Want an effective way to change the world for the better? Start with what’s on your fork. Especially as food policy measures face political uncertainty, eating plant-focused meals that are produced with care is a tangible way to nudge the food system in a healthier direction. As many chefs and shoppers curb their reliance on meat to cut back on water use and greenhouse gas emissions, chowing down on more whole grains can go even further. These water-efficient crops pack major nutritional punch with minimal resource input. By choosing whole grains, you take one step toward an environmentally friendly diet, and you also help grain farmers become stewards of the land.


The importance of whole grains to a healthy food system was explored at length in Chef Dan Barber’s momentous book on sustainable food, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food. With vivid detail, Barber chronicles his conversations with Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens, sustainable grain farmers and millers in Penn Yan, New York, who are passionate about the importance of grains to soil health:

“We encouraged farmers to improve their soil by creating a market for those grains that added fertility,” Klaas said. “We paid—really paid—for so-called ‘other’ grains—like triticale, oats, and barley—because we knew these played a critical role in maintaining the health of the soil. Without a buyer, farmers can’t justify planting them into the rotations. Without planting them into the rotation, sooner or later soil fertility declines.”


Chef Barber goes on to explain how it is up to chefs and consumers to help provide a market for these soil healthy crops, by making a variety of whole grains a central part of their diets:

“At least some blame falls to chefs and restauranteurs like me. Because those rotations of wheat, millet, flax, soy, buckwheat, rye, and dozens of other grains and legumes—the things that give soil its fertility, and give us the best-tasting food—are largely grown for animal feed. They could be grown for our menus instead, and in the process provide much greater profit for the farmer… More than incorporate, I needed to make them as essential to my menu as they were to Klaas’s rotations.” 


Grains are the backbone of sustainable diets, offering substance, satiety, essential nutrients, and a comforting flavor. Perhaps more importantly, a rotation of diverse grain crops also helps nurture soil health. To illustrate this point, the Oldways Whole Grains Council created a new infographic about whole grains and sustainability. We broke it into three parts in this blog, but in its whole form  it prints neatly on a page and includes references on the back (click here for printable infographic, with references), making it the perfect size for handouts. Grain-based meals, such as farro risotto, millet stir-fry, and wheat berry salads, are the perfect place to shifting to a sustainable diet. For more inspiration, check out our selection of Whole Grains Council recipes.

Kelly Toups, RDN, LDN, Whole Grains Council program director

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