Food & Water
Share this post

#14: How do we improve America’s agriculture system?

Published on
June 21, 2022
Show notes

In Episode 14, Quinn (Brian abandoned him) asks himself: How do we improve America’s agriculture system? On the mic, Emily Cassidy, the Sustainability Science Manager at the illustrious and beautiful California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, and a leading member of their new climate action initiative, Planet Vision. Emily's the co-author of a highly cited paper called “Solutions for a Cultivated Planet”, investigating how to sustainably feed 9 billion people.  Today we put Emily’s long background in natural resources science to use and discuss the steps America, and Americans, need to take to improve our food system, and make it healthier. For the air, for the land, for the water, and for each of us, inside our bodies. Also: Jane Goodall, and cow farts vs. cow burps. Want to send us feedback? Tweet us, email us, or leave us a voice message! Links:  Emily Cassidy on Twitter PlanetVision on Twitter California Academy of Sciences PlanetVision JANE documentary Netherlands greenhouses Added Sugars on the new nutrition label Michael Pollan on how to eat: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” BBC: Most nutritious foods Trump’s Book Club: A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson Quinn Emmett on Twitter Brian Colbert Kennedy on Twitter Intro/outro by Tim Blane Subscribe to our newsletter at! Like and share us on Facebook! Check us on Instagram! Follow us on Twitter! Pin us on Pinterest! Tumble us or whatever the hell you do on Tumblr! Ok that’s enough good lord


Quinn: Welcome to Important, Not important. My name is Quinn Emmett and... Brian's not here today. Unexpected vacation, must be nice, regardless, you are stuck with just me and my guest today on Episode 14, Emily Cassidy. She is the Sustainability Science Manager at the illustrious and beautiful California Academy of Science in San Francisco. She's a leading member of their new climate action initiative, PlanetVision. She is also the co-author of a highly-cited paper called, "Solutions for a Cultivated Planet", investigating how to sustainably feed nine billion people."

Quinn: Today, we put Emily's long background in natural resources science and discuss the steps America and Americans like us need to take to improve our food system and make it healthier for the air, for the land, for the water, and for each of us inside our bodies. In other news, Brian's not here. I have been abandoned. The good news, I replaced him with our new team mascot, Teddy, the Wonder Dog. Teddy is ... he is a rescue and we have no idea what breed he is. Unicorn doodle? Anyways, he's not new to me. Teddy is almost nine. He's been a little lonely and emotionally put down after ... put down's probably not the right word. Emotionally strung out after our other dog died late last year, so I made him a full time Important, Not Important employee and he's got Brian's spot on the couch. He's making good use of it. He's basically our emotional support animal. On that note, we just had a mini-earthquake and he didn't wake up from his nap, so, sure he's earning his salary.

Quinn: Anyways, other news. Our fancy new online store should be up by now at It is isn't, I'm sorry, we're recording this a couple of weeks ahead of time. If it is, hey, check out our new gear. Our goal is to provide you with the most comfortable items of Important, Not Important brand of clothing on this planet or any other. I think we accomplished that. This stuff is stupid great and should be the thing you want to put on everyday. We would just love that. There's also a coffee thing and people seem to love those, our coffee holder, portable coffee holder. It's insulated and people love coffee so that's great.

Quinn: Anyways, that's it, just me, so let's go talk to Emily.

Quinn: Our guest today is Emily Cassidy. Together we're going to tackle a pretty important question: what are the changes America need to make to build a more sustainable and healthy food system? Emily welcome.

Emily Cassidy: Thanks Quinn. I'm so excited to be here.

Quinn: Yeah. Emily, tell us real quick who you are and what you do.

Emily Cassidy: Sure. I consider myself a scientist turned science communicator. I grew up thinking that I wanted to be a biologist I guess. I really envied Jane Goodall and I was fascinated by chimpanzees and I just wanted to study nature and animals. When I got to college, I thought I wanted to be a biology major so it started in that direction, and then discovered i do not like Chemistry. I ended up actually taking an Environmental Science course just like the [Interim 00:03:45] Environmental Science. I totally fell in love with. I really love learning about a lot of different things and a few major in environment science. You get to study biology, soil science, climate science, hydrology, economics, you name it, you get to study it.

Emily Cassidy: You study it in a way that allows you to think about systems and how we live and interact with the planet. I got interested in climate science a bit and studied that toward the end of my undergrad. But then, I was really fascinated like how individual actions can change the Earth, change the climate, etc, and especially what we eat. I think it's just one of the most fundamental ways that we interact with the Earth is, is how we acquire food, what we eat, what we decide to put on our plates.

Emily Cassidy: In grad school, I studied the environmental impact of different diets. I studied how we grow a lot of stuff on crop lands, crop lands take up 40% of the Earth's surface. A lot of that I used for animal feed and some bio fuels too. When you look at how many people are actually feeding with the stuff that we grow, it's not as many as we could because we're directing it through many inefficient channels.

Emily Cassidy: Now, I work at the California Academy of Sciences. What I do there is basically make sure that sustainability messaging is threaded throughout the museum. The Cal Academy is an aquarium, a planetarium. We also have a rainforest. It's all under one living roof.

Quinn: Sure, why not.

Emily Cassidy: Yeah. It's an incredible place to work.

Quinn: We were just talking about that before the show got started. I was saying to them my view on Ventura Boulevard is a little different than yours. If you've never visited the California Academy of Science up in San Francisco, it's just incredible. They re-did the whole thing in 2008-2009 something?

Emily Cassidy: Yup, 2008. It's a new building. It's beautiful.

Quinn: It's stunning.

Emily Cassidy: We have a lot of windows. We look out directly on the park. The architect really wanted to bring the park in and it's a really beautiful place. We have over 3,000 animals within the building too. It's a great place to have shared experiences and explore biodiversity. Definitely recommend you make a visit.

Quinn: That's how it feels like having my three toddlers in the house. A lot of interactions and a chance to explore biodiversity. I love that Jane Goodall is one of your heroes. Did you see the new documentary?

Emily Cassidy: I have not yet, no.

Quinn: She's just incredible.

Emily Cassidy: Yes.

Quinn: It's just something else. I love, like you said, growing up and focusing on systems more as you got older and I guess focusing on system is an interesting way to put it because systems are so vital and so important we hear about loosey goosey, how everything is connected. They really are and it's such a smart way to build a concentration is to pull all of those pieces together. If you just ... there's a lot of incredible people that just work in ecology or biology, all these different things, and they have their specialties and that's super important, or Chemistry or Physics or whatever it might be. When you're someone who can take a step back and help us piece together all of those interweaving functions, it gives more truth to the way things really work. Or, as we're going to talk about today, how they don't. You're valuable, we appreciate that.

Quinn: Listen, I want to setup our conversation today, our listeners heard this a thousand times. We're big believers in action-oriented questions. What we want to do is get to the bottom of today's topic so that listeners really get it. Then, because these times do call for action, formulate some specific steps everyone here can take to make a dent in the universe. Does that sound good?

Emily Cassidy: That sounds great.

Quinn: Emily, we like to start with one important question to really get to the heart of why you're here today and that means both on the podcast and existentially. Instead of saying tell us your life story, we like to ask why are you vital to the survival of the species?

Emily Cassidy: That's a big question.

Quinn: One I'm going to make a compilation of just people reacting to that question. It's a lot of like, "Ahhh!"

Emily Cassidy: I think science communications in all of its forms are vital to the survival of the species because I think that we already know so much about this magnificent planet that we live on and we already know so much about how we can better live on it. We just need to spread that information around in such a way that people ... it resonates with people that people get motivated and feel empowered to take action in their daily lives. I've dedicated my life to the science communications but I don't think that I'm necessarily vital to the survival of the species.

Emily Cassidy: One of the things that I've learned being at the California Academy of Science is really how critical science communications is and how important museums are. An interesting fact is that museums get visited more than all ballparks and theme parks combined.

Quinn: Really? That's awesome.

Emily Cassidy: Yeah.

Quinn: Is that just in the US or is that across the world?

Emily Cassidy: Yeah, in the US. US museums such like art museums, science museums, etc, they get 850 million visits a year. That's a lot. People go to them often and they're also trusted communicators.

Quinn: So many of them are free.

Emily Cassidy: Yeah, exactly.

Quinn: Go, just go.

Emily Cassidy: Yeah. I think they're just an incredible opportunity to shape the way that we think about the environment and our place on Earth within museums. That's what I think is vital to the survival of our species.

Quinn: I love it. It does seem like there's a lot of life long scientist like yourself who have made because of the need, clear the desperate need in some ways and because the availability of these communication platforms for better or worse clearly that have transitioned either full time into science communicators or it has become a much bigger part of their life. I think it's hopefully making a big difference out there.

Emily Cassidy: Yeah, definitely. There are so many great science communicators now including our Executive Director here, John Foley, who does a lot of speaking around the country. Some of the guest that you've had on this podcast too are really great science communicators. I think that it's good to step out because I think for every publication that we have and dusty, old journals we should put three times more effort into getting that information out with videos, or blogs, or podcasts, or whatever else. I think there needs to be more attention paid to that.

Quinn: Absolutely. Absolutely. Listen, let's start with some context for today's topical question. I'm going to blow through some stuff here, a bunch of facts and thoughts I've pooled together. Your job is to tell me where I'm wrong, does that sound good?

Emily Cassidy: Sounds great.

Quinn: Let's start with our food production. We make a ton of food here in the US and obviously the global food system is very complicated. We also waste a lot of it. It's estimated Americans anywhere from 20% to 40% of our edible available food, 2% of our total energy use is to produce food that's later wasted. Four different firms control 85% of the beef packing market, 82% of soybean processing controlled by another four firms. The top four food retailers sold 36% of America's food in 2013 compared only 17% in 1993. We've a very consolidated market as far as control and also what we're producing and we'll get into that for sure.

Quinn: Diving deeper into what we're actually producing and what's going into it, 80% of our antibiotics are going into industrialized livestock meant for human consumption. This is, by all accounts, wrecking our bodies and setting us up for basically zombie diseases essentially, things that are untreatable essentially. Agriculture is responsible for 8% of total US greenhouse gas emissions. Nobody ever believes on it but it's right on our website. Cow farts are really bad for the environment.

Emily Cassidy: It's cow burps though.

Quinn: Is it cow burps?

Emily Cassidy: Yeah. This is a fact that a lot of people get wrong. Ruminants-

Quinn: This is very controversial.

Emily Cassidy: Farts versus burps. Ruminants emit a lot of methane through burps. They do emit some methane from their farts but more so from their burps because of their complicated stomachs. A lot of that methane escapes through their mouth [crosstalk 00:13:42].

Quinn: By the way, that's a whole other podcast, is talking about the cow digestive system. It's insane.

Emily Cassidy: Yeah.

Quinn: All right. Now, it's burps. I got to change some stuff on the website. Okay. I got some work to do. Regardless, people think it's a joke, it's not. Methane is horrific for the environment. It seems like a joke until you watch one of these documentaries on industrialize farming and see the scope of what we're dealing with. We're talking about that and the energy that's going in and what is being put out by agriculture, and yet, 40% of agriculture production energy goes into making chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Let's talk about what we're getting out of it.

Quinn: In 2010, the US food supply provided 4,000 calories per person per day in the US. Putting aside for about 10 seconds our massive obesity issues, you can imagine the waste because I'm sure everyone has heard, the recommended daily intake is 2,000 calories, which is obviously hugely skewed and dependent on the person, on the body type, on their [inaudible 00:14:47], but 70% of adults are obese. How are 70% of Americans, of adults, obese and yet we're providing 4,000 calories of food per day and yet we have all this waste? We've some serious issues. Then, finally, the average American consumes about 23 teaspoons of added sugars and sweeteners per day, which is just shocking. It's something, I know my family focuses a lot on because we've got children and what's being marketed to them and developed for them is a nightmare. Anyways, that was a little all over the place. Anything I'm off on, anything I'm forgetting that'll help folks understand this conversation?

Emily Cassidy: One of the first things that you said was that we produce a lot of food in the US. While that's true, we actually produce a lot more other stuff. Twp-thirds of what we grow in the United States is animal feed. When you think of the fact that we're dedicating about 40% of a land area in the US to agriculture, the lot of land, the lot of water, much of that is going into producing meat and dairy. That conversation process is very inefficient.

Emily Cassidy: For example, for every hundred calories of corn and soy that you feed a dairy cow, you probably 20 to 30 calories back in the form of cheese and milk. For every hundred calories you feed beef cattle, you only get about three of those calories back. That's a huge inefficiency. As we mentioned before, cattle have complicated stomachs and they're able to digest grasses and other things that are inedible to humans so they do that for part of their life. Most cattle are raised on grass and then finished on grain. There is still a lot of feed grain that goes to beef cattle in the US.

Emily Cassidy: The statistics vary but in 2012, I think, we fed more corn to cattle than we fed to chickens and pigs. We're wasting a lot of what we grow. Not just the food waste that we can see at home but also all of the stuff that we grow to feed animals is hugely inefficient. Then we also are growing a lot of corn to be turned into ethanol for cars.

Quinn: Right. I think someone said 40% of the corn we grow is used for ethanol.

Emily Cassidy: Yeah, that's about right. Yes. Some of that gets redirected to livestock feed. When you squish out the ethanol essentially, you convert the sugars in the grain to an alcohol. The rest of the grain, the dried grain can be used for animal feed. Yes, 40% gets directed to producing ethanol.

Quinn: Obviously, this is either a series of conversations we can have and maybe we should do that by the way, or it's a four hour one that you don't have time for [inaudible 00:18:03] your boss' office. Again, our food system is hugely complicated at the same time very consolidated. There is some many after effects to everything going from land use to emissions, to energy use, to antibiotics, to water runoff in the Gulf of Mexico, etc.

Quinn: What I want to focus on here today are, let's start with, and again, do what we can today. What are the changes America needs to make to build a more sustainable and healthy food system? What I want to work towards again is action steps that people can take on two fronts which is personally and also with their vote, seeing it is again the most important [year 00:18:44] of our lives. Here's one to start with and we'll go from here. What investments are we already making or can we make to systematically boost things like regenerative agriculture, and to branch out from all this corn and soy and wheat so that we're growing more nutrient dense and at the same time delicious foods? That says nothing of making them affordable, which is again another conversation and a massive problem, but are there things already being done? Are they being beaten down by lobbying? What can we do there? What is being done?

Emily Cassidy: One of the, and I used to work at a non-profit in Washington lobbying for sustainable agriculture policies. One of the biggest pieces of legislation that's very daunting but gets argued over a few years is called the Farm Bill. In that Farm Bill, we basically decide how much money to dedicate to conservation. There are a number of different conservation titles within the Farm Bill that tries to incentivize farmers to do the right thing. For example, planting buffer strips along waterways. If you are a farmer who is close to a river or stream, some economic incentives would be to get a lot of yield and just plant right up until the stream basically and some farmers have done that. There are provisions that pay farmers to plant buffer strips so they're basically just grass strips that prevent a lot of the fertilizer and agrochemicals from getting into waterways.

Quinn: Which again is such a ... there's a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi river runoff, it's shocking.

Emily Cassidy: Yeah. Agriculture is the number one cause of water pollution in the US. Nitrates are bad for us. Some studies show that they're ... contributes to certain kinds of cancers. We do have, the EPA sets a limit for the amount of nitrates that are allowed in the waterways but sometimes we don't full understand how small amounts of chemicals that we ingest every single day will have an impact on us. Nitrates get in waterways, pesticides get in waterways. It's bad for human health and it's also bad for diversity.

Quinn: You sure the EPA still has limits on that? Have you checked the website today to be sure?

Emily Cassidy: Good question. I'm pretty sure they have. They haven't stripped the Clean Water Act yet.

Quinn: Right. They'll get there. The Farm Bill obviously has a long complicated history, is there anything constructive being done or being lobbied for to start to make a difference to, again, diversify into more nutrient-dense and I guess subsequently delicious foods?

Emily Cassidy: Yeah, definitely. It's been a while since I've been right in the heart of the lobbying. Lobbying's fair but there are legislators proposing saner Farm Bills and making sure that we continue to invest in conservation and pay farmers for the right things. Also, sometime we have this ... a lot of the ways that farmers get paid nowadays is through cop insurance too.

Quinn: Can you explain that?

Emily Cassidy: A little bit. It's complicated. For example, if you were to plant a field of corn early in the spring and it got flooded, basically, there's a provision within the Farm Bill that provides you money if you don't get the yield that you expect to get especially if you got flooded or there were extreme weather events to destroy your crops. A lot of farmers have crop insurance especially for the major grains. There's a lot of money being funneled through that but unfortunately it also means that farmers now are more likely to plant in places  that could be seasonally flooded like plant in what used to be a wetland because they know that they would get a payout if it were to flood.

Quinn: By the way, just in the news recently and this has come up a bunch, and obviously many farms are not necessarily coastal. When most people think of climate change flooding, they think of Miami and New York and New Orleans. There's a report that said that flooding and heavy rains have risen 50% worldwide in the past decade. Everything is getting wetter. One of the side effects to that is obviously hopefully none of these either small or medium size farms would need larger industrial once, are located near these. There's an article in the New York Times saying that in flood prone areas in every American state there are more than 2500 sites that handle toxic chemicals and about over half of those are located in areas now in high-risk flooding. Again, it seems like this is only going to get worse.

Emily Cassidy: Yeah, with climate change, we can expert more extreme weather events. Yeah, that's one of the biggest things that we have to be mindful about when we talk about a changing climate is that a few degrees here and there you might not think is a big deal but when it comes to food production, it's a huge deal. Just half a degree of warming can really throw off schedules for the farmers and all the weather patterns that they're used to and can really take the huge hit on the food production levels that we're used to. That's a big issue.

Quinn: Again, I always try to dial this back to kindergarten level mostly because of me and sometimes because of Brian but he's not here so that's his fault. Again, for our listeners, I do feel like it's gotten so much better in the past 10-15 years with like Michael Bolen-type books and these documentaries but again such a small minority people watched those and understand them. Can you explain to folks, against, just a quick primer on actually what crops are grown where and maybe if you can why? I know we talk ... again, I'm trying to focus on more nutrient-dense foods and a lot of those are grown in the Central Valley in California, but maybe why there where corn and soy or other places. Can you just give us a primer so people can have a picture in their mind of what's coming where and what's going to be affected?

Emily Cassidy: We grow a lot of fruits, vegetables and nuts in California because it's a Mediterranean climate. There' a lot of extremes in terms of hot and cold. Also you think-

Quinn: For now.

Emily Cassidy: Yeah, that's true. You can grow crops that would be otherwise very sensitive to extreme heat and extreme cold. That's a big reason why we grow a lot of our fruits and vegetables in California. In the Midwest, we grow a lot of corn and soy because it's profitable and it's also, to a certain extent, what we demand of the food system. We eat a lot of meat and dairy and requires a lot of grains, we grow a lot of corn and soy in the Midwest, and some wheat too in North and South Dakota. These are commodity crops that we've been growing for many years and we've read them to have the highest yields and yields continue to increase year after year and they're cheap to make. You can mechanize them so that a farmer can tackle hundreds of acres  by himself, his or herself I guess. It's a very profitable business and we spent a lot of time and money on these crops.

Quinn: We also subsidize the hell out of them. I think I saw since 1995 and I'm well aware that half the people listening weren't alive in 1995, but we spent something like $85 billion of taxpayer money on corn subsidies since 1995. Like you said, it's a system that's what we've got to do to feed these animals even if that's not what they're naturally eating, but there has to be a break in the chain somewhere.

Emily Cassidy: I think that's where individual actions are important because we eat a lot of meat and dairy in the US, probably get about twice as much protein on average as we actually need in our diets to be healthy. I also realize like food is a very personal thing. I grew up, in my family, it was always like meat is healthy, you have to eat meat to be healthy, and drink your milk, etc.

Quinn: True, everybody did. You are from the Midwest, correct?

Emily Cassidy: Minnesota.

Quinn: Probably even more so.

Emily Cassidy: Yeah. I think it's tough to change actions radically but I also think that small changes can be really beneficial. As I mentioned like the efficiencies of meat production really differ and just switching from beef to chicken can save a lot of resources and prevent a lot of methane emissions from going to the atmosphere. Those small shifts can really have a big difference.

Quinn: Sure. I saw [inaudible 00:28:47], there's a billion of these things and who knows how many of them are actually carrying any water, and most of them are not useful. There's one of those statistics that said like, "Consuming four ounces of meat is the same as driving six miles basically in a non-electric vehicles." You just add that up essentially. Going back again to the actual farming before we move away from that towards, I guess, more consumption, we have so many monocrops. Are in danger of any food blights due to the lack of diversity and otherwise being complete deepshits about this stuff?

Emily Cassidy: In danger of blights ... we do have a lot of monocultures. What we're seeing right now is that ... we've genetically engineered a lot of our corn and soy to withstand being sprayed with roundup. Roundup contains a chemical called glyphosate. We have engineered crops to withstand glyphosate. What we're finding especially in the south in Missouri and other places is that, the weed killer doesn't work anymore and farmers are looking integrate more different herbicides into their mix.

Emily Cassidy: What big companies do partly in response to farmers saying like, "Hey, roundup doesn't work anymore", but also partly because they're constantly trying new product is they engineer new seeds to withstand being sprayed with multiple of herbicides and then they sell those seeds to farmers. Unfortunately, what happened in the last couple of years is that Monsanto introduced a new seed that's able to be sprayed with dicamba, which is an older herbicide and glyphosate in combination but they sold it to farmers before the herbicide mixture itself was approved by the EPA.

Quinn: Good.

Emily Cassidy: What happened was, farmers that were having trouble with resistant weeds and were taking hits to their yields, they planted this new seed and they started spraying older versions of dicamba on their crops, which ended up damaging neighboring soybean fields that had not adopted the new Monsanto seed. This has led to all kinds of lawsuits and state governments especially getting involved to decide whether or not they want to ban certain herbicides that haven't been approved or if they want to ban them during a certain growing period so that if you have a neighbor who's spraying with herbicide, that the farmer next to you isn't being hurt by that.

Emily Cassidy: I think that what we're finding is that we need a better way of managing pests that's not just like, "Oh, this chemical stopped working so let's add another chemical to the mix." It's like a chemical treadmill. What we need to do is think more about the system itself and how to stop weeds and pests from occurring in a way that's not just like dousing with more chemicals.

Quinn: From what I understand, and again, please do your best to just tell me I'm wrong and everything, that's how I live my life. From what I understand, the past 20 years, pesticide use is way down and herbicide use is way up because we're using so many more genetically-engineered crops. Correct?

Emily Cassidy: Yes. Pesticides is down because we engineered corn to have a protein called BT. When worms and other pests eat that, they die. We no longer have to spray that chemical on the crop itself. It's within the crops.

Quinn: The corn literally has its own octopus spray ink defense mechanism at this point?

Emily Cassidy: Uh hum. Well, no, it's just a chemical but that's within the crop itself.

Quinn: That's incredible. Look, I'm going to stick with the octopus analogy, okay? Birds and porcupine or fuckin' something. That's interesting. Again, I want to get to consumption a little bit and things people can do but this whole thing is so interesting to me. Again, coming back to diversity and nutrient-dense stuff because we do need to make our people healthier which I know is the consumption thing I said we're just going to get to, but we can't do this everywhere. Obviously, they're a much more focused country. I'm sure you're aware of what the Netherlands has been doing with this incredible greenhouse push over the past few years, right?

Emily Cassidy: Yeah, a little bit.

Quinn: It's pretty stunning. You can look up the pictures and anybody can see if you Google image "Netherlands greenhouses", it's incredible. They're growing just massive amounts of efficiently grown nutritious food. I don't know enough about it. I need to dig in. I want to find the right person to have on who's actually working on these things to talk about. Can we do something like that in these areas where today we've only been able to grow, putting aside the subsidies and desires, we've only been able to grow corn and wheat and soy and things? Can we spread our application and distribution production of more nutrient-dense foods more across this nation where already so much of the land is dedicated to food production?

Emily Cassidy: I think people get really excited when they hear about new technologies solving big complex problems. I certainly do most of the time. I think that when it comes to greenhouses and indoor farming, we have to recognize that the best source of energy that we have is the sun. If you have to replicate the sun like indoors with lamps, then that's going to be way more inefficient than if you were to just use the sun.

Quinn: There's got to be a middle ground somewhere because, like you said, in the Midwest, there's not a lot of sun for a part of the year.

Emily Cassidy: Yeah.

Quinn: Not even the kind we need to grow strawberries and broccoli and things?

Emily Cassidy: Yeah. It's also the temperature too because you have a longer growing season in California than you do in the Midwest. You can grow grapes earlier on than you would be able to grow in Minnesota because it's still winter there even in April. That's a majority of the reason why why we're not able to grow those things in the Midwest. Yeah, I do think that local food is exciting though especially if you get folks interested in where the food comes from and how do you grow it, and growing healthy fruits and vegetables and leafy greens and stuff. I think that that's really great, but I also want to recognize that growing it indoors might take a lot of resources too.

Quinn: Sure. Absolutely. We're just, obviously, the sun's there. Come on, for so many things. We've not necessarily saying, "Fuck it whatever gets it done around here but we've tried" found ourselves being nudged towards the whatever ... not whatever but embracing more of the whatever the means are that get get us to the end of some of these things and they're finding that, yes, obviously the Netherland solution doesn't translate directly here, otherwise more countries would have adopted it immediately. They figured something out. Where is the middle ground where maybe we lose some perfect efficiency like you said from the sun to being able to use some of this land and some of this area to grow a better variety of things both for the land and for the people?

Emily Cassidy: One of the ways that we could do it is not just grow the same thing year after year after year. One of the things that farmers can do to actually help pest management as well as improve soil quality is by rotating different crops through like oats and corn and soy. Unfortunately, one of the things that we've seen with the corn ethanol mandate is that a lot of farmers in the Midwest switched from a corn-soy rotation, which was good for the soil because soybeans are legumes and they are able to bring nitrogen from the air and put it in the soil. When you have that corn-soy rotation, you don't have to use as much fertilizer which is good but the corn-ethanol mandate basically incentivized farmers to grow corn after corn after corn and so that would lead to more fertilizer being used.

Emily Cassidy: I think crop rotations is a great way for us to do that. I think one of the things like eating less meat does not necessarily mean that we replace that meat with a lot of iceberg lettuce. You don't have to be eating that all day to get the kind of nutrients that you need for a balanced diet. We would substitute those things with oats and lentils and corn and soy and these kinds of things we can grow in the Midwest. I think that instead of thinking, "Well, how are we going to grow more tomatoes and lettuce in the Midwest? It's more like we could grow similar things that are growing in the Midwest today but direct more of it towards food."

Quinn: Sure. Let's come back to steps people can take. I think we're hopefully painting a good picture for folks. Let's talk a little bit about animals. We had an awesome conversation with the wonderful doctors, ian Elizabeth johnson. She loves when I mention that Outside magazine said she's the most influential biologist of our time.

Emily Cassidy: Yeah, she's great.

Quinn: She's amazing, so smart, and was just named one [inaudible 00:39:20] 50 Basically Most Impactful Humans, which is like a decent list beyond.

Emily Cassidy: Definitely.

Quinn: She definitely gave us a firm education on at least how the oceans contribution to the food system works and very bluntly told us what we're allowed to eat, answer, "Not much", and what's bad, short answer is shrimp in a lot of horrifying ways. There's a lot of crazy vegans, and PS, I'm semi-part of them. I'm a pescatarian for about the past eight years or so. I used to love a good burger but no more. But we can't just say, "Ugh! Stop eating meat." That's not really the most efficient thing. We do need to eat less meat. I'm really curious about finding the right action moves and messaging to help our listeners start to take actions on that. I know it's complicated anywhere from live grown meat to these plant-based meats to grassfed to local. How can we get Americans to eat less meat?

Emily Cassidy: Yeah, I'm curious about the right messaging that will work for people too because it's something that I've been thinking about for the last five years or so. I do think it's hard to try to meet people where they're at in a sense because it's like-

Quinn: But so necessary.

Emily Cassidy: Yeah, I have conversations with my Minnesotan family about this a lot. They have occasionally switched from eating beef all the time to less beef and substituting that for chicken and pork, which is a good step in the right direction. I think that it's such a cultural thing not such a personal thing. I think that the more that we make it accessible and let people like it doesn't have to be all or nothing, it can be very gradual shifts. I'm reducetarian but mostly don't eat mammals myself. I eat some fish occasionally. I like the idea. There's a movement called the freeganism, which is basically you're vegan except when it's free.

Quinn: Yeah, I definitely heard of this. It's very creepy.

Emily Cassidy: It's weird. I will eat chicken occasionally. I think that making it accessible, making it not scary, just trying to incorporate more plants in our diets is not just good for our health, it's good for the planet too. That's how I like to think about it. It's just making it easy and accessible.

Quinn: Sure. Again, as with most things here. I'm not a nutritionist or a doctor anyway, your mileage may vary. I felt so much better when I made a switch to mostly plants, and certainly when I cut out dairy which I know is now the controversial one. Now it's not a choice for anymore. My body is just like, "Nope, sorry pal, can't go back." Like you said, we have to meet people where they are. For a lot of our listeners, they can afford mostly fruits and vegetables. A lot of America cannot which is again, another discussion, which is incredibly frustrating.

Quinn: However you're trying to do it or thinking about doing it, or you've been thinking about it for awhile, again, it does make such an impact on two fronts for your body and for the environment. It's a lot of what we come back to. Look at the over-all impact that a lot of this meat-eating and industrialize farming has on the environment in so many ways even if you just want to dial it down to emissions. Again, 8% of US emissions, it's a shocking amount. Have you tried any of these new meats, the new burgers? There's impossible burger, there's beyond burger.

Emily Cassidy: Yeah, I've tried both of those.

Quinn: I enjoy them. They're not perfect.

Emily Cassidy: No.

Quinn: But it's like version one.

Emily Cassidy: Definitely. The Cal Academy has, we serve impossible burgers on Thursday nights as part of our nightlife thing too just like ... which is a great time. It's 21+ after hours event at the museum every Thursday night. I really like it.

Quinn: It's amazing. I go to bed at 9:00, is that going to be an issue.

Emily Cassidy: You can come right at 6:00. It starts at 6:00.

Quinn: That's perfect for me. That's great.

Emily Cassidy: I really enjoy these meat substitutes as someone who still eats meat occasionally myself. I think that they're going a long way. I think one of the things that's great about the meat substitutes is you can bring something to a barbecue and not feel weird about it. Because I think that that's one of the hardest things as a vegetarian or a pescatarian is going to an event where you know there's going to be lots of meat and how do you navigate that.

Quinn: Just don't be an asshole about like, "Ugh! There's nothing for me to eat here." Cook something, bring it, don't be a dick.

Emily Cassidy: Definitely.

Quinn: There's also a lot of replacements coming along. This has probably been a little longer on the shelves for dairy replacements, started with almond milk which has enough issues in itself. Almond milk is basically like water with some almonds which is funny because almonds takes such a stupid amount of water to grow and are terrible for the environment as it is. There's a lot of other alternatives now. There's oat milk, there's pea milk. I'm, full disclosure, an investor in one of those. Peas are just about self-irrigating and actually have a lot more protein to them. It actually tastes delicious. Again, it seems like to meet people where they are, delicious almost has to be focus.

Emily Cassidy: Yeah, definitely.  I've thought about ... because I drink soy milk at home but I still eat cheese because-

Quinn: Cheese is amazing.

Emily Cassidy: I have not found a good vegan cheese replacement yet, granted I haven't looked very hard because once you try a vegan cheese and you don't like it, then you stop trying for a while.

Quinn: Yeah, because some of them are really bad. By the way, you can go and certainly in San Francisco and Los Angeles and New York to another extent. You can go to some of these restaurants. There's a place in Los Angeles called Café Gratitude. They make nut-based cheeses that are off the charts. The problem is that's not scalable in any capacity. You can't go by that. That cheese [kroger 00:46:06]. It's made for you stupid lentil burger and that's it.

Emily Cassidy: Right. Or your vegan Mac and Cheese.

Quinn: Right. That's great but how many people can a, geographically go there, b afford to do it, much less make it a part of their family's purchasing plan. Anyways, there are options and it does seem like they're coming along. It's such a massive market, the meat and dairy markets. Even if we just have to look at it from a capitalist point of view, some people will come along and say, "Well, shit, I want to take advantage of that."

Emily Cassidy: Yeah, I saw that Tyson Foods is investing in Memphis meats now which is one of those lab-grown.

Quinn: It seems like more and more people are doing that because, again, it's a huge market. It's like how with clean energy, you've seen a lot of these in the past couple of years, the bigger corporation, some of the biggest make the move, make the pivot to clean energy just because it's the best thing for the bottom line at this point with a lot of x deals. That's just what it's going to take. Hopefully that starts to expand.

Quinn: All right. We've talked about this a little bit. We're at about 50 minutes here. What are the personal level actions our listeners can being to take to affect not only their health but the overall food system. Let's talk about their health and their family's health first. Vegetables, what are the things that people should be eating that are available to them?

Emily Cassidy: That's a good question. I think we all need ... I'm not a doctor but I read literature and I used to ... I talk to nutritionists sometimes to get advice on how to communicate these things. We all need more fiber in our diets. Vegetables typically have more fiber in them and pulses too, so more beans, more nuts, more grains. I personally think that the way that we talk about, like a vegetarian diet an be messed up sometimes or like, beans and rice or beans and broccoli. To me, that just sounds like awful unless you put something delicious on it like guaco or-

Quinn: By the way, it can be awful.

Emily Cassidy: I really like making my own quesadilla or taco with beans and cheese, a guaco and all of the delicious things that go on it. I think you just have to think about like, "What do I like", and how do you incorporate more plants into that too. I think experimenting with new recipes, I really like make curry lentils, it's one of my favorite things because you can, it's delicious and you can make a big batch of it and save it for a week. Yeah, I think that people can just slightly tweak their diets and incorporate more plants less beef especially less processed red meats which we know are bad for our health and substitute those for nuts and grains. If you do like meat and you want to continue eating it, I just think less red meat is better for your health.

Quinn: Sure. We don't want to give people too much to have to think about when they're ordering something at a restaurant or ordering [postmates 00:49:24] or buying for their family or feeding their child. It's so hard ti think, "Am I supposed to eat this vegetable? Are we supposed to be growing this one? How am I affecting the thing?" It's so fuckin hard.

Emily Cassidy: It is.

Quinn: We'll try to build some list here of things that do not overlap but you can't just ... everybody can't. If you're just going to think about your diet, it really comes back to that great Michael Bolen quote which I think is, "Eat real food mostly plants", something like that. For all these diets that are out there, from paleo to whatever the hell, just don't eat a lot and eat real food, eat mostly plants and whole foods, and try to figure out and know where it comes from. It seems like that will make a difference across the board on all of these things we've talked about today.

Quinn: What about using their vote? Again, whether it's using your vote on a more federal level for you elected officials to effect something like the Farm Bill, or it's for your state legislatures because, again, so many of the food, the pieces of the food system are regional or state-based. What are the most productive ways, and again, we try to get specific. What are the most specific things people can be asking of their representatives?

Emily Cassidy: When it comes to food, I really do think that voting with our dollar is the most direct way to get change because it really sends a message to markets that you want more of this, less of that. I also think, the Farm Bill is complicated but a little bit of Googling in to who is doing what on that might be beneficial because there are some representatives who have introduced some common sense reforms to the Farm Bill that incentivizes more conservation and more paying farmers to do what's good.

Emily Cassidy: I also think there are things like, there is sometimes legislation that comes up that talks about, should we have common sense labeling on our foods so that we're now throwing a lot of stuff in our trash because we don't understand the different between best by or use by labels, things like that or big contributors to food waste.

Emily Cassidy: I do think USD organic has some pros and cons but I do think there are a lot of pros to organic agriculture because they have strict roles around animal welfare for example. They have to have access to the outdoors. You can't use, as you mentioned earlier in the program, antibiotics. They can't use unnecessary antibiotics on organic animals that are raised for organic meat and dairy. It incorporates more of that ... the pest management systems that I mentioned before which incentivize crop rotations, buffer strips, integrated pest management so that we're not just spraying a lot of synthetic chemical on it. Organic agriculture does still use pesticides but they have a list that they're allowed to use and most of that list is non-synthetic pesticides.

Emily Cassidy: I think there are lots of benefits to demanding food is grown a certain way. I think part of it is labeling but part of it is also making sure that we're talking representatives about what the Farm Bill and how to incentivize more environmental practices.

Quinn: Let's talk a little bit again an actionable things we can do for food waste because fuckin' everybody is guilty of it. Everybody is. Nobody wants to get food poisoning but we throw away such a tremendous amount of food. What are personal things that, actions people can take and obviously default is like just stop throwing food away, don't order more than you want, only buy the groceries your family is going to eat. Is there anything folks should be aware of as far as like you said, use by, sell by dates and things that could help educate them a little more and hopefully stop wasting so much in their own home?

Emily Cassidy: Yeah, on the best by dates, those dates don't tell you whether or not it's good or bad. They're actually just telling the grocer basically the best time to sell this is basically the use by and sell by that. After that time, they take it off the shelves. That's one thing to be aware of.

Emily Cassidy: Another thing is just, I think that it's ... you have to be careful because you don't want tot ell people to eat food past your intake. You definitely don't want people to get sick. I think that you can also just use your sense because when it comes to things like dairy, if it goes bad it smells bad. Eggs are often like last many weeks after their date. I think one of the things I was surprised to learn is you can freeze cheese and eggs and they will be good is you ... in the case of eggs, you have to put them right away but you can freeze eggs, which is crazy.

Quinn: Fascinating.

Emily Cassidy: There's a lot things that we can freeze and can. I think that that's how we used to do it back when we spent a lot of money on food. We used to care more about preserving it and making sure that we saved it. But now, that food is such a small part of our paycheck that essentially we can afford to throw away a lot of it.

Quinn: Right, which is a big part of the problem, sure.

Emily Cassidy: Yeah. There's a lot of resources that goes into that food and a lot of emissions associated with landfill waste. It's a major thing that we could do to reduce our impact on the environment is just be more wary of the food that we buy and how much of ti we're throwing away.

Quinn: I think there's a great, and I'm going to mingle this like most things I talk about, there's a great mantra, I think it's Japanese, which wouldn't surprise because of how long those folks tend to live on average in their calorie expectations. It's something like stop eating when you're 70% full, which seems so simple and almost to reductive. I think if we, almost if you apply that and you apply the Michael Bolen advice, over time, that should have an effect on what you're buying, what you're eating and how much your eating and finally how much you're wasting.

Emily Cassidy: Yeah, I think that that's really good advice that out brains don't ... our brains take a while to catch up with our stomach sometimes. If we eat less, we would be buying less and wasting less.

Quinn: Last thing is, and again, coming back to those labels I'm super curious on. Again, nobody drink rotten milk here. Just stop drinking milk. I felt one of the best things food wise that came out for as much as Michelle Obama fought for a lot of things that didn't happen or have been reversed or they'll attempt to reverse was getting added sugars added to the new nutritional label, which I think I know has actually started to rollout in quite a few places, is just so telling especially in the things that are marketed and sold to children. It's a fuckin' nightmare.

Quinn: I wonder, are there anymore specific things that people could be acting towards as far as these date goes or as far as these, whether sell by dates or use by dates or things. Again, just the ... I don't know. Make the nutritious food more available or make the other food more transparent. I'm not sure what the answer is there.

Emily Cassidy: I don't know about that. Added sugars are a huge problem. I think that it's good that we have new labels coming out that will specifically call that out because some juice contain sugar but some of that is just because fruit contains sugar.

Quinn: It's fruit, yeah.

Emily Cassidy: The added sugar is really telling because it's basically like how much corn syrup your food is doused in.

Quinn: Sure.

Emily Cassidy: I think that that's really great. I'm not sure about how else to incentivize that as a consumer.

Quinn: Yeah, I'm not sure. I guess, look, again, the new labels are rolling out especially if you're a parent. Just read food labels. They've become slightly easier to read certainly and that is called out on a lot of them. It's not required on every label yet but I know a lot of food are dated pro-actively and it's rolling across more. Just turn the bottle or the box around and just have a read of it and just think about what we're out children because if we're going to make the next generation less obese, it starts with us because my toddlers can't buy their own food yet, they don't have money.4

Quinn: I don't know. It feels like it'll make a difference. What is the rule? It's like every four grams of sugar is a teaspoon or a tablespoon? I'll get that right and put it in the show notes but just think about that when you look at like a small container of kids yogurt and see that it's got 20 grams sugar and realize that that's five teaspoons of sugar in that little thing. It's shocking. It's really shocking.

Quinn: This has been awesome. We're just going to cruise to our lightning round here if that's okay and try to finish it up. Thank you so much for all of your time here and all of your ... incredibly valuable and necessary education you've given me and everybody else here.

Emily Cassidy: No, thank you, Quinn, it's been good.

Quinn: These are the last few questions we ask everybody here. First one's a little more touchy feely. When was the first time in your life, Emily, when you realized you had the power of change or the power to do something meaningful?

Emily Cassidy: Wow. I think that might have been college actually when I started studying environmental science. I made the connection between my personal actions and what's happening in South America, Africa and Asia. I think that we like to think that we're detached from a lot of things but we're all very connected. I didn't know until college that food production had such a big impact on the environment. When I found that out, I was like, "Wow! How did I not know this?" It's like one of the things that I want to communicate to others and the best way that I can and the most empathetic way that I can that we can all make a change to the way that we consume and ultimately how we affect the planet.

Quinn: I love it, I love it. It's pretty revealing and hopefully gives folks [inaudible 01:01:17] to effect more, hopefully. Number two, how do you consume the news these days from that lovely little grassfilled and animal-filled office of yours on top of an aquarium?

Emily Cassidy: I actually manage a social media account for a new initiative we have here at the California Academy of Sciences. The initiative is called Planet Vision.

Quinn: Yeah, tell us about that real quick. I'm sorry we skipped all over that.

Emily Cassidy: No, that's fine. Planet Vision is basically a blue print for how individuals can change the way that we use and consume food, water and energy because food, water, and energy are ... how we use and consume those are the biggest drivers of habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, climate change, etc. instead of focusing on the problems, Planet Vision is focused on the solutions and all of the things that are going on right now that's driving us towards a more sustainable future and all of the things that individuals can do.

Emily Cassidy: We've put together an action guide of basically the 12 things. There's more than 12 but like the 12 main categories of things that you can do to reinvent food, water and energy systems. One of the biggest things that we talk about is reducing food waste but it's also like, how do you ... making you more aware of the fact that we waste a lot of water at home just from leaks. A lot of toilets leak and we waste 17 gallons a day from those leaks. Also, small things that you can do like changing your shower head, switching from incandescents to LEDs, can really have a big impact. I manage social media for Planet Vision. A lot of what I do is look over Twitter and Facebook looking for hopeful new stories which some days can be hard.

Emily Cassidy: Every day I find at least one hopeful new story about environmental solutions and how we can all work together. It's good to focus on the positive side.

Quinn: No, it is. We really try hard not to be doom and gloom here across all of our stuff, in the newsletter and the podcast, as much as we just spend an hour ranting about the broken food system and we're all going to die. There is so much awesome stuff happening out there. We are running behind the clock on climate change but there is some incredible advances being made and the Paris agreement is still working and there's a huge coalition of mayors and governors that have just said, "Fuck Trump. We'll do it ourself."

Emily Cassidy: Yeah. The California Academy of Science is also still in for climate action till we are committed to going zero emissions by 2025.

Quinn: It's amazing. There is stuff out there, and like you said, "We don't want to have rose-colored glasses about this stuff but it's important to see both because I think when people hear like, "We're doomed", they're not going to do anything. It's very hard to take action. But when you can focus on specific things and you hear of other successes, it does hopefully provoke even more action and hopefully at some point that just becomes momentum.

Emily Cassidy: Yeah, I think it's good to focus on the positive and be hopeful because there's a lot of momentum, there's a lot of new exciting innovations. If we work together, I really do think we can create a lot of change.

Quinn: Sure. On the topic of creating change in the face of extreme adversity, if you could Amazon Prime one book to Donald J. Trump, what would it be? Again, the biggest pushback I thought on this question is essentially he can't read, I'm like, "Yes, no I know", but imagine someone reading it to him. Anyways, that's the question.

Emily Cassidy: I think it might be, I don't know, "A Brief History of Nearly Everything". Is that the Bill Bryson book?

Quinn: That's a great one. Yeah, that's a great one.

Emily Cassidy: I don't know. I think that we all need a bit of humility in our lives. I think that's great book for putting us in our place as far as the universe and history goes.

Quinn: I think you're exactly right. I think somebody could really have their perspective altered a little bit by taking that down and taking down sapiens.

Emily Cassidy: Yeah, I started reading that recently. That's good.

Quinn: Right. It's just like, "Yeah, you're not the center of the universe, not even close. A lot's happened and a lot more is going to happen. We're all just trying to play a productive part here. All right, Emily, it's been amazing. Where can our listeners follow you online and all of your many projects>

Emily Cassidy: Sure. Planet Vision is a great way to follow what we're up to. We have a website which I We're also on Facebook and Twitter too.

Quinn: Awesome. Is that all at Planet Vision?

Emily Cassidy: Uh hum.

Quinn: Rock and roll. Thank you so much fro your time. I really appreciated it. Wherever Brian is, stuck in traffic, I'm sure he appreciates it too. I know our listeners will because as much as some of the stuff we talk about here can seem or is a little more existential, again, we really do try to dial it down to things people can do today.

Emily Cassidy: Yeah. I hope that I provided enough of that information for listeners.

Quinn: You did. You're amazing. I do think we have the opportunity to do a deeper dive on some of these things down the line so we should think about that.

Emily Cassidy: Yeah, that would be great. I really like your podcast. I've listened several episodes now. I think it's great especially the beginning parts which are always hilarious.

Quinn: Well, that's very kind of you. Those are hours or your life you're never going to get back to be clear but we do appreciate it, it keeps the lights on. Awesome. All right, Emily. Thanks for everything you do. Keep kicking ass out there, get out of that office and out everything back the way you found it. We will talk to you soon.

Emily Cassidy: Okay, thanks Quinn.

Quinn: Thanks to our incredible guest today. Thanks to all of you for tuning in. We hope this episode has made your commute or awesome workout or dishwashing or fuckin' dog-walking late at night that much more pleasant. As a reminder, please subscribe to our free email newsletter at It is all the news most vital to our survival as a species. You can follow us all over the internet. You can find us on Twitter @ImportantNotImp. So weird.

Quinn: Also on Facebook and Instagram, @ImportantNotImportant. Pinterest and Tumblr, the same thing so check us out, follow us, share us, like us, you know the deal. Please subscribe to our show wherever you listen to things like this. If you're really fuckin' awesome, rate us on Apple Podcast. Keep the lights on, thanks. Please.

Quinn: You can find the show notes from today right in your little podcast player and at our website, Thanks to the very awesome Tim Blane for our jammin' music, to all of you for listening, and finally, most importantly, to our moms for making us safe. Have a great day. Thanks guys.

Learn how to feel better and unfuck the world.

You have successfully subscribed!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.