This Earth Day, Four Reasons to Bring Food and Farms to the Table

April 20, 2016 | 4:25 pm
Marcia DeLonge
Former Contributor

For me, the thought of Earth Day at first conjures up visions of the great outdoors: teeming rainforests, rushing waterways, golden valleys, golden eagles, great pandas, and so on. As a child of the 80s, while the special day was just in its early teens, I listened avidly to conversations about planting trees, saving water, turning out lights, recycling, protecting parks, and not being a litterbug.

Growing up in Wisconsin (the home state of Earth Day founder Senator Gaylord Nelson), in a family that deeply valued nature, the lessons of this annual event made a whole lot of sense—and stuck like glue. In retrospect, though, something seems to have been largely sidelined in the early days: food. Besides some chatter about styrofoam-packed carryout and pesticides, food and farms appeared to play mostly a supporting role, leaving household habits and wilderness habitats as the clear stars of the show.

Since the inaugural Earth Day in 1970, science has developed a strong case that food and farms belong on the center stage of sustainability efforts. The food system, after all, blankets many millions of acres of our planet. The world’s farmers are among the most pivotal stewards of the land. To properly celebrate and protect the natural resources that sustain us, we really ought to look to agriculture. In that spirit, here are some reasons to think a little more about what’s on your plates this week:

1. To continue the fight for clean water, and ensure your summer fishing trip

Among the big initial wins associated with Earth Day was the Clean Water Act (through the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency). This act made unpermitted discharging of pollution from any point source (e.g., pipe, ditch) into navigable waters illegal, thereby protecting surface waters from excessive industrial and municipal pollutants. Although the Clean Water Act enabled huge improvements, there are still plenty of threats to our favorite lakes and rivers, such as fertilizer-enriched runoff from many farms.

Fortunately, practical farming practices can put a big dent into these problems, but steps must be taken to support farmers in making these changes. For example, planting buffer strips of prairie grasses in the least profitable 10% of Iowan cornfields has been shown to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff by 90%!  With the expansion of such practices on farmlands across the country, there would be no need to pick between protecting either corn or your summer fishing grounds.

2. For the love of the birds and the bees, and many other beneficial species

Well-managed farms support a lot of life (not excluding the rich microbial communities, for example in the compost pile shown here!) (Photo: M DeLonge)

Well-managed farms support a lot of life (not excluding rich microbial communities, for example in the compost pile shown here!) (Photo: M DeLonge)

Another big win following the first Earth Day was the Endangered Species Act, intended to protect native plants, animals, and their environments. This act has been shown to be extremely successful, and it has been estimated that 227 species have been protected from extinction just since the law was passed (the Whooping crane and the Gray wolf are two examples). However, if you care about the world’s species, you can do much more than just applaud this critical act.

With each trip to the grocery store, you have a chance to cast a vote for farming practices that promote biological diversity. According to a review of the science, agriculture is one of the biggest challenges to biodiversity (due to land use change, toxic chemicals, climate change), but some ways of farming support significantly greater biodiversity than others (about 30% more species, by some estimates). My vote is for the food from the farms that protect the monarch butterfly, the busy bees, and the biologically rich soils that keep plants healthy (and healthful).

3. Because farms are just another great place to plant a tree

One favorite Earth Day activity is planting a tree, which is all kinds of good. Even better than just planting a tree, though, is remembering how much good a tree can do for a wide range of ecosystems—including farms and ranches. When trees are planted in agricultural systems (“agroforestry”), they can provide shelter to crops, animals, soils, wildlife, and infrastructure. In classic cropland and grazing lands, trees can serve as fences, break the winds, and protect stream banks. Specialized agroforestry systems have more specialized names, but they all start with planting a tree. For example, “silvopasture” adds trees to grazing lands, offering animals shelter from the elements while providing another sources of income (e.g., hazelnuts, or timber). “Multi-story cropping” strategically grows desirable crops under protective shade. If you’ve ever sipped “shade-grown coffee” then you’ve enjoyed the fruits of this practice.

Why not plant a tree on a farm? (Credit: Tobias Carter and the Savanna Institute)

Why not plant a tree on a farm? (Photo: Tobias Carter, Savanna Institute)

4. In support of the stewards of our land, and to help them help us

While many of us spend our days in an office, farmers, ranchers, and agricultural workers are out there tending to the land—rain or shine. But no matter where you work, each bite you take offers an opportunity to support the folks entrusted with handling the earth.

Healthier soils are known to be at the core of the long-term viability of farms. They reduce the need for chemicals that endanger the health of farm workers. They also stash large amounts of carbon and promote resilience—key functions in light of climate change (a problem which, by the way, is being fought today using yet another tool from the first Earth Days—the Clean Air Act). Furthermore, well-managed crop and grazing lands can actually serve to protect picturesque wild lands and much-loved recreational areas.

While healthy soils and open spaces are of broad interest for a plethora of reasons, it’s up to all of us to demand that the food system we participate in is up to the challenge. To this end, you can vote with your fork—or with your vote.  One way or another, just don’t forget to speak up.

Earth day every day, as an agroecologist

Decades after I learned them, the early rules of thumb from the Earth Days of my youth still nudge me daily. I am exceedingly conscious of how long I run the water when I brush my teeth, I feel guilty when I forget to turn off the lights, I bike or take public transportation whenever I can, and it really matters to me that I work at a place that shares these same values. But above and beyond building these familiar habits, years of thinking about food have given me even more goals to strive for. So, these days, I also make my best effort to know and reduce the impact of my food choices by participating in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), visiting my local farmers market, composting my food scraps, diligently avoiding food waste, and so on.

I can’t by any means claim to be the perfect eater or consumer, but I do genuinely appreciate that food serves us all a daily reminder of the immense treasure we have in healthy soils, water, air, and climate. I am also grateful for the regular opportunity to take tiny but important steps to protect those cherished resources.

That’s why, on Earth Day and every day, my heart is on the farm.