Earth Matters: Our food footprint

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We thrive only when the natural world thrives; when humans respect nature for all its beauty and bounty and live gently on the earth, as other living things instinctively know to do. The natural world gives us clean air to breathe, clean water to drink and an abundance of food from our oceans, lakes and rivers, our trees and rich soils.

However, it seems that more and more of us are conducting our lives as if we are somehow entitled to exploit the natural world, treating it as just another resource, another money-making opportunity or another dumping ground.

Examples of this exploitation are extractive and polluting industries such as drilling and fracking for oil and gas, strip mining for coal, rare metal mining for electronics, chemicals and plastics manufacturing, meat production farms and giant agribusinesses that grow the food we eat. Each of these enterprises strains our resources and creates significant pollution.

Though we can make personal choices that can help to mitigate the impact of some industries, such as installing geothermal systems to heat and cool our homes, attaching solar panels to produce electricity or resisting the urge to keep upgrading our cell phones, one of the easiest and most effective things we can do is to make better choices at the grocery store.

To understand the impact of food choices on our environment you have to look at every stage of the long journey from a natural resource to our dinner plates. Food production has evolved into an incredibly complicated system that uses prodigious amounts of energy, water and chemical inputs, creating pollution that now threatens our planet and our own health.

Let’s just look at water pollution from farms. Not your local family farms, but huge agribusinesses growing genetically modified crops (GMOs) on hundreds of thousands of acres.

These farms use vast quantities of chemical pesticides and synthetic or human sewage-based fertilizers that runoff into nearby bodies of water, killing local flora and fauna and creating “dead zones” in larger bodies of water miles downstream. News reports abound about the dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, primarily caused by agricultural runoff making its way down into the Mississippi River watershed.

Another example of water pollution from a food industry can be found right here on Long Island. For generations, shell fishermen working in Oyster Bay have hand-raked for clams, taking only those that were mature and leaving the seabed relatively undisturbed, allowing successive generations of shellfish to flourish and grow.

But in 1992, a large shellfish company conducting hydraulic and suction shellfish dredging obtained exclusive rights to 1,800 acres in the bay from the Town of Oyster Bay. Mechanical dredging damages the aquatic environment and imperils important fish species, such as the winter flounder, a threatened species in New York State as well as other federally designated endangered and threatened species.

It also damages the bay substrate, scarring the seabed and generating excessive clouding of the water, depleting oxygen and damaging the fragile ecosystem that other aquatic animals depend on for survival.

This type of aggressive extractive enterprise, in which collateral damage to the environment is just “the cost of doing business,” is also seen on farms that rely primarily on chemicals to produce crops.

Monsanto, the infamous pesticide and seed company which was acquired by Bayer in 2018, created genetically modified crops that were resistant to its infamous herbicide product “RoundUp.” The active ingredient in RoundUp, a chemical called glyphosate, has been linked not only to an array of human illnesses including cancer, microbiome and reproductive problems, but also to the decline of honeybees and monarch butterflies. Residues of glyphosate are now found in many common foods that are made with GM ingredients, like corn, soy and sugar beets and because of its widespread use, even non-GMO crops have been contaminated with this chemical. It is estimated that 93% of Americans have glyphosate in their bodies.

Exploitive and extractive agriculture is also evident in the production of meat for human consumption, which is responsible for the destruction of much of the rainforest in South America, as land is cleared for cattle grazing to supply our meat-dependent diets. Large-scale pork farms known as Concentrated Animal Feed Operations, or CAFOs, are responsible for hundreds of millions of tons of animal waste annually that contaminate rivers and streams and even sources of drinking water.

The good news is that a new paradigm for agriculture is taking hold around the world. “Regenerative Agriculture” is an organic farming and grazing technique that eschews chemical inputs and extractive farming techniques and instead rebuilds soils and restores soil biodiversity. Regenerative agriculture recognizes the ability of nature to close the carbon cycle, improve crop resilience and increase nutrient density.

This, in turn, can increase water-holding capacity and sequester carbon at greater depths, thus reducing climate-damaging levels of carbon dioxide. Pollution is effectively reduced to zero, and the impact on the environment is beneficial rather than detrimental.

Food production is responsible for about one quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, but historically, agriculture has responded to humanity’s greatest challenges. And here it is, another great challenge to be met. We can help by keeping in mind our “food “ footprint as we shop for and prepare our meals.

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