We're eating the world

It’s time to get serious about cutting your carbon forkprint

Simple climate action at home   //   I S S U E   1 0    //   F O O D

It’s time to move beyond organic

By Jim Giles

My day job involves writing and thinking about sustainable food systems, but I often find myself standing in a supermarket aisle wondering whether a particular purchase would be good or bad for our climate. 

I’ve taken some obvious steps, including what should be everyone’s no-brainer: eliminating or minimizing conventionally farmed beef. I’m also familiar with the emissions data on different foods. But when I’m shopping for two picky kids after a long work week, thinking about the sustainability pros and cons of the meals I have planned can be too much for my exhausted brain. 

When that happens, I’m sometimes guilty of taking a mental short-cut: I buy organic, safe in the knowledge that at least I’m supporting farmers who don’t use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. But the choice isn’t always so simple. When it comes to reducing emissions, organic isn’t always better for the climate.  

As our reporter Jenny Splitter explains below, organic agriculture uses more land than conventional approaches. We will need to feed an additional two billion people by 2050, while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emission. To pull off that feat, we’ll have to increase — not decrease — the amount of food we get from every acre of land. That is possible, but we’ll need to do more than just farm organically to do so.

At a personal level, don’t underestimate the power of your food shopping. The dollars we spend and the votes we cast are two of our most important tools for showing what we care about. So join this month’s challenge, and see if you can reduce the carbon footprint generated by your diet.

The Hothouse Challenge: Lower your carbon forkprint

Last week we asked you to make a note of the food you bought, and where it was grown or produced. This week, we’ll ask you to shop a little differently, swapping out one (or more!) carbon-intensive food. Below, we’ve outlined a few things we’ve already tested in our own kitchens.

Make a note of your progress this week, and let us know how you get on. What changes were easy, and what was hard? Any tips you have for sticking to these changes? When you’ve tried one week of lower-carbon eating, send us your results.

The basics 

The three things to consider when choosing the food you buy are production, transportation and deforestation.

1 Keep this scale in mind. The further you can move along, the better:

Meat > Poultry, farmed fish, dairy > Veg, nuts and beans

2 Avoid produce, like out-of-season air-freighted fruit, that has traveled a long way — choose local and seasonal instead.

3 Remember that foods like chocolate and palm oil can have a massive carbon footprint if grown on deforested land. Look for Rainforest Alliance certification.

The simple challenge

Meat vacation: Cut out or cut down the higher impact foods in your diet. Try a meat-free Monday, or a no-dairy Wednesday, or stick to plant-based foods for breakfast and lunch.

Protein swap: Swap out meat and fish for plant-based proteins like Beyond Meat instead. (When McDonald’s launches the McPlant burger, you know alternative meat has gone mainstream.) The lowest carbon footprint proteins are beans and lentils. Give tofu and tempeh another try. If you can find locally grown lentils, even better.

Keep it local: Check the food miles — avoid Peruvian asparagus. 

The bigger challenge 

Meat vacation: Changing our diet is a big deal, but it doesn’t have to feel like a sacrifice. Rather than focusing on what you’re missing, take time to find some new, lower impact recipes that feel special. Or treat yourself to a meal at a high-end, plant-based restaurant — it can be a complete game changer.

Protein swap: Try plant-based alternatives for milk, butter, cheese and yoghurt. These don’t have to be expensive shop-bought alternatives — it can be simple to make your own. Oat milk takes minutes to make, is cheap, has no problematic plastic-lined packaging, and has a small carbon footprint. Nuts needed soaking overnight, but the next morning take just a minute to prepare. Fresh almond milk is amazing!

Keep it local: Farmers’ markets are an obvious source of quality, locally grown produce, but your local independent produce store is too. If you’re ready to level up even more, growing your own is the ultimate in locally sourced produce. You can also use services like RipeNearMe or Olio that match spare homegrown produce with local people.

Make notes of what you find helpful and what’s hard. Reply to this email to send us feedback. If you’d like to share your progress, find us on Facebook or Instagram. #hothousechallenge

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Addressing organic farming’s climate-change problem

Organic food once epitomized environmental consumerism, yet a new movement of sustainable intensification could offer a more realistic solution

By Jenny Splitter

Will Glazik is calling from Paxton, Illinois, where he’s walking me through the start of his day at Cow Creek Organics farm. It’s a small, 1000-acre family farm that’s been organic since 2002. He and his brother grow a couple varieties of corn for whiskey markets, soy for soy sauce, wheat for their own distillery. “We had rain last night,” Glazik tells me. “I'm going to drive around the different fields this morning… see if any are dry enough that we can plant corn.” He was 12 when his dad transitioned the farm to organic farming methods, and he’s still passionate about it. Organic farming works with natural systems rather than against them, he explains. 

Organic food is big business, accounting for $47.9 billion in US sales in 2018. Although still just 6% of US food sales, according to the Organic Trade Association, it’s growing more than twice as fast as the market for conventionally grown food. Advocates for organic farming say the benefits include less soil erosion, lower energy and water use, and a more healthy environment for wildlife and local people by avoiding synthetic pesticides. 

Yet as concern about the climate crisis has intensified, organic methods have come under closer scrutiny. Ecologists argue that organic farming produces lower yields and emits greenhouse gas emissions just as high as conventional farming. If universally adopted, it would encourage farmers to convert more land, especially woodland, to agriculture to meet the demands of a growing global population. When it comes to foods like wheat, most vegetables, beef, milk, eggs and chicken, industrial agriculture’s ability to grow more food with less land is tough to beat; conventional farming uses 40% less acreage to grow the same amount of food, German researchers found. UK researchers estimate that converting the entire global food system to organic would raise global greenhouse gas emissions by 21% when accounting for deforestation. Agriculture is already responsible for one quarter of global emissions — almost the same as global energy production. 

While organic food is growing in popularity, some aspects of conventional agriculture are becoming less environmentally damaging and more energy efficient. A small but growing number of conventional farmers are paying closer attention to the health of their soil, using methods that include no-till farming, where seeds are planted without disturbing the underlying soil, and cover cropping, where crops like rye and red clover are planted not to harvest but to reduce soil erosion and improve soil health. Pesticides have been replaced by less toxic alternatives. Strategies like buffer zones can reduce water pollution from fertilizer and encourage weedy refuge areas that protect beneficial insects. 

Glazik is part of the growing movement of ‘sustainable intensification,’ a philosophy that deploys many of these strategies, and combines the best of both conventional and organic farming. Its proponents say it can increase yields without needing to expand agricultural land, and would allow us to feed a growing global population while avoiding the most extreme impacts of industrial farming.

Combining the best of organic and conventional farming

Glazik became interested in no-till farming in 2014 when he visited a client who used it alongside conventional herbicides. He was amazed how well the field held up after a night’s rain. “I’d never walked on a no-till field before,” Glazik said. If he were walking in his own fields, he’d have to be wearing 20-pound boots. The rain would have dislodged a whole lot of soil. The next year Glazik tried no-till for himself. Instead of herbicides, he used organic cover cropping, and manure from his livestock. He believes the combination created healthier soil, as well as better weed and pest control. 

Increasing the size of his yields has been slower than expected, Glazik found, as creating the right balance between fertile soil and weed control has been difficult. Organic no-till remains relatively new for farmers in America’s heartland, but researchers like those at the organic-dedicated Rodale Institute continue refining this method. Glazik says he’s already turning a profit with grains like oats and rye, and  he’s experimenting  to increase yields even more. 

To promote sustainable intensification farming methods, Glazik runs a group called the Idea Farm Network where organic and conventional farmers share practices to become more productive and “environmentally sound.” Farmers swap advice on tools like roller crimpers, a tractor attachment with blades that chop up cover crops into mulch, and microbial seed treatments that reduce the demand for fertilizer. Others, including Iowan organic farmer Bryce Irlbeck, are using software to monitor their crops. His software company, Agrisecure, gives organic farmers the data they need to scale up by helping identify crop rotations and when to use manure on their fields — optimizing yields and resources. 

Could farming balance its vast carbon emissions? 

Glazik wants to go further. He’s been experimenting with regenerative farming — a sustainable agricultural practice that aims to improve soil health through less ploughing, more diverse cover crops and carefully managed grazing. While sustainable intensification seeks to increase productivity without threatening natural resources, some regenerative farmers go on to make an even bigger climate claim — that through carbon sequestration their farms can store significant amounts of carbon in the soil. 

Intensive agriculture has already stripped the world’s farmland of 50% to 70% of the carbon stored in their soils . The non-profit research organization World Resources Institute (WRI) argues sustainable intensification could restore this, and offset much of the vast carbon emissions generated by food production. It supports the principles of sustainable intensification. recommends embracing new technologies like plant-based burgers and genetically engineered crops, as well as expanding reforestation projects and reducing food waste. 

A lot remains to be learned. Evidence for regenerative farming is promising, and the practice is being embraced by Rodale as well as several large foodbrands. Yet a number of climate researchers remain skeptical, pointing out that deeper soil measurements show carbon losses can counteract the gains higher up towards the surface.  Still, permanently locking carbon deep into the soil is critical if we are to mitigate climate impacts. More than 100 countries pledged to cut agricultural greenhouse gas emissions in the 2015 Paris climate accords. 

The bottom line is that all food production will generate some greenhouse gas emissions, says WRI senior researcher Richard Waite. “We ran many, many scenarios of trying to feed 10 billion people by the year 2050 while cutting emissions as much as possible, and we weren’t able to go much below reducing actual emissions by two-thirds.” Food production will need to become more productive and less carbon intensive without taking up more land. 

Sustainable intensification and regenerative farming are just two approaches, and they won’t work for everyone. Every region faces different challenges in weather, insects, disease and soil types. A technique that works well on a crop on Glazik’s farm in Illinois won’t necessarily help a dairy farmer in Ireland or a cattle rancher in Brazil. Once you get beyond the basic definitions of these approaches, says Matthew Hayek PhD, an environmental researcher at New York University, practices vary widely: “A lot of it is just up to judicious resource management, and that's going to have different outcomes in different places.” 

Back in Illinois, Glazik wants to reduce emissions across his farm, and is experimenting with everything from  electric tractors to solar energy. While he acknowledges the debate about carbon sequestration, he sees his customers becoming more interested in how their food is grown, and what impact it has on the climate. “I tell them how by raising this crop of wheat, we're actually sequestering carbon from the atmosphere,” he says. “It just gives us so much pride. You want to make sure that it’s the best you can do.” 

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Hothouse is a weekly climate action newsletter written and edited by Jemima Kiss, Mike Coren and Jim Giles. We rely on readers to support us, and everything we publish is free to read.