The Omega Institute's Laura Weiland on Sustainable Living and Regenerative Agriculture

Caption Photograph by Assassi Productions

The Omega Center for Sustainable Living was the first green building in the United States to achieve both LEED® Platinum and Living Building Challenge™ certification.

Meet Laura Weiland. She serves as director of the Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL), an environmental education facility at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, which teaches regenerative design. Laura is also the creator of Omega's Ecological Literacy Immersion Program. Her education, training and experience are diverse - including farming, permaculture, regenerative frameworks, biology, eco-social design and a master's degree in sustainable development with a focus in community development. Read on to learn what Laura sees as some of the most important food-related issues facing our society, what sustainable choices she recommends and what Omega and OCSL are all about.

Please tell us about the Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL) and the role it plays to ensure a regenerative future.

At the Omega Institute, we have been working for 40 years to provide hope and healing for individuals and society. At the heart of that work has always been the development and evolution of our thinking and our consciousness.

The OCSL opened its doors in 2009 when Omega's natural waste water reclamation plant, our EcoMachineTM, came online. I think of our sustainability center as one of the ways Omega fulfills that mission of hope and healing with a focus on issues like climate change, regenerative agriculture, natural water reclamation and more.

The Omega Center for Sustainable Living Eco Machine™ cleans and reclaims all of Omega Institute's campus wastewater using zero chemicals and net zero energy, by mimicking the processes of the natural world.The Omega Center for Sustainable Living Eco Machine™. Photograph Courtesy of the Omega Institute.

Whether we're speaking to the environment, education or aspects of sustainable living, the OCSL works to build capacity for a new way of thinking and seeing the world. As Einstein said, we cannot solve our problems using the same thinking that created them.

We address this by creating educational experiences that allow people to see the world in terms of whole, interdependent living systems.

You could probably solve all of the world's problems by looking through the lens of food and agriculture.

For example, our four-week, residential Ecological Literacy Immersion Program offers a whole-system, place-based approach to problem solving that considers the connections between society, nature and individuals. This is achieved through lectures, discussion, experiential intensives, hands-on projects, field trips, community experience and personal reflection.

Our annual conference this year, Being Fearless: Action in a Time of Disruption, will convene the leading minds in media, activism and contemplative wisdom. The goal is to empower participants with the skills we all need to engage one another across the difference and divide.

That is what Omega and the OCSL are about - using a holistic way of seeing the world to catalyze individual and collective change.

How did you get involved in the OCSL?

In 2010 I had just phased myself out of a job that I had been doing for several years, and I needed to take a breath. I came to Omega to volunteer in the seasonal staff program figuring I would be here for just a few months.

The OCSL building had been opened only recently and was about to become the first in the nation to earn both Living Building Challenge and LEED Platinum status.

That is when I understood what Omega was doing and how it lined up with so many things I cared about and had been working toward.

Laura WeilandLaura Weiland. Photograph Courtesy of Assassi Productions.

What do you see as the most important issues facing our society when it comes to food?

You could probably solve all of the world's problems by looking through the lens of food and agriculture.

Our most established forms of agriculture are destructive. They exacerbate climate change. And they impact human health.

We need to completely rethink how we produce and choose what we eat, from eating less meat and protecting and replenishing our soils, to dealing with pests and improving the nutrient quality of what we grow.

One recent example of how so many of the challenges and solutions are interconnected comes from Paul Hawken, who will be joining us at the Being Fearless conference this fall. He convened a diverse group of researchers in an effort called Project Drawdown to map everything that humanity is capable of doing in terms of climate change solutions - and an important part of that focuses on agriculture.

The resulting book ranks 100 achievable solutions to global warming and is described as the most comprehensive plan ever proposed.

Among the solutions is carbon farming, a way of growing food while sequestering carbon in the soil.

Climate change is a major focus right now for a variety of reasons. How would you characterize the challenge that climate change poses to agriculture?

We have already put so much carbon into the atmosphere that even if we stopped all emissions today, we would continue to experience increasingly severe effects for decades, if not centuries.

So in addition to drastically reducing emissions, we need to sequester a significant quantity of carbon as part of the solution. We cannot solve the problem through emission reductions alone.

The challenge is coming together and making it happen - because it's not just a technical issue, but a social and political one as well.

Again, agriculture is a critical vector for change.

We need to find ways to support farmers willing to adopt more sustainable techniques, such as agroforestry, in which trees and shrubs are purposefully introduced and cultivated within crop and animal farming to create environmental, economic and social benefits.

Laura Weiland and ELIP students separating seeds by hand at the Hudson Valley Seed Library. During the 4-week residential permaculture certificate program students learn about regenerative design, permaculture, soil health, energy and water usage, carbon footprinting, and more.Laura Weiland and ELIP students separating seeds by hand at the Hudson Valley Seed Library. During the 4-week residential permaculture certificate program students learn about regenerative design, permaculture, soil health, energy and water usage, carbon footprinting, and more. Photograph Courtesy of the Omega Institute.

Many farmers are not going to be able to adopt practices like these on their own. They will need funding and other support to move away from old techniques they know and feel confident using.

Climate change will continue to bring many other challenges for farmers due to increasingly severe drought, storms and flooding.

What should we keep in mind about our individual relationship to the food system and our role in making it more sustainable?

We must be mindful not only of where our food comes from, but how much we take home.

The USDA estimates that between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply in the United States is thrown away.

That's a problem in terms of the space taken up in landfills, and also because it exacerbates global warming and climate change due to the production of methane gas.

We must also consider the amount of energy wasted in the production, packaging and transport of food before it reaches the shopping cart.

Fortunately, the solution is simple. Buy what you need, no more.

What are some specific smarter/sustainable choices people can make when it comes to their food?

Don't let organic material end up in a landfill. Yard trimmings and food scraps from cooking prep, as well as uneaten food, should be composted.

There are lots of different ways to do that, from a worm bin in your apartment to a compost pile or tumbler in your backyard.

You could also join some enterprising entrepreneurs who have started companies to collect other people's organic waste in urban settings where composting can be a challenge.

What do you find to be your biggest source of inspiration from day to day?

My inspiration comes from the fact that we are poised to enable sweeping change with and on behalf of young people and future generations.

While the problems may seem insurmountable at times, efforts such as Project Drawdown reveal how solutions are already emerging. They are starting to scale. Now, it's just a matter of getting all of us involved.

And because many of the large issues we face are interconnected, when you address one issue, the ripple effects can help address other issues.

When that happens, you lift all boats at the same time.

Tell us a little about your upbringing. Any particular food-related memories that stand out?

I attended a Waldorf school from kindergarten through eighth grade.

Beginning in the third grade and through the seventh grade, our class would travel to the Hawthorne Valley Farm and stay there for a week.

It had a tremendous impact. My sister and I always said we wanted to grow up to be farmers - and in 2002 we did end up farming together.

In one way or another, everything I do always seems to come back to agriculture and education.

Do you have a favorite food?

Since the completion of the OCSL building, we've slowly begun reclaiming the worksite. For a while, nothing wanted to grow on the compact fill that was used around the center.

After several years of loosening and building soil, we've now established a forest garden demonstration area with many edible and useful perennial plants. 

We've got a peach tree, pears, pawpaws, blue berries, strawberries, currents, jostaberries, raspberries, perennial kale and onions, herbs and more!

My favorites by far are the gooseberries, which I had never tried before we planted them.

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