Industrial agriculture is one of the most unsustainable practices of modern civilization. The “bigger is better” food system has reached a point where its real costs have become readily apparent. Like water running down an open drain, the earth's natural resources are disappearing quickly, as industrialized farming drives air pollution, water pollution, deforestation, rising carbon emissions and the depletion, erosion and poisoning of soils. The long-term answer, however, lies in the transition to sustainable, regenerative, chemical-free farming practices, not in the creation of food manufacturing techniques that replace farms with chemistry labs, which is the "environmentally friendly" alternative envisioned by biotech startups and its chemists. Mercola.com, July 18, 2018
As a campaigner for organic and regenerative food, and a critic of fast food, GMOs and factory farms for 40-plus years, I am alarmed and disgusted by the degenerate state of food and farming in the United States. The collective actions of some misguided farmers, together with ignorant and corrupt public officials, greedy investors and food corporations, and mindless consumers are destroying personal and public health, and the health of the environment, including climate stability. What amounts to our “Fast Food Nation,” through everyday food production practices and food choices, is rapidly degrading our planet’s life-support systems.
Whether we’re talking about our food-related public health emergency or the fact that our chemical- and fossil fuel-intensive industrial agriculture system is belching out 43 percent - 57 percent of the greenhouse gas pollution that has dangerously destabilized our climate, corporate America’s trillion-dollar, taxpayer-subsidized system of industrial food and farming, represented most graphically by factory farms and feedlots, is killing us. Big Food Inc. has built its empire of chemical farmers, food processors and marketers by adopting a financial strategy predicated on the theory that maximizing short-term profits trumps all other considerations (health, economic justice, animal welfare, environment and climate stability), and by promoting the idea that convenient, cheap, artificially flavored fast food and commodities represent the pinnacle of modern agricultural production and consumption.
It’s time to disrupt and take down our suicide economy and our degenerate agricultural and food system. A good starting point is to join the growing consumer movement to boycott all meat, dairy and poultry products produced by the industrial factory farm system—not just at the grocery store, but also in restaurants. And not just occasionally, but every day.
Factory farms inhumanely confine, feed and drug 50 billion of the 70 billion farm animals on the planet. These animals are turned into meat which is supplied to fast-food chains like McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King, and to national and regional supermarket chains. The methods used to produce this cheap, artery-clogging meat and dairy are destroying our environment, climate and health. Combined, CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and the GMO soybean and corn farms that supply them are the No. 1 source of water pollution in the U.S., as well as a major source of air pollution. Monsanto/Bayer’s GMO crops grown for CAFO animal feed are the No. 1 destroyer of grasslands and forest in the Amazon basin and other areas.
U.S. and international factory farm meat and dairy operations are also major drivers of global warming and climate change. They spew out massive amounts of CO2, methane and nitrous oxide emissions into the atmosphere from giant feedlots, hog and chicken complexes, manure lagoons and the chemical-intensive, GMO grain farms, heavily subsidized with taxpayer dollars, that supply “CAFO Nation” with millions of tons of animal feed every year.
Besides degenerating the environment and destabilizing the climate, CAFOs are also primary drivers of our deteriorating public health. Filthy, inhumane, polluting, greenhouse gas-belching factory farms mass produce approximately 90 percent - 95 percent of the meat and animal products consumed in America today. The average U.S. carnivore now supersizes and toxifies himself with approximately 200 pounds of CAFO meat a year, loaded with bad fats (low in omega 3 and other key nutrients) and laced with antibiotic, pesticide and hormone residues that substantially increase a person’s chances of getting cancer, suffering from obesity, dying from an antibiotic-resistant infection, developing Alzheimer’s or having a heart attack.
Approximately 75 percent of all the antibiotics in the U.S. today are dumped into factory farm animal feed and water to keep the animals alive under the hellish conditions of intensive confinement, and to force the animals to gain more weight. This massive, reckless and often illegal use of antibiotics on factory farms (along with routine over-prescribing of antibiotics by doctors) has begun to spread deadly antibiotic-resistant pathogens into our food. About 23,000 Americans (and 700,000 people worldwide) die each year from antibiotic-resistant infections. Based on a study commissioned by the UK government, by 2050, multiple drug-resistant infections are projected kill 10 million people a year—more than currently die from cancer—unless significant action is taken.
False solution No. 1: fake meat
Although I share the same disgust and hatred of factory farms and CAFO meat as my vegan and vegetarian brothers and sisters, I am nonetheless disturbed to see a growing number of vegan activists, Silicon Valley tycoons, genetic engineering cheerleaders and even some well-meaning climate activists coming together to promote fake meat products, such as the “Impossible Burger,” as a healthy and climate-friendly alternative to beef. Even worse are the growing number of vegans, climate activists and high-tech/GMO enthusiasts who claim that abolishing livestock and animal husbandry altogether will solve our health, environmental and climate crises.
The “Impossible Burger,” made from a highly-processed mix of soy, wheat, coconut oil, potatoes and genetically engineered yeast, is Wall Street’s latest darling and a heavily-hyped menu item in many vegan restaurants. As the Mercola newsletter points out:
The Impossible Burger resembles meat "right down to the taste and beeflike 'blood,' The New York Times notes, and has become a hit in some circles. So far, the company has raised $257 million from investors, which include Bill Gates, Khosla Ventures, Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz's Open Philanthropy Project, Li Ka-shing (a Hong Kong billionaire) and Singapore's sovereign wealth fund, Temasek Holdings.“
Unfortunately, it appears that the “Impossible Burger” and other fake meat are neither healthy nor, in the case of the “Impossible Burger,” even proven safe.
According to Dr. Mercola, fake meat like the “Impossible Burger” is nutritionally inferior to real, non-CAFO meat such as 100% grass-fed beef, which “contains a complex mix of nutrients and cofactors that you cannot recreate by an assembly of individual components.”
“As a general rule, I believe man-made foods are vastly inferior to natural, whole foods and always will be. Outperforming nature is a tall order, and no one has succeeded yet. As such, I believe extreme caution is warranted. Apparently, so does the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as reported by the New York Times.”
While it’s true that millions of carnivores, especially in the U.S. are supersizing and poisoning themselves with two or three times as much CAFO meat, dairy and poultry as a natural health expert would recommend, a moderate amount of grass-fed or pastured meat and dairy (especially raw milk dairy products) are actually very good for your health. So if you want a healthy meal, skip the “Impossible Burger” and other fake meat and go for a 100% grass-fed beef, lamb or buffalo burger instead.
If you prefer to get your protein boost from seafood, skip the farmed fish and go for Wild Alaskan Salmon. If you’re determined to eat a veggie burger, skip the GMO yeast and fake blood and flavors and choose a healthy meat alternative such as an organic tempeh burger, made from fermented soybeans, or a bean burger, made from all natural, organic ingredients.
False solution No. 2: abolish livestock
Even more bizarre, elitist and uninformed is the recent trendy chorus calling for the elimination of the planet’s 70 billion livestock as a major solution to the climate crisis. These “no livestock” fundamentalists ignore the fact that over a billion people, especially in the developing world, rely on raising livestock for their food and survival. They do this on the billions of acres of pasture and rangeland that are simply not suitable for raising crops, but which can and do support properly grazed livestock.
Besides providing 37 percent of the world’s protein, animal husbandry and livestock today provide 33 percent – 55 percent of the household income for the world’s 640 million small farmers, 190 million pastoralists and one billion urban peasants, more than 50 percent of whom are low-income women.
Should we just tell these billion “backward” peasants to go into town and line up for their genetically engineered “Impossible Burgers” and forget about raising their cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, ducks and chickens like their ancestors have done for thousands of years?
The animals can save us
Perhaps the most fundamental reason we need to preserve and promote a regenerative system of animal husbandry across the planet on millions of farms and ranches is the little-known fact that properly grazing animals (as opposed to imprisoning animals in factory farms) is the key to sequestering excess carbon-dioxide from the atmosphere and storing this carbon in the world’s 4 billion acres of rangelands and pasturelands.
As world-renowned climate scientist Dr. James Hansen says:
“If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current levels to at most 350 ppm . . . ”
A growing corps of climate experts have warned us repeatedly that we must stop burning fossil fuels, eliminate destructive food, farming and land use practices, and drawdown enough carbon dioxide (CO2) from the Earth's atmosphere through regenerative farming/ranching and enhanced natural photosynthesis to return us to 350 parts-per-million (ppm), or better yet to pre-industrial levels of 280 ppm.
About half of the total human greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming today come from burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) for transportation, heating, cooling, electricity and manufacturing. The other half, unbeknown to most people, comes from degenerative food, farming and land-use practices.
These greenhouse gas-polluting, climate-destabilizing food, farming and land-use practices include the massive use of fossil fuels and synthetic, climate-destabilizing chemicals on the farm, including diesel fuel, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers.
They also include energy-intensive food processing, packaging, long-distance transportation of foods, the confinement of billions of methane-belching animals in factory farms, the dumping of rotting waste food and organic garbage into landfills instead of composting it, and the wasting of 30 percent – 50 percent of all the food we grow.
Compounding the problem are other related degenerate land-use practices, including clear-cutting forests, draining wetlands, degrading marine eco-systems, soil tilling and destroying grasslands. Practices like these degrade the natural ability of plants, pasture, rangeland, wetlands and trees to draw down enough CO2 from the atmosphere (via photosynthesis) to keep the soil, atmosphere, ocean, carbon and hydrological cycles in balance.
So how can we avert climate catastrophe and the collapse of human civilization? Regenerative food, farming and land use, especially grazing and pasturing animals properly on the world’s 8.3 billion acres of pasture and rangeland, is the key to ending CAFO (and GMO grain) emissions and drawing down enough CO2 to reverse global warming.
As Judith Schwartz explains in detail in her book, “Cows Save the Planet,” holistic rotational grazing, especially in pastures where perennial trees and plants are growing, is the key to averting climate catastrophe.
Photosynthesis is key
The most important thing about regenerative food, farming, ranching and land use is that these practices qualitatively increase plant photosynthesis. Deployed correctly, these practices have the potential to draw down all of the excess carbon (200-250 billion tons of carbon) in the atmosphere that is causing global warming.
In other words, if the levels of carbon sequestration now being put into practice by thousands of advanced regenerative farmers and ranchers can be scaled up globally, we can draw down enough excess carbon from the atmosphere to reverse global warming, and restore climate stability.
Through the miraculous process of photosynthesis, plants (including pasture grasses) have the ability to breathe in CO2 and transpire or release oxygen, simultaneously turning atmospheric CO2 into a form of “liquid carbon” that not only builds up the plant’s above-ground biomass (leaves, flowers, branches, trunk or stem), but also travels though the plant’s roots into the soil below. Exuded or released from the plant’s roots, this liquid carbon or sugar feeds the soil microorganisms in the rhizosphere, which is the soil food web that not only sustains all plant and animal life, including humans, but also regulates the balance between the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and the carbon in our soils.
Regenerative food and farming, coupled with 100% renewable energy, holds the potential, through qualitatively enhanced soil health and supercharged plant photosynthesis, to mitigate global warming, by drawing down several hundred billion tons of excess carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil. But it gets better. The combined transition to regenerative agriculture and renewable energy actually has the potential to reverse global warming while simultaneously restoring the environment, improving the nutritional quality of our food and regenerating the economic vitality of small farmers, herders, and rural communities.
Michael Pollan, perhaps America’s best-known food writer, explains how enhanced plant photosynthesis, as generated through healthy soils and forests and 100% grass-fed holistic grazing, is the key to drawing down excess carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in our soils in order to reverse global warming:
“Consider what happens when the sun shines on a grass plant rooted in the earth. Using that light as a catalyst, the plant takes atmospheric CO2, splits off and releases the oxygen, and synthesizes liquid carbon–sugars, basically. Some of these sugars go to feed and build the aerial portions of the plant we can see, but a large percentage of this liquid carbon—somewhere between 20 and 40 percent—travels underground, leaking out of the roots and into the soil. The roots are feeding these sugars to the soil microbes—the bacteria and fungi that inhabit the rhizosphere—in exchange for which those microbes provide various services to the plant: defense, trace minerals, access to nutrients the roots can’t reach on their own. That liquid carbon has now entered the microbial ecosystem, becoming the bodies of bacteria and fungi that will in turn be eaten by other microbes in the soil food web. Now, what had been atmospheric carbon (a problem) has become soil carbon, a solution—and not just to a single problem, but to a great many problems.
“Besides taking large amounts of carbon out of the air—tons of it per acre when grasslands are properly managed… that process at the same time adds to the land’s fertility and its capacity to hold water. Which means more and better food for us...
“This process of returning atmospheric carbon to the soil works even better when ruminants are added to the mix. Every time a calf or lamb shears a blade of grass, that plant, seeking to rebalance its “root-shoot ratio,” sheds some of its roots. These are then eaten by the worms, nematodes, and microbes—digested by the soil, in effect, and so added to its bank of carbon. This is how soil is created: from the bottom up."
After decades of working alongside vegans and animal rights activists in campaigns such as the McDonald’s Beyond Beef campaign (which I organized with Jeremy Rifkin and Howard Lyman in 1992-94), the campaign against Monsanto’s recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) from 1994 until the present, and most recently working with consumers and farmers in campaigns against GMOs, pesticides and factory farm dairy, poultry and beef, I believe the time is long overdue for everyone concerned about food, farming, health, climate and humane treatment of animals to connect the dots between our common concerns and build a powerful united front to take down factory farms and carry out a global Regeneration Revolution.
Breaking through the tunnel vision and self-righteous walls between our issue silos, (i.e. my issue is more important than your issue, and my solution is the only solution) and uniting to build a new “Beyond USDA Organic” system of regenerative food, farming and land use, we can bring down the factory farm and GMO Behemoth.
Working together, rather than rallying behind false solutions such as fake meat and abolishing livestock, we can popularize and scale up humane, healthy and climate-friendly solutions to our hydra-headed crisis. We can promote and implement real, positive, shovel-ready solutions rather than promoting simplistic and indeed destructive “silver bullets” such as genetically engineered fake meat and “pharm animals.” These false solutions not only fail to address the real roots of climate (and the health) crisis, but ultimately threaten the livelihoods of a billion small farmers and peasant women across the planet.
So forget about the “Impossible Burger” and other fake meats, and forget the elitist notion of getting rid of the world’s 70 billion livestock. We’re all in this together, and it’s going to take a regeneration of all living creatures—humans, wild animals, livestock, plants, trees and soil microorganisms—working in harmony to build a new world on the ruins of the old.
Given the horrors of factory farms and factory farm food, we need a global boycott of the multi-trillion-dollar CAFO industry.
More and more of us, conscious consumers and farmers, alarmed by the accelerating climate crisis and the degeneration of the environment, public health and politics are coming together under the banner of regenerative food, farming and land use, the most important new current in the food, farming and climate movement. Please join us today.
Ronnie Cummins is international director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), a nonprofit consumer advocacy and grassroots organization, and a member of the Regeneration International (RI) steering committee. Sign up for OCA’s newsletter here. Sign up for RI’s newsletter here.