Day to day, our decisions count

I found this video was on the Global Soil Week website last week. It’s oddly creepy for something which is supposed to be informational and I assume, inspirational, yet the agribusiness Transformer monsters stick with me. I thought I’d share the creepiness. You’re welcome.


[This is another post in the Back to the Garden series, which can be accessed by clicking on the tag to your left]


Last week I introduced the subject of soil. Healthy soil is fundamental to a the loving landscape, to healthy people, to a healthy world. Initially, I’d imagined that I’d just do one post on soil and move on, but I realized that I’m going to need to linger in the topic and get my hands dirty, so to speak.

Today I wanted to talk about how our behavior, particularly our consumer choices around food, impact the health of the soil world-wide. I’m only focusing on two areas of behavior. There are, of course, many more to consider, but these two I like because they are achievable on a home-scale.

Remember, we are all gardeners, whether we have land or not. Every day we tend the garden which is the world.

At the market

Do we buy food grown close to home, or from far across the world?

Who is growing our food, and how?

We can commit to buying seasonal food grown close to home by farmers who are invested in the long term health of their land and soil. Practically, this means avoiding supermarket foods, especially the packaged sort, which comes from huge agribusiness conglomerates, and sourcing whole foods from farmers’ markets, CSAs, co-ops and animal-shares instead.

It’s easy enough to say, but can be hard to do. Supermarkets are convenient, and we’re trained to depend on that convenience. It’s more difficult, for instance, to commit to visiting a farmer’s market, to clear that time and make that special trip. I know I struggle with it.

One thing that helps me is forming relationships with the people I buy from. Global soil health is a little too abstract a concept to hold onto, but helping a farmer hold onto her dream of keeping the family farm intact–well, that’s not hard at all, especially if you chat with her every week.

If you can’t find the time to shop at farmers’ markets, you might want to try a CSA. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. If you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s like a subscription club you join, and, typically, you get a box of local produce a week which you pick up at some central point, or perhaps is delivered to your door. Some CSAs go beyond veggies and fruits to provide meat, fish, milk, eggs, bread, flowers, etc.

It takes some getting used to being in a CSA, because you don’t get much choice in what you’re given week to week, so you and your family need to have a spirit of adventure to go forward with it.

CSAs and farmers’ markets teach you many things, including:

  • The amazing flavor of food which is both fresh and in-season. You could live your whole life on supermarket food and never know this basic pleasure.
  • How to recognize the changing seasons in your region by the harvest, and how to cook around that availability–in other words, your kitchen becomes seasonal.
  • How to develop a spirit of adventure. There are so many weird vegetables in the world–and they are delicious!
  • Eating this way is also a good primer for vegetable gardening. It teaches you what grows well in your area, and how the seasons run, and gives you some inspiration as to good local varieties you can seek out.

By the by, I thought I’d mention Azure Standard here, too. This is a U.S. based company–it does not operate in every state, unfortunately, but it delivers bulk whole and natural foods to community drop-off points. You can join an existing drop off, or your can form a new one if you can get enough friends to join you. If your community doesn’t have a food co-op of any other sort, or a decent health food store with a good bulk bin selection, this might be a good way to buy cereals and oils and cleaning supplies at all those other sorts of things you can’t get at a farmers’ market.

In the kitchen

We can commit to not wasting food. We waste about 1/3 of the food calories we grow, worldwide. Not only is that a waste of our soil wealth, water, money and fuel–not to mention a huge injustice to those who are hungry– but almost all of our food waste ends up in landfills, releasing methane gas into the atmosphere.

How much food we actually waste is a complex question. There are losses at the agricultural level, at the retail level, and at the consumer level, and I believe that 1/3 of calories stat above includes all three areas.

In the U.S., in the average home, we probably waste about 25% of the food we actually bring through the door. For a more thorough breakdown of these numbers in the US, see the USDA document titled (sexily): Loss-Adjusted Food Availability Documentation. It defies skimming, but you actually can scroll down to the table which shows waste broken down by category.

There’s also a detailed paper from the NRDC about food waste, if you want a depressing read.

At any rate, no matter how we count it up, we in the developed world waste an enormous amount of food, and so waste a staggering amount of resources without thought. And I mean staggering amounts. For instance, according the NRDC, 80% of our fresh water goes to agriculture. So, when we’re wasting food at this rate, that means that 25% of our fresh water is going directly to waste. Here in the dry West, that kind of extravagance has become unconscionable.

In terms of soil, think about this. To grow all the food we waste globally, we use an area of land one and half times larger than the U.S.  That’s a lot of soil. And most of that’s soil which is being stripped of its wealth by unsustainable farming practices.

So yeah…uggh.

There’s no need to beat this with a hammer. What can we do at home?  What kind of personal disciplines can we take on to stop wasting food?

I don’t have all the answers! I’m hoping you all will have some suggestions. Here’s a few things I can offer:

  • Avoid eating out, especially at places where you know the food isn’t sourced well, and the portions are oversized. Save your money for the occasional nice meal at a restaurant which puts some thought into what they serve. (I’m encouraged that there’s buzz around sustainable eating in the high end restaurant world.)
  • Confront your refrigerator twice a week. This one is really helping me. The fridge can become a big box of forgetfulness. By forcing myself to hunker down and peer in there twice a week, to triage the fresh veggies and leftovers so they get used promptly. In some ways, I’m starting to go KonMari on the fridge–though I have a long way to go.
  • Get less squeamish. Cut the mold off the cheese. Eat the fruit which is going soft-or at least make it into a compote. Make stock out of fridge-wilted vegetables. I think the more closely you work with food, the more you grow your own, the more you have a relationship with it and the people you source it from, the more readily you’ll want to make good use of it throughout its lifespan.
  • Don’t cook from recipes so much–or at least, don’t follow them so precisely. Recipes require special trips to the store to get specific ingredients that you may never use again–like that jar of  Thai chile paste you only used a spoonful of before it was lost in the depths of your condiment collection. Learn to improvise with what you’ve got–as good cooks have done for ever and always. Right now, I’ve got The Flavor Bible waiting for me on the library hold shelf–this is a book that I’ve heard good things about in regard to empowering cooks to work without recipes. I’ll take a look at it and let you know if I think it’s good.
  • And of course, plan your meals. Some people are really good at this. I am not. Let us know if you have a good technique.

The final stop gap to food wastage is composting–but that is a subject unto itself.

Leave a comment


  1. I don’t want to sound combative or snarky, but I find it interesting that so many people who discuss ‘eating local’ and deplore shipping food across continents or oceans have no qualms setting up a home in what is essentially a desert which requires shipping water in from distant regions.

    There is nothing natural in packing millions and millions of people into arid regions that would never be able to sustain those numbers without an invasive and ever-growing artificial infrastructure. I’d have just as many qualms about living in LA as I do about eating an out-of-season nectarine.

  2. (“Healthy oil is fundamental to a the loving landscape”… my proofreader self couldn’t help but notice that spellcheck let you down here! unless you meant oil and not soil)

    I wish that there were CSA’s available that were set up to handle single people instead of memberships designed for couples or families… When I lived in a group, we were CSA members more than once, but as a singleton, I cannot afford the price of a membership designed for larger households. I am starting to gradually find ways to grow food here in my yard, which is exciting, and difficult. All the food and almost all the yard “waste” here is composted here, either in the yard or in the house worm bin, or run through the chickens and returned to the yard that way…

    I do shop the farmers market when I can, and my local grocery stores both label which foods are locally grown. I did a month long challenge a few years ago to source all food ingredients (except spices) within a 200 mile radius, and it was interesting to see what made the cut and what had to change: the biggest surprise was that the only local cooking fats were butter and lard. Doing this challenge basically required cooking all foods from scratch

    • Thank you. Healthy oil indeed.

      It sounds like you are doing great things around the house. And too bad about the CSA–the one we used to belong to had something called a studio share, which was more appropriate for one person. I can only hope that as they establish more (fingers crossed) more options will become available.

  3. Wow, that video is creepy!

    To Que’s point, there are huge structural issues that accompany many of the land tenure and land management problems worldwide. The lasting legacy of colonialism in Europe means that, bizarrely, South American soy farmers export their crops to European feedlots, who then have serious pollution problems from the manure, while the soils back in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay suffer from exhaustion.

    Similarly, in the US we have huge coastal populations, while the vast and crazily fertile middle of the country is sparsely populated. In addition, we have pigeonholed our agriculture by region. Every week in Kansas City, I may eat apples from Washington, almonds and avocados from California, peaches from the south, and so on, while staple crops and meat travel from here to the coasts. And that doesn’t even mention palm oil products from SE Asia, mangos from Mexico, sugar from Paraguay, etc.

    In the long term, the best way to care for agricultural soil is to use it to provide food (rather than raw material), and that means getting small holders back on the land, everywhere. This video suggests to European consumers that they buy X and not Y, but maybe what it should suggest is that they grow X and go without Y. That may mean abandoning LA to move to Indiana or Kansas, but hey, we’ve got the soil. Come take it back from ADM and Cargill, wouldja?

  4. We should stick to the 5Rs rule – refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot! There is a lot of food waste and there are a lot of hungry people out there, so we must do something about that! I wish we start thinking first, not just consuming! Greetings, Rubbish Clearance Harrow Ltd.

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