Earth Day is an annual event celebrated each year on April 22, to promote environmental awareness and protection. As noted by calendar-365.com:1
“The history of Earth Day … dates back to 1970 when it was first celebrated … It was founded by Senator Gaylord Nelson to promote ecology and the respect for life on the planet as well as to encourage awareness of the growing problems of air, water and soil pollution.”
You may be surprised to learn that of all the sources of pollution in our modern world, the greatest contributor is conventional agriculture. As explained by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations:2
“Over two-thirds of human water use is for agriculture … Crop and livestock production … are the main source of water pollution by nitrates, phosphates and pesticides. They are also the major anthropogenic source of the greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide, and contribute on a massive scale to other types of air and water pollution.
The extent and methods of agriculture, forestry and fishing are the leading causes of loss of the world’s biodiversity … Agriculture also affects the basis for its own future through land degradation, salinization, the overextraction of water and the reduction of genetic diversity in crops and livestock …
If more sustainable production methods are used, the negative impacts of agriculture on the environment can be attenuated. Indeed, in some cases agriculture can play an important role in reversing them, for example by storing carbon in soils, enhancing the infiltration of water and preserving rural landscapes and biodiversity.”
Modern Food Production Is a Disaster in More Ways Than One
Yes, the way we grow a vast majority of our food is simultaneously destroying the natural world, thereby threatening our very existence on this planet. Indeed, virtually every growing environmental and health problem can be traced back to modern food production, including:
Food insecurity and malnutrition amid mounting food waste
Promotion of foodborne illnesses and drug-resistant bacterial infections
Rising obesity and chronic disease rates despite growing health care outlays
Rapidly dwindling fresh water supplies
Toxic agricultural chemicals polluting air, soil and waterways, thereby threatening the entire food chain from top to bottom
Disruption of normal climate and rainfall patterns due to the destruction of ecosystems by pollution
The good news is there’s a viable answer to all of these. As recognized by FAO, the answer hinges on the widespread implementation of regenerative agriculture and biodynamic farming. By affecting change through your shopping habits, there’s hope we may avoid a complete breakdown of our ecosystem and food production.
One thing’s for sure: We cannot wait for regulations to drive this change. We must push for it ourselves, and we do so by voting with our pocketbooks every time we shop for food.
How Conventional Agriculture Pollutes Our Air, Water and Soil
According to research3 published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters in 2016, emissions from farming far outweigh other sources of particulate matter, and agricultural fertilizer, especially the nitrogen component, is the greatest contributor to air pollution in much of the U.S., China and Russia.
As nitrogen fertilizers break down, ammonia is released into the air. When it reaches industrial areas, it combines with fossil fuel combustion creating microparticles. Although nitrogen is found naturally in air, water and soil, reactive nitrogen, a primary component in nitrogen-based fertilizers, is processed using large amounts of energy from fossil fuel-burning engines. This also contributes to industrial pollution.
When nitrogen-based fertilizer is added to the soil, it reduces the amount of sequestered carbon4 and severely disrupts the soil microbiome5 — both of which affect the soil’s ability to support plant growth.6 The addition of nitrogen-based fertilizer also reduces the soil’s pH and decreases bacterial diversity in the soil.7
Excess fertilizer runoff is also one of the largest contributors to ocean pollution — creating dead zones where oxygen is eliminated and fish and other marine life can no longer survive8 — and groundwater pollution, rendering our freshwater supplies unfit to drink.9
Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)10 are equally notorious for polluting precious water supplies. According to a report11 by Environment America, corporate agribusiness is “one of the biggest threats to America’s waterways.” Tyson Foods Inc. was deemed among the worst, releasing 104.4 million pounds of toxic pollutants into waterways between 2010 and 2014.
Conventional Agriculture Is Also Draining Global Water Supplies
Conventional agriculture, due to its heavy use of potable water for irrigation, is also a primary cause of water scarcity around the world, with aquifers once thought to be inexhaustible being drained faster than they can be refilled.
In the High Plains Aquifer (also known as the Ogallala) in the American Midwest, for example, the water level has been dropping by an average of 6 feet per year, while the natural recharge rate is 1 inch or less.12 The depletion of the agricultural water supply is allegedly due to the activities of an oil and gas company, American Warrior,13 which has 1.3 thousand leases for drilling rights across Kansas.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 80 percent of U.S. consumptive water (and more than 90 percent in many Western states) is used for agricultural purposes.14
One-third of the world’s largest groundwater aquifers are already nearing depletion,15,16 and according to a 2016 report17 by Phys.org, global groundwater resources could be depleted within as little as three decades. This chilling prediction was made by Inge de Graaf, a hydrologist at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado, who presented her findings at the 2016 American Geophysical Union meeting.
James (Jay) Famiglietti, director of the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan and former senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has also stated that the majority of our global groundwaters “are past sustainability tipping points,”18 so whether it’s three decades or a few decades more, it’s only a matter of time until we run out of fresh water.
The long-term solution to these water quality and water scarcity issues is to phase out the use of toxic pesticides, chemical fertilizers and soil additives, and to grow crops and raise food animals in such a way that the farm actually contributes to the overall health and balance of the environment rather than polluting it and creating a dysfunctional ecosystem.
Soil Degradation and Erosion — A Devastating Legacy of Conventional Farming
In addition to being a primary source of air, water and land pollution, conventional agriculture also threatens our very ability to continue food production by degrading and eroding agricultural soils.
In a 2012 Time magazine19 interview, former University of Sydney professor John Crawford, who now is the integrated solutions lab flagship leader for sustainable agricultural sciences at Rothamsted Research center, noted that about 40 percent of agricultural soils around the globe are classified as degraded or seriously degraded.
“Seriously degraded” means that 70 percent of the topsoil (the layer of soil in which plants grow) has already disappeared. At present, topsoil is being lost 10 to 40 times faster than nature can regenerate and replenish it naturally.
The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification’s Global Land Outlook report,20,21,22 published in 2017, concluded fertile soil is being lost at an average rate of 24 billion tons per year.
According to this report, one-third of Earth’s soil is already “acutely degraded” as a result of tilling and heavy chemical use — agricultural methods that remove carbon from the soil and destroy the microbial balance in the soil responsible for plant nutrition and growth. Decreased productivity was noted on:
- 20% of global cropland
- 16% of forest land
- 19% of grassland
- 27% of rangeland
Soil Study by Organic Vineyard Demonstrates Benefits of Biodynamic Farming
A recent study23 by Bonterra Organic Vineyards, a leading organic wine brand in the U.S., demonstrates the beneficial impact organic and biodynamic farming have on soil health.
Pacific Agroecology,24 an environmental research and consulting company, performed the soil analyses of Bonterra’s 13 vineyards in Mendocino County. Three of the vineyards use biodynamic methods, nine use organic methods and one uses conventional methods. Bonterra provides the following summary of these three farming methods:25
“Conventional — Farming practices … that permit the use of synthetic non-organic herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers for management of crops and competitive vegetation.
Organic — Agricultural practices that exclude the use of synthetic non-organic inputs — such as herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer — in favor of fostering the natural vitality of the farm through integrated pest management, cover crops, and building healthy soil.
Biodynamic — Formally defined in 1924, an approach to organic cultivation that views the farm as a living organism where plants, animals and humans interrelate as members of an intricately connected ecosystem that follows the cycles of nature.”
Results reveal biodynamic sites have the greatest amounts of organic carbon in the soil, followed closely by sites using organic principles. Either method is far superior to conventional farming, sequestering 12.8% and 9.4% more carbon per acre respectively than the conventional site. More specifically, the comparison of organic carbon in the soil revealed:
- Conventional land had 41,000 pounds of soil organic carbon per acre
- Organic land had 45,200 pounds of soil organic carbon per acre
- Biodynamic land had 46,300 pounds of soil organic carbon per acre
What’s more, they also tested undeveloped wildland owned by Bonterra, finding total carbon storage was even higher here than in any of the cultivated areas. This finding suggests efforts to conserve wildland is an important undertaking. Joseph Brinkley, director of vineyards for Bonterra told NewHope:26
“Soil organic carbon — something regenerative farming strives to enhance — is a signal of how well a landscape captures and stores carbon, and also contributes many long-term benefits to soil health, such as improved aeration, drought resistance, and erosion prevention.”
Elizabeth Drake, regenerative development manager for Bonterra, added,27 “We’re excited about the potential impact of this study, which we hope inspires other farmers to examine the benefits of organic and biodynamic agriculture.”
Biodynamic Farming Is Organic — And Then Some
Biodynamic farming is a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture initially developed by Austrian scholar Rudolf Steiner,28 Ph.D., (1861-1925). He taught there is an invisible force that aids and sustains humanity, and biodynamic farming makes use of a wide variety of influences, including planetary influences and moon phases.
As just one of many examples of Steiner’s comprehensive approach to farming, biodynamic farmers will not cut off the horns on their cows, as the animal’s horns are a primary sensory organ, and a complex interrelated relationship exists between the horns and the animal’s digestive system.
To this day, Steiner’s book “Agriculture: Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture” serves as the basis of biodynamic farming everywhere, and his agriculture course, first offered in 1924, is available for free online.29
Not only does biodynamic farming provide superior crops both in volume and increased density of nutrients, but biodynamic farms are also completely self-sustaining.
This self-sustainability is what sets biodynamic farms apart from organic farms, and translates into far stricter certification criteria. When something is certified biodynamic, you can be sure you’re getting food that has been produced according to the most rigorous sustainability criteria available.
For example, while an organic farmer can section off as little as 10 percent of the farm for the growing of certified organic goods, in order to be certified as a biodynamic farmer, your entire farm must be biodynamic.
In addition to that, biodynamic certification also requires 10 percent of the land be dedicated to increasing biodiversity, such as forest, wetland or insectary. Biodynamic farming also has most or all of the features associated with regenerative agriculture, such as crop rotation, cover crops and so on.
Creating a Biodynamic Garden
If you’re currently gardening or planning to start, consider implementing some biodynamic principles. As noted in a previous Mother Nature Network article on biodynamic gardening:30
“Biodynamic gardening starts with building truly healthy soil through thoughtfully integrating both plants and animals in the garden and creating fertility by rotating crops, growing green manures such as vetch or clover, and carefully composting plant waste, kitchen scraps and farm animal manures (such as chicken or rabbit) with the help of medicinal herbal preparations.
‘It’s not just about what chemicals you can’t use but what you can actively do to create a healthy garden whole that sustains itself,’ said Thea Maria Carlson, director of programs for the Biodynamic Association in Milwaukee. ‘And it works on any scale, even in a small space.’
The ideal biodynamic garden includes both plants and animals. A growing number of cities and suburbs now allow homeowners to keep small numbers of chickens, rabbits, beehives or even goats.
But even without these domestic animals, creating a garden that attracts such common creatures as earthworms, bees, ladybugs, praying mantises, birds and other beneficial insects, including microbial ones in the soil, is something any small-scale gardener can do.”
The article goes on to provide additional tips and guidance for budding biodynamic gardeners. For example, biodynamic principles include treating your compost with fermented medicinal herb preparations that enhance the availability of nutrients and microbial activity.
Biodynamic sprays, made from manure, ground quartz crystals and horsetail, are applied at certain times to further boost soil and plant health. You’d also want to follow a biodynamic planting calendar to ensure an optimal crop.
Basic Regenerative Farming Principles
While biodynamic principles are the gold standard, you can take a big step in the right direction simply by following these five basic regenerative principles for building a healthy soil ecosystem:
Avoid disturbing the soil microbiome with tillage, herbicides, pesticides and fungicides — The less mechanical disturbance, the better. The same applies in your home garden. The more you till, the faster the soil degrades and is destroyed, as it destroys soil aggregates and mycorrhizal fungi, which houses the microorganisms needed for nutrient transfer.
Similarly, by adding synthetic nitrogen to the soil, the biology is radically altered — it starts consuming carbon in the soil aggregate, which destroys the soil structure.
Without soil structure water cannot infiltrate and move throughout the soil profile and be stored via organic matter. The soil aggregates also provide the home for soil biology, which is critical to producing nutrient dense food.
Protect the soil’s surface with cover crops and cover crop residue — Forest and prairie lands are completely covered with vegetation and this is the environment farmers need to emulate. That vegetation protects the soil not only from wind and water erosion, but also from excessive heating and cooling. These living plants are what end up actually “growing” topsoil.
In your home garden, you can use mulch, wood chips or lawn clippings to do this. You never want to leave soil bare, as bare soil will have a negative effect on soil biology and the water cycle. Cover crops and other forms of “soil armor,” such as wood chips, effectively prevent water evaporation and lowers the soil temperature.
There is easily a 20-degree F difference or more between soil that is bare and soil that is covered. When air temperatures reach 90 degrees or so, soil temperatures will rise well above 100 degrees, which will dry everything out and fry the plants’ roots.
“If you have good armor or residue on the soil surface, the temperature there can be in the 80-degree range. Those plants are growing. It’s a huge difference in production for the producer,” Brown says.
Diversify — Having a diverse array of plant life is essential, and cover crops fulfill this requirement as well. Home gardens will also benefit from cover crops, helping to improve the soil, attract beneficial insects and capture more sunlight (energy).
Maintain living roots in the ground as long as possible — In conventional farming, once a cash crop is harvested, there’s nothing left in the field to capture sunlight and keep growing. Maintaining some kind of growth at all times is key. If you have a small vegetable garden, don’t leave it bare once you’ve harvested your veggies. Instead, plant a cover crop in anticipation for the next season.
To make the transition back from cover crop to your chosen vegetables the following season, avoid the temptation to till the cover crop into the soil. Instead, use one of the following methods to kill off the cover crop and prepare the plot for new crop growth:
Once the cover crop has been killed off, you’re ready to plant your vegetable seeds. For a small garden, use a hoe to part the cover crop remains over to the side. Create a small slice in the soil, drop in your seeds and cover with a small amount of soil. If you’re planting a transplant, simply move the cover crop aside, dig the hole and plant as normal.
Integrate livestock and other animals, including insects — Centuries ago, large herds of bison and elk moved across the landscape, foraging, depositing manure and trampling vegetation into the ground. All of this is part of the natural cycle that is missing when animals are kept in concentrated animal feeding operations.
Many have started raising chickens in their backyards again and chickens are an excellent addition to a sustainable garden. Rabbits, pigeons and ducks are other alternatives that could work in some suburban areas, but even if circumstances or local laws prevent you from adding animals, be sure to plant flowering plants that attract pollinators and predator insects, as these will naturally help ward off pests that might otherwise decimate your main crop.
Protect the Earth by Voting With Your Pocketbook Every Day
Even if you’re not inclined to grow your own food, you can help steer the agricultural industry toward safer, more sustainable systems by supporting your local farmers and choosing fresh, local produce, ideally organically or biodynamically grown.
Also, remember to choose organic, grass fed/pasture-raised beef, poultry and dairy, in addition to organic produce, as CAFOs are just as destructive as chemical-based agriculture. If you live in the U.S., the following organizations can help you find local sources of farm-fresh foods.
Demeter USA — Demeter-USA.org provides a directory of certified Biodynamic farms and brands.
American Grassfed Association (AGA) — The goal of the American Grassfed Association is to promote the grass fed industry through government relations, research, concept marketing and public education.
Their website also allows you to search for AGA approved producers certified according to strict standards that include being raised on a diet of 100 percent forage; raised on pasture and never confined to a feedlot; never treated with antibiotics or hormones; and born and raised on American family farms.
EatWild.com — EatWild.com provides lists of farmers known to produce raw dairy products as well as grass fed beef and other farm-fresh produce (although not all are certified organic). Here you can also find information about local farmers markets, as well as local stores and restaurants that sell grass fed products.
Weston A. Price Foundation — Weston A. Price has local chapters in most states, and many of them are connected with buying clubs in which you can easily purchase organic foods, including grass fed raw dairy products like milk and butter.
Grassfed Exchange — The Grassfed Exchange has a listing of producers selling organic and grass fed meats across the U.S.
Local Harvest — This website will help you find farmers markets, family farms and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass fed meats and many other goodies.
Farmers Markets — A national listing of farmers markets.
Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals — The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, hotels and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) — CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.
The Cornucopia Institute — The Cornucopia Institute maintains web-based tools rating all certified organic brands of eggs, dairy products and other commodities, based on their ethical sourcing and authentic farming practices separating CAFO “organic” production from authentic organic practices.
RealMilk.com — If you’re still unsure of where to find raw milk, check out Raw-Milk-Facts.com and RealMilk.com. They can tell you what the status is for legality in your state, and provide a listing of raw dairy farms in your area. The Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund31 also provides a state-by-state review of raw milk laws.32 California residents can also find raw milk retailers using the store locator available at www.OrganicPastures.com.