The Transition from Conventional to Sustainable
I began researching where my food comes from after I discovered the negative impacts of the agricultural industry on the environment back in 2009. Back then, I wanted to eat healthier and stumbled upon the terms “grass-fed” and “free-range” to describe meat. As I read about their definitions, I questioned how “normal” or “conventionally” meat was actually produced.
I was distraught by what I learned about conventional agriculture -- with issues ranging from animal welfare to soil erosion -- and soon discovered a niche of regenerative farmers who work with nature, instead of against it. I was fascinated that with careful planning and a bit of ingenuity, these farmers grow food while respecting the soil, plants, and animals; and often make more money than conventional farmers, while working less, in the process! (Check out the interview with Gabe Brown to learn more)
I used to watch YouTube videos of regenerative farmers and permaculturists demonstrating what happens when farmers use nature to their advantage -- the soil turns dark black and is rich with life; when it rains, there is less surface runoff (water flowing on the surface of the earth and taking soil with it) because the land can absorb the water (surprisingly this doesn’t really happen on normal farms); and wildlife comes back to live on and around the fields with lots of plant diversity and don’t use pesticides, insecticides, herbicides or fungicides.
I love seeing the way these farmers use the propensities of species to work together in order to minimize their reliance on machinery. For instance, after a harvest it’s common to plant cover crops (which are typically a mix of wildflowers and grasses) to keep the soil healthy. When it’s time to plant, they bring their cows to the field to eat all of the grass. This makes sense because 1) cows love to eat flowers and grass 2) their manure is great for the soil and 3) their hooves work the soil and encourage plant growth. Once the cows are done “mowing the lawn”, the farmer will then bring in chickens a few days later. The chickens work the manure further into the soil while eating all the insects and pests like flies that live in manure.
Using these natural processes typically requires more time and planning upfront, and the result is feeding your farm animals a natural diet while they replace machines! And since this allows these animals to behave normally by being outside, their products (i.e., eggs, milk and meat) taste much better and command a premium price. As a result, these farmers spend less on equipment because they buy fewer machines and simultaneously sell their products for more because of the higher quality. That’s why Luke Peterson is committed to this type of farming (check out the podcast below).
One of my favorite examples of sustainable gardening practices that anyone can use is growing basil and tomatoes in a process called “companion planting”. The primary purpose is for each plant to provide benefits for the other one during the growing process. For example, basil has a strong scent that wards off pests while attracting pollinators like bees, a necessity for tomato plant growth. Another virtue is the basil plant’s ability to make the tomatoes taste sweeter, just by being planted next to one another.
Many of these ideas are used in permaculture. When I started reading more into permaculture and learning the incredible things you can do with it, I was stunned to find out about a small farm near downtown Los Angeles called The Urban Homestead. Their farm is effectively their front and back yards, totalling 1/10 of an acre of land, and can produce up to 7,000 pounds of food per year. This ingenious utilization of space and companion planting cultivates sustainability by maximizing the efficiency of plant growth and additionally provides an oasis for insects and birds in the middle of a crowded city.
The more I looked into sustainability and protecting the planet, the more I felt compelled to contribute. Logically, the easiest place to start was my purchasing habits. Sometimes we forget how powerful we are as individuals, especially when it comes to changing how companies react to consumers’ demand. We as individuals have the power to change what organizations sell and how they do business in two primary ways:
Through the purchase of goods that were produced in an ethical and environmentally-conscious way; and
By setting an example for others that it’s okay to do something a bit different.
It’s amazing to see the number of organic options in many supermarkets both in the US and the UK. When I was younger, the word “organic” wasn’t really commonplace. As a desire for healthier choices surged in first world countries, organic products were demanded by more and more consumers. And the supply chain responded, making these options more readily available.
I know there are many other industries where sustainability needs to be implemented aside from farming and food: transportation, energy, plastics, packaging and clothing are some of the opportunities where we can work more with the planet in mind. Admittedly, I didn’t know which direction to move in to continue making better choices, so I decided to speak to the Sustainability Champions who are already working hard to heal the planet to hear their stories. And that’s ultimately how the podcast was born.
One of the most shocking things I’ve taken away from these conversations is the sheer number of people who are involved in making the world a better place. Some of these changes are straightforward and important, like reducing the amount of emissions a business produces by examining their supply chain, others are highly innovative and futuristic, such as growing meat in labs to reduce methane gas emissions from animal farming.
The overwhelming abundance of good-doers and innovators fuels my optimism for our future on this planet. It will take time, effort and many changes for us to live sustainably on Earth and I am confident that we can set a solid framework in the coming years.