This past summer, the media broadcast cries of alarm from farmers suffering through the worst drought in decades. Large swaths of genetically engineered and chemical-intensive crops literally burned in the fields. And what didn’t burn, was ravaged by disease and superweeds. What the mass media and most non-organic farmers and ranchers have yet to acknowledge is that at the root of the accelerating global warming that has disrupted the climate and the farm economy, with alternating periods of extreme drought and flooding, are the misguided and self-destructive practices of modern agriculture itself. Until America’s chemical-, energy- and GMO-dependent farmers and ranchers turn away from the industrial and factory farm system that has severely damaged public health and the environment, and supersaturated the atmosphere with 395 ppm (parts-per-million) of CO2 greenhouse gas pollution, climate and farming conditions will deteriorate. According to global scientific consensus, the worst is yet to come. Runaway global warming, climate chaos, crop failure and mass starvation are just over the horizon.
Chemical and GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) farmers are not solely to blame. Non-organic farmers have very few choices these days if they are going to grow the most profitable and heavily subsidized commodity crops, including corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, canola, rice, alfalfa, and sugar beets. Most available commodity seeds are controlled by six chemical/seed/genetic engineering corporations: Syngenta, Monsanto, DuPont, BASF, Dow and Bayer. Most of the patented seeds they sell require large inputs of toxic and climate-disrupting chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which these corporations sell as companion products to their GMO seeds.
Farmers have been brainwashed over the last 150 years into using a deadly toolbox of agri-toxic chemicals, monocropping, and now genetically engineered seeds and products. Since 1850, twice as much climate destabilizing CO2 has been emitted by damaged soil and unsustainable farming practices as by burning fossil fuels. Fifty to 80 percent of the carbon matter once stored in the soil of North America and the world has now been released into the atmosphere, heating up the Earth’s average surface temperature by almost one degree Celsius, and disrupting the climate. (1) Industrial agricultural practices and factory farms have destroyed billions of acres of perennial grasslands, topsoil, and wetlands, robbing the soil of its ability to naturally sequester billions of tons of CO2 every year.
For most of the last 100 years, Syngenta, Monsanto, DuPont, BASF, Dow, Bayer and four or five others companies have sold allegedly “miraculous” products to farmers, products that have grown increasingly toxic and climate-unfriendly over time. This non-sustainable package of methods and dangerous chemicals has left us with a fragile, energy-dependent, polluting farm and food system that abuses the land, animals, farm and food workers, and produces low quality, heavily-processed, unhealthy food. These practices and products, concocted by chemical and genetic engineering corporations, have been promoted as an agricultural “green revolution” by agricultural colleges, federal and state governments, and importantly, the agricultural press. Most consumers and taxpayers are unaware that hundreds of billions of dollars of our taxes have gone into promoting commodity crops, industrial agriculture, GMOs and factory farms over the past few decades.
It’s time to admit that factory farming in the U.S. is exacerbating the severe weather conditions we’ve been experiencing lately, and greatly contributing to global warming and the destruction of our Southeastern, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut coastlines. Despite the conservative estimates of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and other climate change deniers, we now know that farming, especially industrial and factory farming, is the largest single emitter of heat-trapping greenhouse gasses in the U.S. (2)
Traditionally conservative World Bank scientists estimated in 2009 that animal farming worldwide emits at least 51 percent of the world’s greenhouse gasses every year. (3) In spite of these truly alarming statistics, the focus on efforts to mitigate climate change have not been directed toward reversing or reforming unsustainable, climate-disrupting farming practices. In spite of the fact that industrial agriculture exceeds the combined U.S. green house gas emissions from transportation, energy production and industry, the farm and food emissions are ignored and trivialized, and thus unregulated.
A large share of factory farming’s greenhouse gasses in the U.S. come from using fossil fuels in 25 million tractors, and millions of combines, mowers, balers and other farm implements. Another large and increasing share of those gasses come from nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizer production and use, and the spraying of ever increasing amounts of insecticides and weed killers as pests develop a tolerance to all but the most deadly and polluting poisons.
The animals we raise, mainly on CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations), and the feed we grow for these animals are responsible for a huge share of the excess greenhouse gas emissions and climate chaos we are experiencing. Currently 92.5 percent of U.S. farmland is devoted to grazing animals and grain production: corn, soybeans, wheat, rye, oats, barley and cottonseed for confined cows, hogs, chickens and turkeys. Consequently, most of our farmland produces food for meat- and milk-producing animals. This inefficient use of land produces a majority of the most destructive greenhouse gasses: methane and nitrous oxide. Only 7.5 percent of U.S. farmland produces vegetables, grains, fruits, nuts and berries for direct human consumption. (4)
The data above are based on USDA surveys. While survey numbers are often flawed, they do provide us with an indication of how skewed U.S. agriculture is toward producing animals and feed for animals.
In the U.S., more than 9 billion animals are slaughtered for meat and another 10 million are raised for milk products every year. Over 90 percent of these animals are raised on crowded, inhumane, often filthy CAFOs. Raising this many animals in grain-fed confinement conditions, rather than on pastures, produces enormous amounts of methane and nitrous oxide emissions, Worldwide, there are more than 70 billion animals slaughtered (some estimates are as high as 90 billion) for meat every year. Nearly a billion are raised for dairy products. It is estimated that meat and milk animals occupy 40% of the earth’s surface. (5)
In addition to the direct emissions from the animals, farmers grow animal feed crops, most of which are genetically engineered, on hundreds of millions of acres. To grow this much animal food, U.S. farming is highly mechanized and dangerously polluted. Farmers use everything from four wheelers to check the fence lines, ¾ Ton pick ups, 300 horsepower tractors, and multi row combines to harvest their crops. All are dependent on fossil fuel. Almost all the commodity crops are dependent on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, manufactured with massive amounts of natural gas and hydrogen. And almost all the crops and meat consumed in the U.S. are shipped more than 1,500 miles to market in fossil-fueled vans, trucks and trains. All of the meat is refrigerated or frozen, contributing even more CO2 to the atmosphere.
The changeover to chemical farming practices began in the late 1800s after the Civil War, not after the Second World War as most analysts and consumers believe. These practices are so firmly entrenched that non-organic farmers have become nearly completely dependent on them. Toxic pesticide use was common by the 1890s. However, the adoption of chemical fertilizer accelerated significantly only after the U.S. government funded the expansion of existing nitrogen production facilities for explosives and fertilizer during the Second World War. Before then, in fact, since the early 1800s, U.S. farmers planted fertilizer crops, either in fallow years, or after the main crop was harvested. (6) This meant that the ground was covered with a crop, either for cash or fertilizer, for most of the year. This practice produced fertilizer and organic matter that held water and nutrients, and inhibited wind and water erosion because the ground was almost constantly covered. Having a cash or fertilizer crop on the land also helped transpire significant amounts of water back to the atmosphere and was much more effective in sequestering greenhouse gasses than bare land.
Until 1946, 95 percent of the nitrogen fertilizer for U.S. farms came from animal manures and fertilizer crops. Now, 90 percent of the nitrogen used by U.S. farmers is synthetic nitrogen and totals more than 24 billion pounds every year.(7) To produce one pound of synthetic nitrogen, 6.6 pounds of nitrous oxide (N20) are released (158.4 billion pounds per year). Nitrous oxide is 300 times more damaging as a greenhouse gas than CO2 and lasts in the atmosphere for as long as CO2 (c,500 years).
Today, most of U.S. farmland lays bare after the crop is harvested in the fall. Only 30 percent of the commodity acreage is in no-till (where farmers plant directly into land that has not been ploughed). Barren soil exposes the land to wind and water erosion and does nothing to reinvigorate the land after the cash crop is harvested. Instead, chemical fertilizers are applied and the quality of the land continues to degrade, as organic matter is not replaced. Because of this long-term soil quality decline, an extended period of drought in the great middle swath of the country on our abused farmland could lead to another dust bowl, and on an even larger scale.
University of Illinois scientists have determined that U.S. farmers have consistently, since the end of World War II, used 40 percent to 190 percent more synthetic nitrogen fertilizer than was necessary to achieve maximum yields. These excess applications were usually recommended by the fertilizer sales team from the same chemical/seed companies listed above. Fertilizer not used by the crop ran off into groundwater, aquifers, rivers, lakes and the ocean.(8) This runoff has greatly contributed to dead zones and the acidification of the oceans.(9) This farm runoff has also polluted our drinking water, two-thirds of which contains high levels of nitrogen and other farm chemicals.(10)
Unfortunately, at the same time that farmers switched to synthetic fertilizer, they stopped growing the fertilizer crops that their parents, grandparents and great grandparents had always grown. This meant that the replacement of organic matter depended on the production and incorporation of a healthy cash crop. But the excessive use of synthetic nitrogen stimulated certain soil bacteria that rapidly consumed plant residues and reduced organic matter levels. Consequently, soil organic matter decreased instead of increasing, as was promised by the fertilizer corporation ads. (11) This has left us with a very fragile, almost lifeless, and increasingly mineralized topsoil, that more easily becomes airborne in the bad weather and severe winds that have become all too common!
Since the 1950s, there has been a dramatic shift away from diversified farms to an almost total embrace of monocrop farming throughout the commodity production belts. Previously, Iowa was home to more than 1,000 different varieties of apples and thousands of diversified farms growing multiple crops and raising cattle, chickens, turkeys and hogs. Today most Iowa farmers grow corn, soybeans or hogs. Similar changeovers took place in many farm states.
This shift to single-crop production of corn, cotton or other grains required more synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, because farmers stopped growing fertilizer crops and making compost from their animal manures. These monocrop systems also required more pesticides because the farmers were no longer rotating to other crops to break the pest cycle. When farmers only switch between growing corn and soybeans year after year, some nitrogen is replaced by the soybeans, but the pests build up in the soil and on plant residues. The solution? More and more pesticides.
Farmers who have become dependent on a corn/soy rotation are now finding it impossible to control insects and disease. Farmers growing GMO crops have also increased their herbicide use from 1.5 million pounds to 90 million pounds per year, or by about 25 percent, to deal with more than 20 major weeds that have become increasingly resistant to the weed killers.(12)
At the same time that farmers changed farming practices, the university advisors stopped researching techniques and strategies that were not chemically focused. As a result, university advisors became wedded to the belief that farmers needed highly toxic chemical fertilizers and pesticides to obtain high quality, high quantity yields.
We are stuck in an agricultural paradigm in the U.S. where most of the crops we produce are destined to feed animals raised for meat. This system requires enormous amounts of toxic fertilizer, pesticides, gas, diesel and oil that are manufactured or extracted with chemicals, water and fossil fuel, all of which emit enormous amounts of greenhouse gasses. That is why this vast system of unsustainable practices and products account for more than half the climate change gasses that are causing droughts, wild fires and coastal and riverine flooding.
Mandatory Changes: Boycott All Genetically Engineered and Factory Farmed Foods
Farmers can complain about the harsh weather and droughts, but if we continue to ignore the destructive climate impacts of industrialized crop production and factory farming we are probably not going to be able to address the chaotic weather patterns that we have experienced in the last several years. If we continue to believe the climate change deniers in the USDA and EPA, and refuse to accept the usually conservative World Bank Group scientists who claim that more than half of the green house gasses are emitted from animal agriculture, we will never be able to avert a climate catastrophe.
We need to change our energy, industrial and transportation systems and stop extracting hard-to-get gasses, tars and oil. But the largest elephant in the room of climate chaos is our food and farming system.And hardly anyone is talking about it.
Until we address that elephant, we are fooling ourselves into believeing that we can fix it all by changing our energy, industrial and transportation systems. Agriculture is the worst actor in the ever-worsening climate change drama. If we want to stop runaway climate change, we have to fix factory farming. How? Most of it is up to us, since our elected officials and the regulators refuse to regulate. We need to change our food habits. We need to stop eating factory-farmed meat and milk products. Since over 90 percent of all non-organic meat, dairy and eggs in the U.S. come from factory farms, we need a nationwide boycott and marketplace pressure, in the form of a CAFO labeling campaign.
A drastic reduction in sales of products from CAFOs will lead to a major increase in the sales and consumption of organic, pasture-raised and grass-fed meat and animal products, which today account for only 5 percent of the market. As we boycott all CAFO products, which means choosing vegan menu options in most restaurants shopping more carefully in grocery stores and farmers markets, we need to eat more organic, climate-friendly vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans and whole grains. If you eat meat and drink milk, make sure that is pasture-raised and not raised in an animal prisons, such as confinement feedlots, hog hotels and massive dairies. Ask your grocer or butcher where the food comes from and how it is raised. Stop eating meat that is glued together with pink slime.
It is a lot easier to blame the oil, coal, fracking and tar sand extractors for our chaotic climate than to blame ourselves. But most U.S consumers are lining up to buy factory-farmed food that is unhealthy for both us and the planet. And the majority of U.S. farmers continue to use destructive practices and products sold to them by big oil and big chemical-seed corporations.
Recent analyses by the World Bank, the United Nations and several NGOs (13) have concluded that industrial farming is more destructive than it is productive, and that local, organic, sustainable agriculture systems are much more desirable from a climate and food security perspective. They advise less emphasis on export and more focus on feeding the local community. They advise spending more of our research and subsidy dollars on sustainable, ecological, and locally focused farming.
This is not a futuristic vision that must await more research. The appropriate technology for a world-wide shift to sustainable, organic agriculture already exists, and each year it gets more efficient and sophisticated.
If we fail to address the little-discussed fact that our food and farming system is the single largest contributor of greenhouse gasses, we do so at our peril and at the peril of our children and grandchildren. Do the math! Add up the externalities and hidden emissions! Read what the national and international experts we have cited here are saying. Then, take action, enjoy the change and contribute to a more hopeful future. Boycott all genetically engineered and factory-farmed foods. Reduce your intake of highly processed foods and base your diet, as much as possible, upon organic whole foods, cooked from scratch. Bon appétit!
1.Schwartz, Judith, Cows Save the Planet and Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT, 2013, page 12.
2. FAO, 2006. Livestock's Long Shadow. Environmental Issues and Options. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy. In this study, not conducted by environmental assessment professionals, they concluded that agriculture’s green house gas emissions only amounted to 18% of total world emissions.
Climate Change: Greenhouse Gas Inventor. Climate Change Program Office, Office of the Chief Economist, U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Technical Bulletin No. 1930. 159 pp. June 2011. In 2008, agricultural greenhouse gas sources accounted for about 6% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, Secretary Vilsack has allowed that it might be as high as 7%.
U.S.EPA Draft Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2011,
February 2013. In 2011, emission sources accounted for the Agricultural chapters were responsible for 7.2 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
3. Goodland, R., Anhang, J., 2009. Livestock and Climate Change. What if the key actors in climate change were pigs, chickens and cows? World Watch, November/December 2009. Worldwatch Institute, Washington, DC, USA. Pp. 10–19.
Goodland, R., 2009. Forests, Fisheries, Agriculture. A Vision for Sustainability. By invitation of the FAO for its expert consultation in Rome, Italy, 2-4 December 2009. Goodland, R., 2010. How the Food Industry Can Reverse Climate Change Quickly and Profitably. By invitation of the FAO for the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture, International Green Week, Berlin, 14-16 January 2010.
Herrero, M., Gerber, P., Vellinga, T., Garnett, T., Leip, A., Opio, C., Westhoek, H.J. Thornton, P.K., Olesen, J., Hutchings, N., Montgomery, H., Soussana, J.-F., Steinfeld, H., McAllister, T.A. 2011. Livestock and greenhouse gas emissions: The importance of getting the numbers right. Anim. Feed Sci. Technol. 166-167: 779-782.
Goodland, R., Anhang, J, 2012. Response to “Livestock and greenhouse gas emissions: The importance of getting the numbers right,” by Herrero et al. [Anim. Feed Sci. Technol. 166-167: 779-782]. World Resources Institute, 10 G Street, N.E., Washington, DC, USA, email@example.com World Bank Group, 1818 H Street, N.W., Washington, DC, USA, firstname.lastname@example.org
4. NASS, USDA Land-Use statistics, 2002-2008.
5. Goodland, R., Anhang, J, 2012. Response to “Livestock and greenhouse gas emissions: The importance of getting the numbers right,” by Herrero et al.
Thornton, P., Herrero, M., Erickson, P., 2011. Livestock and Climate Change. ILRI Issue Brief. [http://mahider.ilri.org/bitstream/handle/10568/10601/IssueBrief3.pdf]
6. Allen, Will. 2008 The War on Bugs. Chelsea Green, White River Junction and Burlington, Vermont.
7. United States Department of Agriculture Fertilizer Use Statistics, 1998-2007
8. Mulvaney, Richard, Saeed Khan, and Tim Ellsworth, 2009 “Synthetic Nitrogen Fertilizers Deplete Soil Nitrogen: A Global Dilemma for Sustainable Cereal Production," Journal of Environmental Quality.
9. Diaz, R.J. and R. Rosenberg. 2008. Spreading dead zones and consequences for marine ecosystems. Science 321:926-928.
Andrew Sharpless. January 21, 2011 Ocean acidity: Small Change, Catastrophic Results. McClatchy-Tribune News Service.
10. National Drinking Water Database, December, 2009, Environmental Working Group.
11. Mulvaney, Richard, Saeed Khan, and Tim Ellsworth, 2009 “Synthetic Nitrogen Fertilizers Deplete Soil Nitrogen: A Global Dilemma for Sustainable Cereal Production," Journal of Environmental Quality.
12. Benbrook, Charles, 2012. "Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the U.S. - the first sixteen years.” Environmental Sciences Europe, the article can be obtained at: http://bit.ly/esebenbrook2012.
13. International Energy Agency, 2011. World Energy Outlook 2011. International Energy Agency, Paris, France. [http://www.worldenergyoutlook.org].
UNESCO, 2010. Energy Flow, Environment and Ethical Implications for Meat Production. [unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0018/001897/189774e.pdf].
World Bank, 2011. Diet for a low-carbon planet. [climatechange.worldbank.org/blogs/diet-low-carbon- planet] .
UNEP-UNCTAD Capacity-building Task Force on Trade, Environment and Development (2008). Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa. United Nations, New York and Geneva.
IAASTD (2009). Agriculture at a Crossroads. International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. Island Press, Washington, DC. http://www.agassessment.org
Ching, Lim Li. Agricultural Technologies For A Warming World http://www.councilforresponsiblegenetics.org/GeneWatch/GeneWatchPage.aspx?pageId=463
Dr. Will Allen is a farmer, author, and rural activist. He currently co-manages Cedar Circle Farm in East Thetford, Vermont. The farm webside is: www.cedarcirclefarm.org The Farm is a member of the Vermont Right to Know about GMOs coalition.
Ronnie Cummins is a lifetime activist and the Founder and Director of the Organic Consumers Association. He is a veteran campaign director and the author of numerous articles on food, farming, GMOs, and climate change. The website of the OCA is OrganicConsumers.org