I’ve been a nature lover my whole life. Or at least I always thought so. As a kid growing up on Long Island, surrounded by endless vistas of concrete urban sprawl, nature called me. It was the mountains mostly. I always had them on my mind. And on my wall too… posters and pictures of them, mostly in the snow, which always seemed to shroud them with a serenity unmatched by the colors of other seasons.
After college I joined the Sierra Club and and volunteered for The Nature Conservancy. It seemed like the right gesture to express my love of nature. Those were organizations that could dutifully protect the world I enjoyed on weekend hikes in the woods or ski trips to the mountains. I believed the world was in good hands while I blithely went about my modern life, pursuing all the conveniences and luxuries that came along with it.
I further glorified my love for nature when I decided to patronize the national park system more regularly. I took my children on a whirlwind tour of nine parks out West several years ago, and since then have notched visits to a dozen or so more on my way to “bucket-listing” all of them. Yes, I love nature.
Through all those years, I had witnessed my fair share of nature’s fragility, as well as human disregard for it. I remember as a kid being prohibited from swimming at some beaches because of the pollution. The first real climate scare I remember was back in the ‘80s, when there was so much talk about the hole in the ozone layer (which, by the way, scientists believe will be closed by the middle of this century due to our reduction in CFCs.)
By 1990, Earth Day had grown from a blip on the radar screen to a major worldwide event that heightened the awareness of environmental issues. Recycling and energy conservation where laudable initiatives and I righteously jumped on the bandwagon. It really didn’t require too much effort to separate out the plastics and glass into a recycling bin, and to shut off the lights when leaving a room. I knew I should probably be driving less, but what’s a parent with four kids to do in this world that demands we partake in all its crazy schemes?
Plus, it didn’t seem like anything that I could personally do would really make much of a difference. I mean, even if I did drive a few less miles in my gas-guzzler, or turn the lights off a little more, was that really going to save the planet, when it seemed like so many other people in the world didn’t give a crap? I further stoked this cavalier attitude by convincing myself that environmental issues where not that big a deal. Global warming was being discussed on the fringes, but winter still seemed pretty darn cold to me.
It was self-interest that saved me from my distorted view of a natural world I’d deluded myself into thinking I loved. My self-interest had to do with wanting to be personally healthy… so I’d not die of heart disease like my father did at a young age and I could get to all those national parks. I’d always been athletic, but never knew much about food, other than the fact if you eat a lot of pizza and drink a lot of beer, your spare tire swells pretty quickly once you get out of college.
Over the last seven years, I’ve learned about the benefits of real whole foods. I strive to eat organic produce and local, pasture-raised meat and eggs as much as possible, because I am 100% convinced of the health benefits that accrue from avoiding food produced with chemicals, antibiotics, hormones, preservatives, sugar, industrial grains, vegetable oils, and all the other banes of our modern food system.
But I learned something else about real whole foods: They make the planet healthier too. You see, in all those years I “loved” nature and pretended to be protecting it with my Sierra Club dues and blue recycling bin, I never once gave thought to how my food choices impact our common home… the only one we have.
Saving the whales and the polar bears is great and all… they’re beautiful creatures. But we’ve focused on the wrong end of the food chain. It’s the bees and worms that demand our urgent attention. With out either of these animals we’d not have an earth to live on. That’s not an exaggeration.
Bees pollinate a majority of our fruits and vegetables, and the regiment of pesticides and herbicides that have fueled our food system for the past 70 years is decimating populations. Our environment thrives and survives on balance, and bees are a vital cog in the wheel.
As are worms. Most people tend to think of them as small, insignificant creatures but they are actually among the largest of a vibrant animal kingdom that lives beneath our feet and helps the world turn. Soil is literally the foundation of our existence. A teaspoon of healthy soil, comprised of organic matter called humus, typically contains billions of microbes. These microbes assist plants with the process of photosynthesis, which is essential to completing the carbon cycle. The carbon cycle keeps carbon dioxide at manageable levels in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is known as one of the greenhouse gases. It’s vital for preventing the earth from getting too cold. Too much of it can send us in the other direction, which we call global warming.
Humans have been messing with the carbon cycle since we first walked the planet. We’re fallible… we do stupid things that disrupt nature. But at no time in the planet’s history have humans had a greater impact on the climate than the last the last 250 years, since the start of the industrial revolution. We call this anthropogenic climate change. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is at the highest level it’s been in millions of years, at nearly 400 parts per million (ppm). Scientists agree that 350 ppm is the tipping point beyond which catastrophic weather events will wreak havoc on our planet - and our food supply in particular - as they are already doing.
The burning of fossil fuels - coal and petroleum - are much to blame for this acceleration in global warming. But our food system now accounts for more than a third of the excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Growing our produce with chemicals and synthetic fertilizers, raising animals in confinement, and using vast amounts of land to plant cereal crops for our cheap, processed food. Those are the culprits.
I know deep down I should trade in my gas-guzzler for an electric car. I should convert my house to solar energy. I should aim to consume less and waste nothing. All those worthy goals would make a difference on our climate, but they are easier said than done. I hope to do them all someday. But one action I know I can take today, and that will have an equal if not greater impact on the health of the world - is choose food that regenerates the earth instead of degrading it. If you live your life believing every single bite of food you take matters, it will. And nature will love you for it.
Michael Reilly is co-founder of Foodwaze, LLC, a social enterprise based in Charlottesville, Virginia. The mission of Foodwaze is to help consumers find the best sources of real regenerative food at restaurants, cafes, markets, farms, and more. Foodwaze produces an online and mobile food guide that curates and rates businesses based on their commitment to a local regenerative food system.