What About the State of Our Planet, Mr. President?

In his state of the union address this week, President Obama talked about the American promise –  the promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.

“The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive,” he said. “No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important.”

Climate scientists might beg to differ.

Most of the President’s speech focused on economic reforms. He proposed energy reforms almost exclusively in the context of adding jobs and growing the economy.

But what good is a healthy economy on a planet too sick to sustain human life?

The state of our union may be weak or strong, depending on which economist or politician you is doing the talking.

But the state of our planet is dismal.

Last  November, the International Energy Agency warned again that the world is accelerating toward irreversible climate change. If we don’t take bold action to sharply reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the next five years, the agency said, it will be too late.

That’s fewer than 1800 days. And counting.

For years – and again in the President’s speech – we’ve heard calls for more investment in green energy. For years, leaders of the energy reform movement have called for cap and trade, a carbon tax, a ban on coal and tar sands, stronger emissions standards, more energy efficiency. The failed climate conferences in Kyoto, Copenhagen, Cancun, and Durban concentrated most of their energy and effort on fossil fuel emissions.

None of this would be surprising – or troubling – except for this one fact: Recent research and reports conclude that factory farming in the U.S. is responsible for more GHG emissions than the entire transportation and industrial sector combined; including cars, trucks, buses, airplanes, trains, boats, and factories.

Yet when was the last – or even the first – time you heard the call for agricultural and food policy reform as a means to reduce GHG emissions – and save the planet?

Of course we need more environmentally responsible energy choices and we should push for those choices as soon as possible.

But we must – and we can – do much more.

As we’ve just seen again, leadership on  this issue won’t come from the top. Partly because a large segment of the population hasn’t yet made the connection between the food on their plates and our looming climate catastrophe.

But more likely because our politicians are in bed with Big Food and Big Ag lobbyists.

The good news is we have the power – through individual choice and collective action – to force change. We can reverse our suicidal food and farming system by taking decisive action, not only in the political policy realm and through our growing street protests and occupations – but also by voting with our farms, gardens, and forks for an organic, sustainable, and re-localized food and farming system.

If the U.S. population would reduce its addiction to unhealthy, environmentally destructive, and climate destabilizing foods by 57.5% in the next 35 years, (the same way we’ve reduced smoking) we could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in the same way we reduced the incidence of lung cancer, emphysema, osteoporosis, and chronic bronchitis when tobacco habits were broken.

But we must act now.  If we don’t – if we allow the infamous “1%” to continue with business as usual, if we allow the U.S. and global fossil fuel/military industrial/corporate agribusiness economy to keep turning up the planet’s delicately balanced thermostat, raising average global temperatures by two degrees Celsius or more, we will soon arrive at civilization’s last stop: climate hell.

The truth about industrial agriculture and climate change

Our current agriculture system is both abusive and bankrupt, kept on life support with government subsidies and corporate handouts. Government funding and corporate dominance enable the U.S. food system to contribute heavily to all forms of climate destruction, including water pollution, oceanic dead zones, excessive greenhouse gas emissions, and soil and water degeneration. 

Nowhere is this destruction more evident than when it comes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

In studies conducted between 2004 and 2009, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) all reported relatively low estimates for how much US industrial agriculture contributed to the country’s total amount of CO2 and other GHG emissions. Their estimates ranged from only 7% (USDA) to 18% (FAO).

Unfortunately, all three agencies repeatedly underestimated emissions from billions of factory-farmed animals (burps, farts, manure) and from the manufacture of nearly 25 billion pounds-per-year of synthetic fertilizer.

Shockingly, all three agencies completely neglected to include GHG’s emitted from petroleum-fueled farm vehicles (trucks, tractors, combines and other motorized farming equipment), from freezing, cooling and heating foods, or from shipping the foods to market. The fact that transportation and storage emissions were not included is especially deceptive, given that food in the U.S. travels anywhere from 1500 to 3000 miles – and that it must be either cooled or frozen while in transit or during storage.

Research scientists at the normally conservative World Bank tell another story. They argue that the FAO, U.S. EPA and the USDA have greatly underestimated the dangerous emissions from industrial farming. According to their research, animalagriculturealonewasresponsiblefor 51% oftheworldsgreenhousegasses 

Othernongovernmentscientistsestimatethatfrom 30% to 40% ofU.S. GHSsareemittedfromfactoryfarms. This is still the highest for any industrial sector – and dramatically higher than the 7% to 18% that the federal agencies and the UN estimate for farming.

As numbers of factory farms rise, so goes the earth’s temperature

Factory farming apologists argue that 51% (the World Bank’s estimate for factory farming’s share of GHG emissions) is a ridiculously high estimate. But is it? Consider this: In In 2010, more than 95% of hogs, 96% of broiler chickens, 95% of laying hens, 99% of turkeys, and 78% of beef cows were raised on confinement farms.

Today, significantly more than 80% of U.S. agriculture is devoted to livestock, and hundreds of millions of acres are growing livestock feed, according to the USDANationalAgriculturalStatisticalService.

The result? Factory farming is now one of the largest sources of CO2 and the single largest source of both methane and nitrous oxide emissions.

Factory-farming  is highly energy-intensive. It requires feeding huge amounts of grain and water to farmed animals, slaughtering them, processing them, then transporting and storing the meat – all of which creates CO2 emissions. Mountains of animal manure also emit large quantities of CO2.

And that’s only part of the story. In order to grow crops for millions of factory-farmed animals, we destroy vast acres of forest, causing the CO2 stored in the trees to be released into the atmosphere.

While CO2 receives most of the attention and analysis when it comes to global warming, scientists have concluded that methane has a Global Warming Potential (GWP) 25 times more damaging than carbon dioxide when measured over a 100-year period, and 72 times more destructive when measured over a 20-year period.

In 1995, 75% of U.S. hogs were raised in outside pens or on pasture. In 2010, that number fell to 5% – with the other 95% being raised on confinement farms. The dramatic increase in confinement animal practices since 1995 has greatly increased methane emissions.

Then there’s nitrous oxide, which receives even less attention than CO2 or methane. Yet on a per-ton basis, nitrous oxide emissions are likely the most destructive of all. When measured over a 100-year period, nitrous oxide is 298 times more damaging than CO2. Five hundred years after being emitted, nitrous oxide emissions are still 153 times more damaging than CO2.

Synthetic fertilizers and sewage sludge destroy earth, air and water. 

The National Agriculture Statistical Service (NASS) of the USDA reports that U.S. farmers used an average of 24 billion, 661 million pounds of nitrogen fertilizer per year from 1998 to 2007.

So, they must know  – if they bothered to connect the dots – that chemical corporations emitted 162 billion, 769 million pounds of nitrous oxide-related GHG’s just to manufacture the nitrogen that NASS claimed farmers used every year.

In addition to the greenhouse gasses emitted in manufacture, we must also include those attributable to the transportation and application of this mountain of fertilizer every year.  (24,661,000,000 pounds of fertilizer is equal to 12,330,000 one-ton pallets, which would cover 10,960 football fields-that is almost half of the football fields in the U.S.).

Industrial fertilizer manufacture alone is estimated to emit 6.6 pounds of nitrous oxide for each pound of nitrogen produced. Yet in its infinite wisdom, our government attributes those numbers to manufacturing – not agriculture.

Since the 1950’s, there has been an enormous increase in the use of nitrogen fertilizers, mostly to raise grains for meat and milk animals. As a result, the U.S. soil pool’s capability to sequester carbon as deteriorated drastically.  The soil pool should be a sink for excess carbon but since it has lost about 50% of its organic matter it is less than half as effective as it was 50 years ago.

Recent studies on the University of Illinois Morrow plots (the oldest continuously farmed experimental plots in the U.S.) have shown that since 1955, when synthetic nitrogen was first used, from 40% to 190% too much nitrogen was applied and yet yields dropped and organic matter declined dramatically. These problems on the Morrow plots are writ large on millions of acres of agricultural soils that have been degraded by synthetic fertilizer all over this country, according to an article in the Journal of Environmental Quality.

Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is also responsible for the nitrate poisoning of two-thirds of the U.S. drinking water supply. It is also the major cause of the 405 oceanic dead zones around the world, including the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay, and the coasts of California and Oregon. Synthetic Nitrogen fertilizer is a killer of soil life, including earthworms and microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and actinomicetes, according to an article by Robert J. Diazat the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Nitrogen fertilizer can be costly for industrial farmers – so in order to fertilize more land, more cheaply, industrial farms are increasingly using sewage sludge as fertilizer. Sixty percent of all the sludge produced in the U.S. – which amounts to 100 billion pounds of sewage sludge – is applied to millions of acres of farmland, according to the Carlisle Group.

Sewage sludge contains all manner of industrial chemicals, medical waste, resistant bacteria, resistant viruses, and flame-retardants. It is also an increasingly worrisome greenhouse gas emitter. Yet U.S. regulation of sludge is near the worst in the world. Why is its use on the rise? Because the powerful Carlisle Group controls the hauling. Unless we stop this practice we could render millions of acres sterile because of heavy metal concentrations and high resistant bacteria and viral populations.

Grab your forks and pitchforks – let’s fix this before it’s too late.

Farmers know from our experience that we can address these problems readily and rapidly by replacing the dangerous, unhealthy practices of industrial agriculture with sustainable organic techniques, and more locally focused production and marketing strategies. If farmers do change, farmland could become a significant sequester pool for greenhouse gasses and provide carbon credits to farmers who convert.

But we can’t do it alone – we need consumers, too. With food, as with tobacco, we don’t need a massive infrastructure development to change our consumer habits. There is an abundance of safe organic food on the market today, and thousands of growers willing to grow it if the demand increases. As with tobacco, the public and especially the kids need to be educated about the relationship between chemically produced food and climate change, and the direct relationship between factory-farmed food and cancer, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. 

●      Reduce meat consumption.

If U.S. consumers cut their meat consumption from the current 12 ounces to 6 ounces per day it would be the equivalent of taking almost 50 million cars off the road. Six ounces of meat is still more than twice the world average, so cutting our consumption in half would give consumers their meat, while cutting in half the environmental damage. We especially must stop eating factory-farmed meat, because it is the most damaging to both the environment and our bodies.

●      Boycott factory farming.

Since 90% of meat comes from CAFOs and confinement operations, this means boycotting all factory-farmed meat, eggs, and dairy. Nearly all scientists agree with that conclusion! While we rail about coal, and gasoline, and diesel, and jet fuel, the biggest part of the problem is sitting at our dinner tables. Our diets, our habits, our excesses are a major part of the problem, and a major part of the solution. Our bad food choices, our food over-consumption, and our enormous food waste (we throw away more than a third of our food, most of which ends up non-composted in municipal landfills, releasing enormous amounts of methane) are the elephants in the room!

●      Buy organic.

It is not just factory-farmed meat that we need to reduce in our diets; we also need to cut out the majority of overly processed carbohydrates that we habitually consume. That means white bread, white flour pastas, corn, cane, beet syrups and sugars, and fake sugars (Aspartame-Equil, Saccharin, Splenda, etc.), colas, and other soft and power drinks. The U.S. diet currently consists of more than 80% processed, junk, and fake foods. That is not a sustainable food system. While it is profitable for the food processing giants, it is devastating for the environment and our health!

●      Buy local.

Since a significant portion of the carbon dioxide emitted by industrial farming comes from long distance transportation, heating, freezing, and processing; consumers can greatly reduce the CO2 emissions they are responsible for by purchasing their food from local organic growers.Transport equals 20% of food-based greenhouse gas emissions. Local food from a farmers’ market or a veg box scheme travels a much shorter distance than supermarket food from all over the world. Even when supermarkets display “local” food, it has often travelled further than you might think – because even if it is produced just down the road, as it has to be packaged centrally. And buying soft fruits from California has an enormous carbon cost, as the fruit has to be flown in. Local food often has a lot less packaging and if it’s from a market it can often go straight in your bag.

●      Cook from scratch.

As a general rule, the more ingredients in a meal, the higher the emissions from processing the food. This means it is better to cook your meals from scratch – something we would have done without thinking 50 years ago. This is where eating local food really wins out – most processed and ready-meals have ingredients that come from all over the world. If we want to be sure of eating local food, we need to cook more from scratch, which is creative, fun and delicious!

It’s time to vote with our farms, gardens, and forks for an organic, sustainable, and re-localized food and farming system.

The organic food and farming movement must join ranks with the climate justice movement and the Occupy movement to bring about fundamental change, a shift of political and economic power from the corporatocracy – the 1% – to the grassroots majority. By creating a new agro-ecological system we can drastically reduce GHG emissions, and at the same time naturally sequester billions of tons of climate-destabilizing greenhouse gases, in our soils, plants, and trees, according to Paul Hepperly, New Farm Research Manager, The Rodale Institute.

This “Great Transition” in agriculture will have to be driven by mass consumer demand for farm products that are organic, locally or regionally-produced, and climate friendly.

Will Allen is an organic farmer, author, rural community activist, and a civil rights and anti-war activist. He serves on the Policy Advisory board of Organic Consumers Association, and the board of Willing Hands. His latest book is The Good Food Revolution.

Ronnie Cummins is the co-founder and National Director of the Organic Consumers Association. He is a contributor to Hopelesss: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press.


Ronnie Cummins is international director of the Organic Consumers Association and its Mexico-based affiliate, Via Organica.