This year we’re recognizing Earth Day (April 22, 2018) with a 4 part series of blogs that explore the ways in which our food choices impact the planet. If, like us, you’re interested in learning about ways in which you can reduce your environmental footprint then the easiest way to get started is with your fork!

Part 1 (of 4): Land Clearing

Food & Agriculture is the single biggest cause of land clearing globally. Today, around 37% of the Earth’s surface is used for agriculture. Not only does the land clearing process prevent natural flora from performing many vital functions, but it also introduces input-intensive crops that take a lot from the soil and rarely give much back to it.

Habitat Destruction & Species Extinction

Land clearing to make way for fields or pastures is the largest cause of species extinction worldwide. Animal agriculture alone is responsible for 91% of Amazon rainforest destruction, and 110 species of animals and insects are lost every day as a result of rainforest clearing

Soil Degradation

It’s easy to take soil for granted. It’s brown, dirty, and we walk on it. But when it’s alive and healthy, it’s actually one of the most complicated organisms on the planet. There are two main ways that industrial farming and agriculture degrades soil quality:

  1. Nutrient Depletion. While natural vegetation actively maintains soil quality by replenishing it with nutrients and micro-organisms, industrial agriculture sucks these nutrients out of the soil to grow crops. Replenishing the soil with nutrients generally requires either fertilizers or crop rotation.
  2. Erosion Vulnerability. When land is converted from forest or natural vegetation to agricultural land, it loses many of the strong, developed root systems that hold it in place. This makes the soil significantly more vulnerable to erosion. 

Combined, these two factors are a leading cause of desertification (when once fertile land becomes a desert). Some experts believe that at current degradation rates we only have about 60 years of farming left. This is a phenomenon that is already spread in America’s MidWest.

Luckily, there are a number of tried and true solutions to this problem. Among them are incorporating organic farming principles such as crop rotation and no-till agriculture as well as, of course, indoor farming in controlled environments.

Carbon and Water Storage

Native vegetation, particularly forest, plays a key role in the regulation and maintenance of many of the Earth’s resources such as atmospheric carbon and water. Forests are a large carbon sink, meaning they absorb and convert huge amounts of carbon in the atmosphere. Carbon also happens to be one of the biggest greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. As forests are obliterated, we lose a major source of carbon storage, therefore putting more carbon in the atmosphere (very bad). Forests also have a large role in the water cycle, as they absorb water and then allow it to rejoin the water cycle through a process called transpiration. Without forests or other forms of native vegetation to play this role in the water cycle, many areas can easily be reduced to desert.

What Can We Do About This?

The easiest way for anyone to become an environmentalist is to be more mindful about the food choices they make. The reality is that there is a vast difference in terms of resource intensity between different types of food. Some require significant land clearing, others very little. 

There are a number of organizations that are tackling the issue of deforestation and habitat loss due to land conversion for agricultural purposes. These organizations use things like carbon credits and other incentive systems to make it economical and easy for landholders to convert agricultural land to forest. Others help farmers integrate trees in to their fields, helping both the environment and the farmer. Examples include GreenTrees and Taking Root/EnRacine. Organizations like these not only educate and empower landholders, but also contribute to overall environmental well-being significantly through reforestation efforts.