Sustainable Farming and How It Affects You
After writing Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2006, food author Michael Pollan said everything he’s learned about food and health can be summed in the following mantra: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
Pollan’s book, along with others at the time such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Marion Nestle’s Food Politics, spurred a national conversation about U.S. food policies and eating in general, including the journey of food from farm to plate. It made us think about the food industry and modern farming, how conventional farming and the monoculture of a single crop can devastate the land and soil. It also gave us a glimpse into sustainable farming — how a small, ecologically balanced farm can allow for both humans and animals alike to reap the benefits of a natural food chain based on grass.
That was over 12 years ago — so where are we at now? What does sustainable farming look like today?
Luckily, we’re seeing some significant changes in the food and farming landscape since Pollan’s book was published. According to a 2018 study by FiBL and IFOAM Organics International, the positive trend seen in the past years continues, with more consumer demand for organic products increasing, more farmers cultivating organically and more land is becoming certified organic.
In America, the explosive growth and popularity of farmers’ markets show that they have the potential to transform communities and the way people think about food. There are now more than 8,600 registered U.S. farmers’ markets, almost double the amount since 2006, and over $700 million in local food sold to consumers in one year.
To some, this may seem minuscule in comparison to the trillions spent in grocery stores and food retailers. But according to a recent Forbes article, this money has an immense impact on local economies as it keeps consumer spending in the community, with 100% of the income staying in the hands of the producer. It also encourages the culture of local food, allowing the consumer to know exactly where their food is coming from, how it’s made and who is making it.
In one of our favourite documentaries about food and farming entitled Sustainable, Chef Rick Bayless says in the film, “I kept asking myself, how am I going to make great food if I don’t have a connection to the people who are growing that food?”
The value of farmers’ markets and sustainable farming, in general, is the closeness to the food — the connection you have in all aspects, from the well-being of the land to farmers’ livelihoods and maintainability of the economy built around a locally grown food system. With that comes a better way of eating and a philosophy built on valuing quality, nutrition, and community over quantity, mass production, and miseducation. Ignorance should not be bliss when it comes to food.
Sustainable agriculture can mean many different things to different people, but at the root of it all is the rejection of the industrial approach to food production that was developed in the 20th century, to make food abundant and affordable.
Many people also equate sustainable agriculture with organic farming, which bars the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and GMOs for crop production as well as antibiotics, hormones and synthetic feeds for animals. Organic farming is meant to conserve biodiversity, improve the organic content of soil and produce much less pesticide pollution.
Not only are more and more consumers rejecting industrial practices of farming and opting for organic, but practitioners of conventional agriculture are now actually borrowing "organic" techniques, according to an article in GreenBiz.com. “They used compost, manure and/or cover crops, had cut back on toxic and persistent pesticides, reduced tillage and embraced longer and more biodiverse crop rotations. In the process, they had also protected and promoted pollinators and beneficial insect predators,” it continues in the article.
This shift seems to prove that organic techniques work well — farmers are attesting that organic inputs are generally cheaper than conventional ones and organic practices have a beneficial impact on the agroecosystem.
The Story of Amazing Grass
Despite being one of the biggest health food brands, creating everything from superfoods to plant-based protein powders, Amazing Grass is a prime example of a growing company that still maintains its core grassroots philosophy of sustainability and “slow growth.”
The farm they grow their crops on for all their products has been in founder Brandon Bert’s family for three generations — and they’re committed to keeping it that way. “We’ve never found another suppliers’ crop that rivals ours for taste, quality or nutrition. Long slow growth, direct cut harvesting, pelleting, nitrogen packaging, frozen storage, and direct-on-premise milling are all practices that we employ that most others don’t,” says Brandon Bert, co-founder of Amazing Grass.
Amazing Grass defines sustainability as living in a manner that takes into account how our actions as individuals and, our business decisions collectively, impact the long-term viability of the health and wellness of ourselves, our natural environment and therefore future generations. They believe that organic farming practices are a more sustainable way to preserve the longevity and health of food agriculture in the world — it’s healthier for the soil and the environment by keeping harmful toxins and pesticides out of the system.
“We believe that eating real, whole foods as nature intended, is a more sustainable way to lead a long, healthy life as compared to artificial products and foods created in a laboratory,” Bert adds. Amen.
What we love about Amazing Grass is that 16 years in the business with nationwide distribution (their products can also be found in Walmart and Target), and they still source their greens from their family farm. How do they do it? It’s a combination of smart farming and staying true to their roots.
“Our roots in farming, particularly sustainable organic farming run deep,” Bert says. “Our entire company was inspired by our third generation family farm in Kansas where even today we exclusively source our wheat grass, barley grass and alfalfa from.
“As we continue to expand our assortment and source new ingredients whenever possible we prioritize partnerships and ingredient sources from other farmers who share our same values and high standards for ensuring a symbiotic relationship with the environment through sustainable and organic practices.”
Is it possible to continue to grow as a business yet still maintain a sustainable and ethical farming practice? The short answer is yes. By investing in technology and land, Amazing Grass ensures the long-term viability of their tried-and-true slow growth process. It also helps that they know their stuff: “We believe crops and farming should take place in its native environment. Our grasses and alfalfa are all native to the location in Kansas where they are grown. As good farmers know, one needs to ensure the soil is continually enriched to continue to provide the most nutrition possible for our crops. Crop rotation is key, and we’ve found that the alfalfa roots that have reached over 20 feet in depth can be a great way to put valuable trace minerals back into the soil.”
Amazing Grass has set the bar for what a bigger food brand with sustainable farming practices should look like. To this day, the brand and its founders continue to drive more awareness around sustainable farming practices and the positive impact plant-based products can have on the health of consumers and the environment. They’ve also become big supporters of American Farmland Trust to help protect the disappearance of family farms and U.S farmland.
And the good news is, the food trends we’re seeing now are all positive. Much of the world is trending towards plant-based eating, and it’s looking like this global shift is here to stay. There’s been a 600% increase in people identifying as vegans in the U.S in the last three years. Analysts are predicting plant-based burgers and alternative meat companies, like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, could explode into a $140 billion dollar industry over the next ten years. "Sustainability is increasingly more relevant as consumers, especially Millennials and Gen Z, have become more aware of the damage that food production has caused to the planet," it continues in the Business Insider article.
It’s just a matter of time before companies, like Amazing Grass, are following suit, inspiring other consumers to opt for more plant-based, nutritious products (even if they're a little pricier) over commercial foods and factory-farmed meats.
“Our consumers want to know where their food comes from and utilizing a network of family farms and providing transparency to how foods are grown, harvested and stored is a critical aspect of this,” Bert says. “It’s important to support small family farms because, without them, the downside is a dependency on large corporate farms with ubiquitous crops using GMO ingredients and their focus on high yields and profits at the cost of healthy food.”
At the end of the day, sustainable farming all comes down to ethical agricultural practices. In the Sustainable film, John Ikerd, Professor Emeritus at the University of Missouri, says it best: “Sustainability ultimately is an ethical issue. There is no economic reason to do anything for some person of some future generation other than it’s the right thing to do. We owe a debt to those of the past, and we can only repay that debt to the people of the future.”