It seems an odd question, which leads the mind in strange ways (as per image above). I promise you that by the end of the article, it will make more sense and you will have a new appreciation of legumes. Yes, legumes. Bear with me.
First we need to take a step back and look at the role plants play in climate regulation.
In breathing, animals transform oxygen into carbon dioxide. Plants, however, do the exact opposite. Transforming carbon dioxide into oxygen. A process all the more important given our carbon emitting modern world. Carbon is amassed in plants and in the soil, and over time large carbon stores are buried deep underneath the ground and the oceans. In this way, plants can be seen as biological pumps, pushing around valuable nutrients like carbon and nitrogen to long term storage if there's too much, or immediate access when there's not enough. This makes life for us humans much more pleasant.
*Does a plant appreciation dance*
That’s not all these super, duper beings do. In addition to carbon, plants handle a lot of water, funneling it into the ground and even into the skies. The carbon stored in the ground acts as a sponge when it rains, holding water in regions accessible to the plants above. During a hot day, plants will reach into this water source, and sweat it out (technically, transpire) in a similar way that we do.
Far more impressive is that over 95% of the water a plant ever sees is ultimately transpired into the atmosphere. This release of steam into the atmosphere is the birthplace of the clouds above, and ultimately, the next rain event. This is how forests give rise to rain - and why some are even called rainforests (obviously whoever came up with that name didn’t have much imagination, but we’ll forgive them 😉).
Random side rant: In my humble opinion, this is why we should have been talking about rewilding in response to the 2019 bushfires. Certain politicians jumped to blaming overgrown forests to feeding these fires. A foolish oversimplification of the whole story here. We have made our country sensitive to drought by removing the very things that hold and recycle water. More on that another time.
Finally, nitrogen. (Pay extra attention here guys 😉). It's the most common element in our atmosphere, and so precious to plants that 2% of the energy used worldwide is devoted to chemical factories that combine normal air with fossil fuels, and transform them into fertilizer, so that farmers can deliver more nitrogen to their crops. The nitrogen made in these factories has a certain chemical signature, so we can trace it from the factory to fork. In fact, it's so traceable that scientists have found that the nitrogen in the average human being is 50% from a factory.
It's so shocking that it bears repeating.
If you're an average human, 50% of the nitrogen in your body comes from a collection of industrial chemical factories that are one of the major carbon emitting sources on the planet.
If you just vomited a bit, we don’t blame you.
It is hardly a picture of sustainable food, yet curiously few people ever talk about the negative impact of fertiliser.
It is the opinion of many scientists that, second only to our warming planet, artificial excesses of nitrogen constitute the most devastating impact on both our wild and human habitats. Why?
- Some soil microorganisms can transform nitrogen provided in fertilizers into nitrogen-containing gases, which get released into the atmosphere like the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O). These Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere much like the roof of a greenhouse traps heat to protect the plants growing in it from cold weather and frost. This is one of the main factors accelerating global warming. Nitrous oxide has a warming potential ~300 times greater than the most commonly mentioned greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2). 😨
- Eutrophication is an unwanted fertilization of a waterway and it promotes the growth of microorganisms, algae, and plants, just like the fertilization of soil. However, the fast growth of microorganisms and plants can use up all the oxygen in these waterways and turn them into so-called dead zones, because aquatic animals cannot live without oxygen. Eutrophication can also lead to the growth of algal species that produce toxic chemicals, called harmful algal blooms. 😔
I promised you ways in which to help, and this part is so easy. Stop eating foods that were grown by fertiliser. Better yet, eat foods that naturally fertilise the ground. These plants are referred to as nitrogen-fixers, because they pull in the nitrogen from the atmosphere and tuck it away down under.
Easy nitrogen fixers to include in your diet are: Beans, chickpeas, lentils… heaps of legumes!
They're also incredibly healthy and great for your gut bacteria. We’ve included them into our range at Mindful Foods, but I would encourage you to find and eat them where and whenever possible.
The more you eat, the more farmers are incentivised to grow it. Which in turn brings more natural balance to their farm (nitrogen-fixing plants vs detrimental and expensive fertiliser).
We also have plenty of organically grown legumes, including:
- Soy- Chickpeas