Real Food, Real Conversations: Sustainable Agriculture and Environmental Justice

By Maddie Swanborn ’21

Professor Tara Pisani Gareau is an assistant professor of the practice and the Director of the Environmental Studies Program at BC. Her research interests include agroecology, sustainable food systems, conservation biological control, and pollination services. Tara is also our faculty advisor for Real Food, so she has shared a lot of expertise with us on maintaining our campus garden!

For our last “Real Food, Real Conversations” of the semester, we invited Professor Tara Pisani Gareau to speak about her work in sustainable agriculture and why it matters. Although the Real Food garden is a small scale example of sustainable agriculture, Tara explains that anything we can do to reduce our carbon footprint is beneficial. We, as young people, have the power to incite real change in our food systems and environments, and this starts by educating ourselves. Tara put together a list of ten reasons why agriculture matters, which we will share with you below. As a club, we are always looking for more ways to make an impact on the BC community and beyond. We hope that the “Real Food, Real Conversations” series will encourage others to do the same!

10 REASONS WHY AGRICULTURE MATTERS:

  1. 40% of the Earth’s land (that is ice-free) is dedicated to agriculture.
    1. Agriculture is the most abundant ecosystem on the planet, and all aspects of this ecosystem are things that we have control over. This means that we have the ability to manipulate it for the good. For example, 73% of cropland is dedicated to feeding animals, so decreasing meat consumption contributes to how we use our land resources because we can use this land for different purposes.
  2. Diverse ecosystems have been replaced by simplified systems.
    1. The world’s ecosystem lost a lot of biodiversity due to the conversion of land. However, we can use agriculture that we already have to mimic ecosystems that used to exist to bring back species.
  3. Agridiversity has declined.
    1. Some agriculture has declined and been replaced by other foods, which also contributes to the lack of biodiversity in our ecosystems.
  4. Agriculture accounts for approximately 40% of water withdrawals.
    1. Of this 40%, 80% is drawn from the ground, which is different from other systems that rely on water from different sources.
  5. 40% of surveyed rivers, lakes, and estuaries are not clean enough to meet standards for swimming and fishing (EPA).
    1. There is lots of pollution in water from human consumption and pesticides. This is an example of how your personal consumption can have a significant impact on the ecosystem that you live in.
  6. Nutrient enriched waters lead to marine dead zones.
    1. Nutrient enriched waters cause algae blooms, which decompose and suck up oxygen in the water. As a result, fish cannot swim in these places and often end up dying.
  7. Half of the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years.
    1. Much of this is due to tilling, which is when farmers use knives to remove all of the leaves and dirt. This loosens the soil to get washed away by rainstorms and also contributes to losing soil fertility.
  8. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agriculture account for approximately 9% of total US GHG emissions.
    1. This number would be even higher if it did not account for the absorption of carbon dioxide. Methane (CH4) has 28x the heating capacity of carbon dioxide and agriculture and waste make up most of the methane emissions worldwide. Methane emissions are increasing, which is significantly impacting our total GHG emissions.
  9. And yet, we need to eat.
    1. Food consumption varies across the world, but processed food is a staple in nearly every household. However, there is a great disparity in the number of calories we consume around the globe, and some of this is related to the availability of resources to grow food. 21.6% of children under 5 are stunted by nutrition, which begs the question of how to grow healthy food without sacrificing agriculture.
  10. Silver lining: there are alternative models!
    1. No-till methods have increased over the past 20 years. Organic agriculture, which has not always been available, is on the rise; industries have experienced a 20% growth increase every year because it is one of the areas that is making a lot of money. Management intensive rotational grazing has also seen growth –  20% of dairy farms in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New York, and Vermont use this method. Lastly, there has been an increase in perennial grains (taller, fibrous roots). These grains are less vulnerable to drought because the roots can go down deeper to water, which could change the environmental impact of agriculture.
  11. Bonus reason! Recent years have shown a surge of young farmers!
    1. Jen and Pete’s Backyard Birds and Dancing Goats Dairy, run by Erin Bligh, are just two examples of young farmers that are making a difference in the world of sustainable agriculture. We are the future!

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