When I sought to deepen my understanding of what it means to eat sustainably, I turned to the source: soil.
Farmers in the city and country alike know that good food begins with good soil. You want worms and weathered rocks in your soil as evidence of the interplay between the earth's elements and nutrient-rich matter. But although soil is foundational to growing nutritious, delicious food, we rarely think about seeking out foods that support soil health even as we seek out the local, organic, and seasonal.
And we should! Healthy soil gives life to flavorful foods, stores climate change-accelerating carbon, and nourishes natural ecosystems. To support integrative growing practices, we need to start thinking big picture when it comes to our produce: An organic avocado grown in a massive avocado orchard, for example, isn’t nurturing the environment if it’s part of a monoculture system that’s eroding the soil.
When I interned at Blue Hill, Jack Algiere, the Farm Director of Stone Barns, told my crew that a healthy agriculture system doesn’t need pesticides. It sounds obvious in retrospect, but those words have stayed with me since. If a farmer is using pesticides, it’s because the system is broken. Soil-eroding practices—such as monoculture cropping and insecticide application—are evidence of a farm that needs mending.
We can begin that process of collective healing by supporting soil-enriching practices in joyous, satisfying, and exploratory ways.
How? The following four practices will help you eat in a way that better heals the earth:
Planting cover crops is a vital part of vegetable rotation that helps farmers to fortify the soil and lay the groundwork for a thriving harvest. But the demands of industrialized agriculture mean that if farmers want to make money, most have to forgo cover crops. It’s not a sustainable solution, but it is a short-term fix.
As consumers, we can encourage farmers to plant what they need to nourish the soil by bringing “cover crops” into our own weekly rotation. Spelt, rye, barley, and buckwheat are major cover crops. Try spelt chocolate chip cookies or buckwheat pancakes instead of using refined white flour. It’s a simple (and sweet!) way to bring soil-conscious choices to the kitchen table.
That said, it is difficult to ensure that buying cover crops alone will generate change on an industrial level. When I can, I purchase these products from local millers who are looking to develop sustainable practices. And when my only option is whatever diverse grains are available in the grocery aisle, I try to make the kind of choices that I believe will resonate if more people made them.
Permaculture is a holistic approach to farming: Practitioners keep mind the interconnectedness of all elements of the landscape in mind, integrating landscape design, ecological philosophies, and sustainable farming principles to create a “closed-loop” ecosystem. A productive permaculture system is self-sufficient and supports the kind of resiliency and interconnectivity that our soil needs to thrive by recycling waste products, storing energy, and fostering biodiversity.
Put these principles into practice by buying biodynamically-grown grains and supporting local permaculture practitioners. For me, the best part about sourcing your fruit, veg, and grains from permaculture farms is that the food tastes so much better. In a permaculture system, plants are grown with “friends”—from edible flowers to herbs—whose interactions within the soil help one another to grow. What you harvest is both sustainably grown and flavor-packed because it’s soaking up so many nutrients.
Biodiversity is integral to soil health: We need a vibrant variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers to revitalize the soil.
So if you find yourself stocking up on the same things—whole-wheat bread, spinach, tomatoes—, break outside of the box by trying out heirloom tomatoes, purple carrots, ancient grains, and rarer breeds of kale. Grabbing the less-common ingredients at the farmers’ market encourages farmers to continue to grow a rich diversity of plants. And it’s fun to think outside your box.
Regardless of where you stand on the capacity of genetically modified organisms to feed the world, the systems in which GMOs are embedded—seed privatization, monoculture agriculture—are threatening to soil health. The use of GMOs can create super weeds and bugs that eradicate biodiversity and weaken soil resiliency. And across the world, indigenous and small-scale farmers are losing rights to their native seeds—which represent storehouses of biodiversity—in the face of GMO giants such as Monsanto.
With that in mind, I always look for “Non-GMO” on the package. This can be tricky terrain in light of recent policies that make it harder to determine just what constitutes a genetically-modified organism, but to me, it’s better than doing nothing.
What do you keep in mind when you're shopping at the grocery store? Tell us in the comments!