- Industrial Agriculture and Human Survival: The Road Beyond 10/10/10
By Ronnie Cummins
Organic Consumers Association, October 7, 2010
Straight to the Source
Note: Climate and food activists are organizing thousands of “work parties” in 170 nations on October 10, 2010 (10/10/10). These work parties are designed to both highlight local projects that can help reverse global warming, and to force politicians to take decisive action - before it’s too late. http://www.350.org
Despite decades of deception and mystification, a critical mass at the grassroots is waking up. A new generation of food and climate activists understands that greenhouse gas-belching fossil fuels, industrial food and farming, and our entire global economy pose a mortal threat, not just to our present health and well being, but also to human survival. Given the severity of the Crisis, we have little choice but to step up our efforts. As 35,000 climate activists at the historic global climate summit in April of 2010 in Cochabamba, Bolivia shouted, “We must change the System, not the climate.”
“Changing the System,” means defending our selves, the future generations, and the biological carrying capacity of the planet from the ravages of “profit at any cost” capitalism. “Changing the System,” means safeguarding our delicately balanced climate, soils, oceans, and atmosphere from the fatal consequences of fossil fuel-induced climate change. “Changing the System” means exposing, dismantling, and replacing, not just individual out-of-control corporations like Monsanto, Halliburton, and British Petroleum, and out-of-control technologies like gene-altered crops and mountaintop removal; but our entire chemical and energy-intensive industrial economy, starting, at least for many of us, with Food Inc.’s destructive system of industrial food and farming. “Changing the system,” means going on the offensive and dismantling the most controversial and vulnerable flanks of our suicide economy: coal plants, gas guzzlers, the military-industrial complex, and industrial agriculture’s Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and factory farms.
Industrial Food and Farming: A Deadly Root of Global Warming
Although transportation, industry, and energy producers are obviously major fossil fuel users and greenhouse gas polluters, not enough people understand that the worst U.S. and global greenhouse gas emitter is “Food Incorporated,” transnational industrial food and farming, of which Monsanto and GMOs constitute a major part. Industrial farming, including 173 million acres of GE soybeans, corn, cotton, canola, and sugar beets, accounts for at least 35% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (EPA’s ridiculously low estimates range from 7% to 12%, while some climate scientists feel the figure could be as high as 50% or more).
Industrial agriculture, biofuels, and non-sustainable cattle grazing - including cutting down the last remaining tropical rainforests in Latin America and Asia for GMO and chemical-intensive animal feed and biofuels - are also the main driving forces in global deforestation and wetlands destruction, which generate an additional 20% of all climate destabilizing GHGs.
In other words the direct (food, fiber, and biofuels production, food processing, food distribution) and indirect damage (deforestation and destruction of wetlands) of industrial agriculture, GMOs, and the food industry are the major cause of global warming. Unless we take down Monsanto and Food Inc. and make the Great Transition to a relocalized system of organic food and farming, we and our children are doomed to reside in Climate Hell.
Overall 78% of climate destabilizing greenhouse gases come from CO2, while the remainder come from methane, nitrous oxide, and black carbon or soot. To stabilize the climate we will need to drastically reduce all of these greenhouse gas emissions, not just CO2, and sequester twice as much carbon matter in the soil (through organic farming and ranching, and forest and wetlands restoration) as we are doing presently.
Currently GMO and industrial/factory farms (energy and chemical-intensive) farms emit at least 25% of the carbon dioxide (mostly from tractors, trucks, combines, transportation, cooling, freezing, and heating); 40% of the methane (mostly from massive herds of animals belching and farting, and manure ponds); and 96% of nitrous oxide (mostly from synthetic fertilizer manufacture and use, the millions of tons of animal manure from factory-farmed cattle herds, pig and poultry flocks, and millions of tons of sewage sludge spread on farms). Black carbon or soot comes primarily from older diesel engines, slash and burn agriculture, and wood cook stoves.
Per ton, methane is 21 times more damaging, and nitrous oxide 310 times more damaging, as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, when measured over a one hundred year period. Damage is even worse if you look at the impact on global warming over the next crucial 20-year period. Many climate scientists admit that they have previously drastically underestimated the dangers of the non-CO2 GHGs, including methane, soot, and nitrous oxide, which are responsible for at least 22% of global warming.
Almost all U.S. food and farm-derived methane comes from factory farms, huge herds of confined cows, hogs, and poultry operations, in turn made possible by heavily subsidized ($15 billion per year) GMO soybeans, corn, cottonseed, and canola; as well as rotting food waste thrown into landfills instead of being separated out of the solid waste stream and properly composted. To drastically reduce C02, methane, and nitrous oxide releases we need an immediate consumer boycott, followed by a government ban on factory farms, dairies, and feedlots. To reduce black carbon or soot emissions we will need to upgrade old diesel engines, and provide farmers and rural villagers in the developing world with alternatives to slash and burn agriculture (compost, compost tea, biochar) and non-polluting cook stoves and home heating.
We also need to implement mandatory separation and recycling of food wastes and “green garbage” (yard waste, tree branches, etc.) at the municipal level, so that that we can reduce methane emissions from landfills. Mandatory composting will also enable us to produce large quantities of high quality organic compost to replace the billions of pounds of chemical fertilizer and sewage sludge, which are releasing GHGs, destroying soil fertility, polluting our waters, and undermining public health.
Nearly all nitrous oxide pollution comes from dumping billions of pounds of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and sewage sludge on farmland (chemical fertilizers and sludge are banned on organic farms and ranches), mainly to grow GMO crops and animal feed. Since about 80% of U.S. agriculture is devoted to producing non-organic, non-grass fed meat, dairy, and animal products, reducing agriculture GHGs means eliminating the overproduction and over-consumption of GMO crops, factory-farmed meat, and animal products. It also means creating massive consumer demand for organic foods, including pasture-raised, grass-fed animal products.
The fact that climate change is now metastasizing into climate chaos is indisputable: massive flooding in Pakistan, unprecedented forest fires in Russia and the Amazon, melting of the glaciers that supply water for crops and drinking water of a billion people in Asia and South America, crop failures in regions all over the globe, record heat waves in the U.S. and Europe, methane leaking from the Arctic tundra and coastlines, killer hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and Central America, and steadily spreading pestilence, crop failures, and disease. The realization that every time we eat non-organic processed food, we are ingesting unlabeled, hazardous GMO foods and pesticides is indeed alarming. But the impending threat of industrial food and farming detonating runaway climate change (i.e. moving from our current .8 degree Centigrade average global rise in temperature to 2-6 degrees) is terrifying. Either we rein in industrial food and farming and GMOs, out-of-control politicians and corporations, and make the transition to an organic and green economy or we will perish.
The hour is late. Leading climate scientists such as Dr. James Hansen of NASA and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have delivered the final warning. “Business as usual” equals unimaginable disaster.
Leading greenhouse gas polluters (namely the US, Canada, Europe, Japan, Russia, India, and China) must slash CO2, methane, soot, and nitrous oxide emissions by 20-40% as soon as possible, 50% by 2010, and 80-90% by the year 2050. Continued business as usual, especially in the strategic GM and industrial food and farming sector, means we will inevitably burn up the Amazon and remaining tropical forests; acidify and kill the oceans; generate mega-drought, violent floods, crop failures, endless resource wars, melt the polar icecaps, precipitate a disastrous rise in ocean levels, and finally bring about the coup de grace that will kill us all, releasing massive amount of methane from the frozen tundra and shallow ocean floors of the Arctic.
Of course dismantling industrial agriculture and transitioning our food and farming system to one which is local and organic is not the only thing global civil society must do (since this will only take care of 50% of global greenhouse gas pollution), but it is the most crucial and effective measure we can take as food consumers and farmers. While we retool industrial food and farming, the global grassroots must also step-up our struggles in the other energy and greenhouse gas (GHG) sectors: stopping the construction of coal plants; stopping the deforestation in the Amazon, Indonesia, and Malaysia; changing the electrical grid from being powered predominately by coal to solar, wind, and geothermal; drastically reducing oil consumption in the transportation and housing sectors; and last but not least, dismantling the trillion dollar military-industrial complex. Let me repeat this last point. Until the U.S. and EU get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and drastically slash U.S. and world military spending, we will never be able to free up sufficient resources to build an organic and green economy.
Either we radically reduce CO2, as well as methane, nitrous oxide, and soot pollution (the so-called C02e--carbon dioxide equivalents) to 350 ppm (currently at 390 parts per million and rising 2 ppm per year) or there is no future. As scientists warned at the Copenhagen Climate Summit, “business as usual” and a corresponding 2-6 degree Celsius rise in global temperatures means that the carrying capacity of the Earth in 2100 will collapse to one billion people. Under these conditions, billions will die of thirst, cold, heat, disease, war, and starvation. Those who don’t die may wish that they had.