Change Our Diet, Save Our Planet
The foods we eat and the way we produce them not only are killing ourselves. They are destroying other forms of life on Earth.
For years, scientists have warned that our way of life is not sustainable. Now they are sounding the alarm: If we don’t change our habits today, we won’t have a place to live tomorrow. From raising cattle for a diet based on meat to growing grain with synthetic fertilizers, we are making many bad choices. They not only are ruining the planet’s air, water, and soil; they are causing mass extinction events.
A rapid die-off of plants and animals worldwide already has begun. By raising and killing more than 50 billion cows, sheep, and other land animals for food each year, human beings are generating the massive emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, which could drive the extinction of half of Africa’s bird and mammal species by 2100, say scientists. In the Americas, 25 percent of the animal and plant species are at risk of extinction, too. How much longer do homo sapiens have?
Monoculture Is Bad
In April, experts from across the globe gathered in Rome at the headquarters of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to discuss an assortment of ambitious initiatives to help humanity prevent the collapse of Earth’s ecosystems. The problem starts with the soil. If humans switch to farming practices which promote healthy soil, we can adopt a way of life which is sustainable.
The key to promoting healthy soil is replacing the current model of growing crops, called monoculture. In this model, farmers cultivate a single crop in a single region and rely on synthetic fertilizers and laboratory-conceived seeds. By practicing monoculture, farmers not only strip the soil of nutrients which are essential; they inject into the soil chemicals which are harmful. In both cases, farmers are driving the collapse of Earth’s ecosystems.
To many, the failure of the food industry, based on monoculture, to deliver nutrient-appropriate food to people is clear: Across the globe, almost 1 billion men, women, and children are undernourished; about 2 billion men and women are overweight, including 650 million who are obese. At the same time, the destruction caused by monoculture along with other human activities is equally clear: The ecosystems are losing their ability to support human life on 60 percent of the planet’s land masses; more than 70 percent of all men, women, and children live in these areas.
Agro-Ecology Is Good
At the April FAO event, called Scaling Up Agro-ecology to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, about 400 food experts discussed initiatives for expanding the adoption of agro-ecology. According to the experts, agro-ecology is the new model for growing food which humans must embrace.
Farmers must apply ecological principles to the cultivation of crops, including optimizing the relationships among plants, animals, humans, and natural resources.
For example, farmers must rotate crops and grow different, complimentary crops side by side in response to shifting environmental conditions. Also, they must use only the natural resources available to them in their environments, avoiding outside materials such as synthetic fertilizers, chemical pest killers, and laboratory-conceived seeds. But, in the end, farmers will be able to produce consistent yields, even under conditions of extreme heat and drought, while preserving and enhancing nutrients in the soil.
Grow Smart Crops
By building on a strong foundation of nutrient-rich soil, farmers who embrace agro-ecology don’t require massive amounts of critical inputs, such as water, for their farms. Also, they don’t generate destructive outputs, such as carbon dioxide, as by-products of their growing operations. In contrast, monoculture practitioners, which are primarily agribusiness giants operating huge industrial complexes, consume 70 percent of the water used by humans across the globe. At the same time, they spew more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than all of the planet’s automobile drivers, airplane pilots, and train conductors combined.
But, in the midst of accelerating climate change and environmental collapse, farmers who embrace agro-ecology still need to make smart choices for the crops they grow. While they often can determine which crops to grow only through a process of trial and error, they also increasingly can receive valuable, specialized assistance from non-governmental organizations, such as the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, or ICRISAT.
ICRISAT has launched an effort, called the Smart Food Initiative, to develop new markets for ancient grains, such as millets and sorghums, which have been largely ignored by the food industry during the past 50 years but which have been eaten by millions of people around the world for thousands of years. Today, almost 100 million people in Africa and Asia depend on millets in their diet, and more than 500 million people in 30 countries rely on sorghums, according to researchers.
Eat New Foods
Both millets and sorghums are crops designed for increasingly harsh environmental conditions, in contrast to wheat, maize, and rice, which are the world’s most popular choices for grains now. Researchers describe the resiliency and reliability of millets and sorghums in simple terms: Both typically are the last crops standing in periods of extreme heat and drought. Without the aid of fertilizers or pesticides, millets not only grow in about half of the time of wheat; they require 30 percent less water than maize and 70 percent less water than rice.
But the news gets better for all of us who still cling to our hamburgers and steaks by insisting they are the best sources of vital nutrients, such as iron and protein.
Both millets and sorghums are foods which are rich in nutrients and free of that often dreaded element known as gluten. One variety of millet, called Pearl millet, is very high in iron and contains twice the protein of milk. Another one, called Finger millet, has three times more calcium than milk. A third variety, called Kodo millet, offers three times the dietary fiber of wheat or maize and ten times that of rice. For their part, sorghums not only are rich in vitamins and minerals but also are high in protein and fiber.
Don’t we know enough about alternatives to meat by now to change our diet? Time is running out.