farms in scattered and unique locations.
Disclaimer: I’m not even close to being a climate expert. I’m just a passionate, (still for the time being) optimistic Millennial who really thinks we can change the world.
If you have any doubts about anthropogenic climate change, I’d invite you to check out resources from the American Association for the Advancement of Science What We Know initiative or from NASA Global Climate Change to learn more about the scientific study of climate change. Discussions on the environment can be overwhelming. While conversations on impacted indigenous communities, non-renewable energies, ecosystem and biodiversity loss, global land use, and climate-related migration are all critical, I’m not sure a one-off blog post is the best forum for that (although if you want to learn more about any of those things, I’m happy to send resources or start the conversation).
We live in a strange world caught within the intersection of social activism and the comforts offered by convenience and complacency. For the environment, that intersection is a hypocritical one: we defend avocado toast, eagerly await the next chance to cure wanderlust, and are frighteningly reliant on cloud-based technologies but reluctant to admit the environmental brutality of an agricultural regime that allows us to eat avocados in the first place, of an airline industry that emits billions of tons of carbon dioxide each year, and of technological platforms supported by resource-intensive data centers. There’s no one solution that will reverse the environmental damages already done or change our egregious production-consumption patterns. But there are a lot of smaller changes that can and should be made. Sure, industries are the biggest polluters, but you know what? They respond to their bottom lines and to their shareholders: you and me. Changes in consumer demand is a powerful and effective tool.
But the ability to make changes for the benefit of the environment implies a level of privilege and necessitates a disposable income able to commit the monetary resources and research commitment into making consumption changes. For more about what the environmental movement gets wrong and what will bring about real change, I’d invite you to check out Alden Wicker’s post, “Conscious consumerism is a lie. Here’s a better way to help save the world”.
How do we change the status quo? Through political advocacy and lobbying. But for those who feel overwhelmed by the daily political fight for justice, there are also small choices we make as consumers that have a huge impact on the environment. Here are five things you can do now to decrease your footprint:
1. EAT BETTER.
The industrial meat, dairy, agriculture, and fishing industries are some of the largest global polluters in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, land conversion, reliance on antibiotics, and pesticide use. The human rights abuses associated with labor-intensive agricultural commodities, meat and fish processing, and the removal of local and indigenous communities from their land are not insignificant. Bananas, coffee, fish, tea, milk, meat, and chocolate are not cheap to produce. But they are cheap to buy because they are products of an exploited supply chain driven by demand in developed countries. We need to do better. Look for local products at the store and for certifications like free-range (meat, dairy) and the Marine Stewardship Council’s eco-label for seafood. To learn more about the impact of our dietary choices on the environment, check out this study from a team at Tufts University on U.S. agricultural land use or Seafood Watch from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which also provides regionally specific recommendations for what fish to choose and avoid.
2. CHECK THE LABEL.
This applies to pretty much everything--food, drinks, clothing, cosmetics--and pretty much every ingredient. You may be shocked to find just how (unnecessarily) global our economy really is. Chances are the ordinary products in your home like toothpaste, pickles, peanut butter, or shampoo are imported. When it comes to ingredients, just because just because an ingredient is listed doesn't necessarily mean it's safe for you or the environment: most products are tested for short-term rather than long-term health effects. Consumer resources are available from Green America, The Art of Simple, and The Good Trade.
3. CONSUME SMARTER.
There’s no convenient way around this one: micro-plastics are polluting our oceans and flying is bad for the environment. But it’s not just us flying…. it’s the cheap goods we consume on a regular basis that do a fair amount of pollutant-heavy travel (by land, air, and sea) before they get to our local store or online shopping cart. We need to rethink how we consume. Cutting out plastic water bottles and straws, bringing your own bags to the grocery store, and buying in bulk with reusable containers are all good starting points. Eating out less, buying less online, and contacting your retailers to let them know you actually care about their environmental and labor practices (and then proving that with your dollars) are also critically important. Read more about global plastic consumption in this recent exposé by The Guardian.
4. SPEND LESS TIME ON ELECTRONICS.
Those extra minutes of gaming and social media add up when it comes to energy consumption (not to mention the human rights abuses in the mining industry that fuel electronics consumption). Many states and companies in the U.S. are turning toward cleaner sources of energy, but our digital footprint is getting larger. It’s hard to avoid the use of technology at work and in school, but personal consumption has a big impact as well. Given the increased importance of local actors in light of the White House’s policies on mining, offshore drilling, and environmental protection, it’s important to continue pressuring state-level policymakers and industry stakeholders.
5. PUT YOUR $$ WHERE YOUR BRUNCH IS.
I get it, we’re Millennials who have been left by a reckless older generation with skyrocketing healthcare and education costs. But if we can afford those IPAs and that wanderlust, we can afford $10 now and then for environmental conservation and for products we know aren’t made in sweatshops. If we want supply chains that put environmental considerations and labor rights first, we are going to have to pay a more for those products. There are a lot of great organizations doing great climate policy research and advocacy work in addition to conservation. I’d add The Ocean Conservancy, Resources for the Future, and Wildlife Conservation Society to that list as well.
Behavior change is hard and slow, but we don’t have a choice. Climate change is here and there is no planet B. The number of climate migrants negatively impacted by severe weather events, pollution, conflict, and rising sea levels is expected to increase. It is often those in vulnerable or impoverished communities who are impacted most negatively by the decisions of those in power. Unfortunately, whether considering these communities in developed or developing countries, the impacts of climate change are the same. As comparatively wealthy, educated individuals living in one of the worst-polluting countries, it is our responsibility to act. Try eating meat just once or twice a week. Count the number of single-use plastics you throw out each week and try and use less. Track and reduce the number of hours you spend charging your electronics. Research where your state gets most of its energy and encourage your utility company to switch to (or keep using!) renewables. Advocate for climate policy in your region and support carbon pricing initiatives.
There is no panacea, but small changes make a big impact. We may not be in a political climate that encourages conservation, but the global conversation around climate change is bigger than the inadequacies of the current U.S. administration. It’s up to us to continue progress already made and become champions for the environment in our communities.
Written by Guest Contributer: Stephanie Swinehart
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