It’s 1970. Peace, love, war and civil unrest dominate conversations in America. Earth Day appears on the scene and it’s recognized by few. For those of us on farms, we may have thought, “every day is earth day” and dismissed its significance beyond routine farming practices. Others, like my husband, wore a hand painted t-shirt to school because his friend convinced him it was “cool.” Visual actions beyond the acknowledgement were more likely in the hands of a “vocal minority” rather than the majority. Fast forward 51 years, and concerns about our environment — climate change, greenhouse gas, food waste, sustainability — are more than just “talk.” The conversations (and conflicts) about how we grow, transport and consume our food are no longer shared among the “few” but among the many. We all eat; therefore, we have a vested interest in food. Regardless of our various opinions, the reality is, progress has been made throughout the food chain to keep food on our tables that nourishes our bodies and protects the environment. This year for Earth Day, let’s celebrate the progress and commit to continue being part of the solution. We can make a difference!
A Humble Beginning
The first Earth Day celebration occurred on April 22, 1970. This effort was initiated by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson to increase public awareness of the need to protect the environment in the United States and globally, as no legal entity or regulatory agency like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) existed at the time. According to history, this April date was specifically selected to maximize student participation between spring break and final exams. And it worked! Twenty years later, Earth Day went global and in 2009, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly designated April 22 as International Mother Earth Day. Today, Earth Day is celebrated across the globe to highlight the realities of environmental concerns and promote earth-friendly actions1 — actions that are applauded by some and questioned by others.
More Than a Day
The themes of Earth Day — sustainability, climate change, regenerative agriculture and food waste — are no longer addressed by just a few. As our global population has grown over those 51 years, so has our consumption of natural resources.
Every element of our daily lives — how we live, travel and eat — impacts our environment and has consequences. We often focus on what we eat and grow as our main issue and point of contention. However, according to USAfacts.org, transportation is the largest source of U.S. emissions, surpassing electricity generation in 2017. Transportation and electricity generation almost entirely contribute to emissions through fossil fuel combustion, which produces carbon dioxide followed by industrial activity. Interestingly, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions were 11% lower in 2020 than 2019, partly due to pandemic travel restrictions. We love our cars and planes but statics show a 13% drop in motor gasoline emissions and a 38% drop in jet fuel emissions are responsible for nearly half of the CO2 reduction last year!2
Agriculture certainly contributes to greenhouse emissions but at a significantly lower percentage than the three previously mentioned areas or what is frequently reported. The agriculture industry accounts for 9.9% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States and roughly 13% globally. However, agriculture is the only sector with the natural potential to be net negative for GHG emissions.3 Soil and farmlands already sequester one hundred more times the carbon than is emitted in a year, and with the continued efforts of “climate smart” or “regenerative” farming practices like cover crops, no tillage planting and managed use of grazing pastures, the ability to enhance carbon recovery will continue.3 In fact, animal agriculture plays a key role in the carbon recovery cycle. With the heightened focus on climate change, a carbon credit system that is economically viable and environmentally sound will be a top topic for the coming months and years.4
Beyond the Farm Commitments
With the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals (a set of 17 aspirational goals established to address the global root causes of hunger, health and poverty by 2030) as a framework for action, stakeholders throughout the food supply chain, from farmers and ranchers to food companies and retail grocers, are committed to addressing the environmental, social responsibility and economic challenges as evident by their corporate missions and actions. The progress of the “Decade of Action” and the sustainability of our intertwined food system are hot topics of conversation as preparation for the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit in New York City this fall is in full swing.
Our “Skin in the Game”
It’s always easier to assess what others “should be doing” than evaluating our own actions. As consumers, we expect our food supply system to improve its environment footprint. However, we all have “skin” in this game. According to the USA Facts.org, the average American generated 4.9 lbs of solid trash (food waste, paper, etc.) daily in 2018, up from 3.7 lbs per day in 1980. However, 32.1% of waste in 2018 was recycled or composted, up from 14.5% in 1980.2
What can we do better? Begin with small steps!
- Reduce food waste – Buy what you’ll prepare and eat in a few days or have a plan for leftovers. Stop peeling vegetables like potatoes and carrots. Start composting. Read more in my recent blog
- Buy seasonal – If we are agreeable to eating fresh produce only during our geographic location growing season then transportation impacts are reduced.
- Reduce daily plastic use from grocery bags to plastic bottles – Old habits are hard to break if the culture around us doesn’t promote it. When I worked in Washington, D.C., plastic bags cost six cents each. Even though minimal, the habit of always carrying a cloth bag was created (one that has regressed). And not to mention the number of plastic bottles of sparkling water I consume in a day — definitely an area for improvement.
- Use real plates, glasses and flatware – Not only is paper trash reduced but the food on your plate looks and “tastes” better … and it’s more economic.
Small actions by each of us equal big changes! It’s our time to “be the change we wish to see in the world.” Accept the Challenge!
2. “How do energy and emissions in the United States compare to the rest of the world?” USA Facts, Earth Day Facts, Energy & Emissions.
3. “Initiative to Unlock Ag as a Climate Solution Marks One-Year Anniversary, Welcomes Pepsico as Partner,” U.S. Farmers & Ranchers in Action, April 13, 2021.
4. “Regenerative Agriculture as an Agent of Positive Change,” by By Ian Pigott, Farm Journal, Global Farmer Network, April 18, 2021.