In case you haven’t noticed, a whole bunch of folks have been circling up in Glasgow, Scotland the last few weeks to talk about carbon. All of them realize there’s too much in the air, and a few understand there’s not enough in soil.
It was against this backdrop that I saw a comment from a friend recently who repeated a phrase he had just heard at a conference: “carbon is the new calorie.” The intent was to throw down the gauntlet for businesses to deliver products on a quantifiable “feature” that consumers now cared about.
My initial reaction was “awesome!” But my next breath was “oh, crap!”
You see, I became instantly aware that it wasn’t until labels counting calories became “a thing” that America became so chronically ill and overweight. It feels like there’s a lesson here I need to pause and reflect upon.
As an engineer by both education and mindset, I fully appreciate that a calorie is a real and important attribute that quantifies the energy in food. Yet my own journey had made it clear long ago that food was much more than just calories. Food also provides the building blocks of biochemicals my body needs, and an instruction set that tells my body what to do with that energy and those building blocks.
Paradoxically, it was only after we started counting calories in an attempt to drive their consumption down that the amount consumed actually went up – a 24% increase since 1961. It seems like the moment we put that calorie number on a label, we forgot about everything else that wasn’t in the number.
Before that, we just ate food. It was all real. Not much of it came in a box, and none of it came with a number-bearing label. Calorie-counting labels were introduced in 1973, and whatever they did, they didn’t help solve the problem.
I’m a numbers guy. I like counting and tracking things – especially related to energy. And carbon compounds in soil and plants are just stored solar energy. So it’s hard for me to admit that a few numbers might do more harm than good.
Counting carbon is also the doorway I came into with regenerative agriculture. But could it become the petard with which I will hoist myself? Will a focus on counting carbon turn it from a useful measure into an oversimplified and counter-productive metric?
The accumulation of carbon in the biosphere is, similar to the calorie, unquestionably a sound metric of ecosystem health. I could not believe more deeply in the ability of our potential to increase the amount of carbon in soil and the rest of the biosphere as a “nature-based solution” to climate change. But even in knowing that, I also know that carbon is just part of a bigger picture.
So now I am haunted by this new concern – could counting carbon as part of selling awareness of it hurt the planet instead of healing it?
The amount of carbon in the atmosphere is absolutely a primary regulator of Earth’s surface temperature. But there’s a lot more to a healthy Earth than just taking carbon out of the air and putting it to work in soil. Healthy, carbon-rich soils catch and hold onto water, too. Healthy, carbon-rich soils grow more and better food and cut down on input costs for farmers. And yep, healthy, carbon-rich soils create more food and habitat for birds and other wildlife.
I can imagine that it is possible to increase the carbon content of soil in a way that was not necessarily health generating. I am reminded of how organic agriculture started off with huge focus on soil health, and somehow ended up in a system with unintentional incentives that increased erosion, loss of grassland habitat, and even outright fraud.
So I am left to wonder what is the high soil carbon equivalent of sugar-free junk food with no nutritional value? In what ways that perhaps we don’t understand now, might “counting carbon” as the new calorie start off as a noble mission, and end up as another Shakespearian tragedy?
I don’t have an answer right now, but having been provoked by my friend’s comment, I am newly cautious.
On this November morning, I take at least temporary refuge in the confidence that, even amidst our human foibles, life itself is an honest judge, and birds make outstanding jurors. If there are ways of abusing the carbon-counting game that are not good for the planet, I am quite sure the birds will tell us if we watch them.
Blue Nest Beef Co-Founder & CEO