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Farming Better, Eating Better: On the Ground Solutions from the Growing Green Awards

Peter Lehner

Posted May 22, 2012 in Living Sustainably

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The evening was foggy, but the mood was upbeat at NRDC's fourth annual Growing Green Awards, held in San Francisco last week. It was inspiring for me not only to meet our winners in person, but to see how our work making food and agriculture more sustainable has brought so many new people into our orbit.

Food is such a powerful touchstone in all our lives (the food served that evening was great, all locally produced, including five different desserts!), and the desire to eat better is pretty much universal. Ensuring that we have access to fresh, healthy food is a concern for so many communities, old and young, rich and poor, businessman and farmworker, all over the country.

The Growing Green Awards honor the people who are driving hugely important changes in our food system--making it more equitable, safer, healthier, and more sustainable. The actions of these leaders are especially critical today, when you consider that government agencies like the FDA, whose job it is to protect us, repeatedly fail to uphold and enforce the laws that are meant to ensure a safe and healthy food supply.

As a litigator and a former regulator, I'm acutely aware of the FDA's shortcomings. I announced at these awards last year that we would sue the FDA if they refused our petition to regulate antibiotics in animal feed. This is a major public health issue. Dosing healthy livestock with antibiotics is standard practice on factory farms, and it turns animals into incubators for drug-resistant bacteria, which can be deadly to humans. We made good on that promise: In March, a federal court ordered the agency to act on its own safety findings, which will likely result in the withdrawal of permission to use penicillin and tetracycline on healthy livestock animals.

Our legal victory finally compels the FDA to confront its 35 years of foot-dragging on this important issue. But it's not the end of the battle. More than 150 antibiotics are regularly given to healthy livestock, and the FDA's track record shows us that the agency will continue to dodge and dawdle, posing make-believe solutions that don’t address the root of the problem. The FDA’s voluntary guidance on antibiotics, finalized just a few weeks after our court victory, is non-binding, and still allows the industry to police itself.

That's why we're going to continue the fight to ensure that antibiotics remain effective at saving human lives. Together with the medical community and major food buyers, we are keeping the pressure on the FDA to end this harmful practice once and for all.

Courtroom battles are one part of the fight to improve our food supply--the other is the groundbreaking work of people like Gabe Brown, the North Dakota rancher who won this year's Growing Green Award in the Food Producer category. On his 5,400 acre regenerative ranch, Brown tries to recreate nature's image, allowing plants and animals interact with the land as they would naturally.

His ranch is the antithesis of a factory farm: cattle play an active and integral role in maintaining the health of the land. Brown uses a system of solar-powered gates to move his herd from paddock to paddock, ensuring that they trample a portion of the plants while they graze, driving nutrients back into the soil, just like herds of buffalo moving through the prairie. The cattle manure stays in the field, too, acting as a natural fertilizer.

Brown's cattle are raised without antibiotics (although he will administer necessary medicines to sick or injured animals). They tend to be healthier than animals kept in unsanitary factory farms, since they have room to move around and graze naturally. And since Brown stopped using insecticides on his property, natural insect predators like dung beetles and cowbirds have come back to the ranch, helping protect his livestock. Other wildlife thrive in his rangelands, too, like coyotes, mink, sharptail grouse, Hungarian partridge, waterfowl and songbirds.

He grows a variety of crops selected not merely for their cash value but for their benefit to the soil. This regenerative style of management has allowed Brown to cut his fertilizer use more than 90 percent. He uses no pesticides, and has reduced his herbicide use by more than 70 percent. Reducing the chemical load is not only a cost-savings, but provides an environmental benefit as well. Agricultural runoff--the excess chemicals that get washed off farmland and into waterways--is a major cause of water pollution, and is a likely cause of the infamous "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico. Brown's soil is more productive, and holds more water, helping protect his land from floods and droughts.

Managing a ranch, or any business, this way, takes commitment, skill, an eye for detail, and a willingness to experiment. Drought in the early years nearly sunk his business, but Brown pulled through and has been running successful, profitable operation, with a healthy, productive herd and above-average crop yields. Brown makes sure that he shares his knowledge and his experience with fellow ranchers, offering tours of his property, serving as a mentor for the North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition, and speaking at conferences around the region.

Brown succeeds because he loves his work, he loves his land, and he believes that by making his ranch more sustainable, he's doing the right thing, for his family and his faith.

While we continue to push for change through the court system, to demand that our government uphold the laws and protect the public, we know full well that change needs people like Gabe Brown. Change starts with individual action that provokes a chain reaction.

As we become more aware of how our food is produced, we start to realize the true impacts of the way we eat, and how our food choices affect not only our own health, but the health of our waters and our soil and the countless lives our environment sustains. The meat production cycle -- regardless of how sustainably the cattle are raised -- is a major source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Worldwide, livestock produce more global warming pollution than cars and trucks, exacerbating the worst effects of climate change.

By choosing to eat better quality, nutrient-rich foods, ensuring that our meat is sustainably produced, and consuming less of it, we protect ourselves and the environment which sustains us all.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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