The good news. After decades of basically failing to take into account the enormous damage of billions of tons of climate-destabilizing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions released by our global food, farming, and land use system every year, most of the nations of the world are starting to wake up. As this article (linked below) points out, 80-90% of the nations who signed on to the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 are now incorporating changes in agriculture, forest, and land use in their pledges (along with converting from fossil fuels to renewable energy) to reach zero emissions by 2050.
Unfortunately this article repeats the standard figures that only 13-24% of all Greenhouse Gas emissions come from farming or agriculture, when in fact the real figure is 44-57% if you include the full cycle of our global food system.
By looking at Greenhouse Gas emissions from “agriculture” as a separate category, in isolation from the rest of the global food system, as opposed to looking at the enormous combined emissions from the entire food system (production, inputs, processing, packaging, refrigeration, transportation, forest, marine, and wetlands destruction, and waste) we are letting factory farms, industrial farmers, agro-chemical/GMO/animal drug companies, and Big Food Inc. off the hook. We are also letting ourselves, as food consumers off the hook. By accepting as a reference point these misleading conventional numbers on fossil fuel emissions, we are basically ignoring the enormous impact of mindless consumerism, the army of eaters and processed junk food addicts, who do more damage with their food dollars and their knives and forks than they do driving their automobiles, turning on their air conditioners, or flying on airplanes.
So let’s take a closer look at the 44-57% of human GHG emissions coming from our food system, and compare how regenerative food, farming, and land use practices can drastically reduce these emissions.
Direct Use of Fossil Fuels in Farming: 11-15%
Most climate analysts agree that fossil fuel use on farms and ranches, including chemical farm inputs, is responsible for at least 11-15% of all global greenhouse gasses (CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, black soot). Most of these emissions come from the use of fossil-fuel powered farm and irrigation equipment as well as petroleum derived chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In addition, the excess manure generated by factory farms or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) releases significant quantities of methane and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere and the oceans.
How can we reduce these on-farm emissions, amounting to 11-15% of all GHGs? The bottom line is that the world’s millions of chemical/GMO and energy intensive farms will need to convert to organic and regenerative crop production and animal husbandry (planned rotational grazing and free range) production. This will only happen if conscious consumers and farmers work together, on a local to global scale to reject factory farmed, GMO, chemically tainted, highly processed food. Of course public policy and investment practices will have to change as well.
Just as with fossil fuels we will will need to launch a massive global campaign to divest from soil, forest, and climate destructive industrial agriculture and GMOs and reinvest in organic and regenerative food and farming. We can either continue to allow our governments to use our tax money to subsidize a degenerate system of global industrial agriculture, free trade, GMOs, and factory farms to the tune of hundreds of billion dollars a year; or else we can have regenerative global food system of small and medium-sized family farmers and ranchers; with healthy soil, consumers, environments, and a stable climate. But we cannot have both.
Slightly more than five percent of current U.S. grocery store sales (approximately $45 billion) are organic or grass-fed, increasing by 10-15% every year. This is good, but not good enough. Two and half million of the Earth’s 500 million farms and ranches are now certified organic. Approximately 25-50 million more indigenous and small producers are farming basically organically (if not yet regeneratively) growing crops and raising animals in a traditional, conscious manner, without the use of toxic chemicals, GMO seeds, and high-fossil fuel inputs. This is good, but not good enough.
If we as a global community are to reach zero emissions by 2050, highly industrialized countries like the U.S., Canada, the EU, Russia, and Japan, along with China and India, will need to not only change our energy policies, but our food and farming policies as well. Following the example of the French government we will need for regenerative food and farming policies to move toward becoming the norm, not just the alternative. Recent regenerative food policies in France include: recommendations that agro-ecological practices must constitute 50% of all agriculture practices by 2020; regulations that schools and other public institutions must purchase at least 40% of their cafeteria food from organic and local producers (now 20%); paying farmers to stop using pesticides and chemical fertilizers; supporting small and medium-sized farms by reducing crop insurance rates for organic and regenerative producer; and banning GMOs and toxic, soil degenerating pesticides like Roundup and atrazine.
However, given the fact that the U.S. federal government and most other nations remain heavily under the influence of corporate agribusiness, don’t expect government officials to automatically make these necessary reforms in farm policy. Consumer campaigns and consumer power in the marketplace—boycotts of GMOs, chemical and highly processed, factory farmed foods; and “buycots” of organic local, fresh, and grass-fed products—will in most cases have to drive these changes, at least initially.
Food and Farming Derived Deforestation: 15-18%
Globally “land use change” or deforestation is generally recognized as contributing to approximately 20% of all GHG emissions over the past 200 years. As Wayne White explains in his book Biosequestration and Ecological Diversity (page 39):
“Deforestation of intact rainforests of the tropics is by far the largest contributor to the approximately 20% of greenhouse gases attributable to land use change since the industrial revolution…”
The Food and Agriculture FAO says that expansion of agriculture, especially for export crops such as GMO soybeans (primarily for animal feed) in Latin America or palm oil (for biofuels and processed food) in Asia accounts for 70-90% of global deforestation. Worldwide, industrial agriculture is pushing into grasslands, wetlands and forests, destroying what were previously carbon-sequestering forests and grasslands. Food and farming’s contribution to deforestation thus accounts for 15-18% of global GHG emissions.
If we are to avoid runaway climate change we need to stop cutting down tropical rainforests, period. This will involve government policy and marketplace driven changes in the global timber and biofuels industry, but most importantly in the food sector, especially in regard to international exports of GMO soybeans and palm oil. This means that grass-fed beef and dairy operations will have to replace feedlots and industrial scale dairies, while the grain portion of the diet of pastured pigs and free-range poultry (typically 80% of their diets) will need to come from (organic and regenerative) local and regional grain producers. Biofuels derived from monoculture palm oil plantations from deforested tropical rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia (not to mention ethanol from corn and biodiesel from soybeans in North America) will have to be eliminated.
In addition to stopping tropical deforestation, we need to stop the destruction of our boreal and temperate forests and wetlands as well. Besides preserving and managing these forests for maximum health, growth, sustainable fiber, biomass energy, biochar production, and carbon sequestration, we need to vastly increase the practice of agroforestry (planting appropriate trees and bushes in and around crop lands and grazing lands, and even in urban areas). We need to utilize excess biomass (biomass beyond what the forest needs as ground cover to remain healthy) to produce a special form of charcoal called biochar, as well as energy, and we need to return this biomass to the soil, mixed into compost, where it sequesters carbon, supercharges compost and soil fertility, and qualitatively enhances the soils ability to retain rainwater and soil moisture.
The Earth forests once flourished with 15 trillion trees growing, storing water below ground, anchoring top soil, maintaining a healthy, predictable system of rainfall and hydrological balance, sequestering vast amounts of atmospheric carbon in tree trunks, limbs, roots and soil. Besides storing water in soils, promoting predictable rainfall and growing seasons, and preventing soil erosion, our forests also have provided and continue to provide food and habitat for animals and humans. Now, after several centuries of deforestation, most recently a direct result of the expansion of industrial agriculture, we’ve lost much of our forest cover. We’re now down to a total tree population of 10 trillion. Instead of sequestering 70% of all human fossil fuel emissions (7 billion tons of carbon), as the world’s forests once did, or had the capacity to do, the world’s forests now net sequester only 1.2 billion tons or 12% of all human emissions. (Wayne White, Biosequestration and Ecological Diversity page 100).
Over the next 50 years we need to preserve the forests we have left, and plant and nurture a trillion or more new trees. Since the areas of tropical forest deforestation are also the areas of greatest poverty and unemployment, reforestation and forest preservation and regenerationcan provide several hundred million jobs to those local residents and forest dwellers who need them most.
Food Transport/Food Miles: 5-6%
Globally it is generally agreed that transportation accounts for 20-25% of all GHG emissions. As the ETC group points out “we can conservatively estimate that the transportation of food accounts for a quarter of global GHG emissions linked to transportation, or 5-6% of all global GHG emissions.” <http://grain.org/e/5102> In the U.S. it is commonly estimated that the average food item in your grocery store or restaurant has traveled 1500 miles before it reaches its final destination. Multi-ingredient processed foods burn up even more food miles.
If we are to significantly reduce global emissions we will need to drastically reduce the food miles and carbon footprint of our food purchases and focus on fresh non-processed or minimally processed food produced locally and regionally, including food produced through urban agriculture. Before the second World War most food consumed in the U.S. and other industrialized nations basically came from a 100-mile radius of where people lived. During the Second World War, 40-50% of all food consumed by Americans came from urban “Victory Gardens,” while 30% of all food in Great Britain similarly came from urban gardens. In more recent times urban or extra-urban gardens in Russia and Cuba have been able to produce the majority of food consumed by urban consumers, stimulated by conditions of economic crisis.
As the ETC group points out: “The corporate logic that results in the shipment of foods around the world and back again, makes no sense from an environmental perspective, or any other perspective for that matter. The global trade in food, from the opening of vast swaths of lands and forests to produce agricultural commodities to the frozen foods sold in supermarkets, is the chief culprit in the food system’s overweight contribution to GHG emissions. Much of the food system’s GHG emissions can be eliminated if food production is reoriented towards local markets and fresh foods, and away from cheap meat and processed foods. But achieving this is probably the toughest fight of all, as corporations and governments are deeply committed to expanding the trade in foods.” <http://grain.org/e/5102>
Some of the most positive trends among consumers both in the “overdeveloped” and underdeveloped world, in terms of reducing food miles and emissions, and increasing the freshness and nutritional density of foods, is the increasing popularity of farmers markets, the community supported agriculture (buying directly from farmers) movement, “farm-to-table” restaurants, and the growing, now multi-billion dollar practice of buying locally and regionally produced foods from grocery stores. Other healthy and climate friendly consumer trends include cultivating backyard, school, and community gardens, eating more seasonally, boycotting factory-farmed meat and animal products, consuming more raw foods, cooking from scratch, and avoiding highly processed and packaged foods. By buying non-processed or minimally processed food locally, consumers support local farmers and producers economically, as well as reducing the food miles and carbon footprint of their food dollars.
Government food policy changes, such as the French government’s 4 for 1000 Initiative (now endorsed by 34 other nations) and their recent move to require at least 40% of public school food to be organic and locally produced, can strengthen consumer trends toward buying local and healthier food.
Food Processing/Packaging: 8-10%
Food processing has become a major part of the industrial food chain. In the U.S. the overwhelming majority of food purchased in grocery stores or restaurants is processed food. As the ETC group states “The transformation of foods into ready-made meals, snacks and beverages requires an enormous amount of energy, mostly in the form of carbon. So does the packaging and canning of these foods. Processing and packaging enables the food industry to stack the shelves of supermarkets and convenience stores with hundreds of different formats and brands, but it also generates a huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions – some 8 to 10% of the global total.” <http://grain.org/e/5102>
More and more consumers are recognizing that highly processed food, whether served at home or in fast food restaurants is bad for our health; while wasteful packaging, misleading advertising, and plastic bags and containers are harmful both to our health (especially children’s health) and to our environment. This awareness has caused a boom in sales of fresh organic produce and animal products in natural food stores and farmer’s markets. Many cities are now moving toward banning plastic bags. Unfortunately, U.S. consumers still spend almost half of their food dollars eating in restaurants and fast food outlets where highly processed, packaged foods dominate the menu. Similarly in schools and cafeterias pre-cooked processed foods delivered by food service conglomerates have displaced hand-cooked meals prepared from fresh ingredients.
If we are to reduce the 8-10% of global fossil fuel emissions coming from food processing and packaging we will need to get back to healthy, organic, regionally produced foods, cooked from scratch with natural ingredients. This will not only benefit our health but the health of the climate and the environment as well.
Sadly, many American consumers, and increasingly urban consumers all over the world, may have trouble remembering the last time they ate a meal prepared entirely with wholesome, organic farm-to-table ingredients, without using any canned or prepackaged products. This is because most Americans today consume mostly processed foods, foods produced with pesticides, GMOs, and synthetic chemicals, routinely laced with too much sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats.
Food Refrigeration & Retail: 2-4%
Approximately 15% of all electricity consumption world wide is for cooling and refrigeration. Of course global food sourcing depends upon keeping fresh produce and animal products cold. As ETC group states” Considering that cooling is responsible for 15 percent of all electricity consumption worldwide, and that leaks of chemical refrigerants are a major source of GHGs, we can safely say that the refrigeration of foods accounts for some 1-2% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. The retailing of foods accounts for another 1-2%.” As mentioned above reducing our food miles, buying locally and regionally is not only good for the planet, but good for our health and the economic well-being of our local farmers and ranchers as well. Until the electricity grid is converted over to renewable energy, food refrigeration, and refrigeration in general (especially air conditioning) will continue to belch out an unsustainable amount of greenhouse gases. But in the meantime we can all do our part, not only by turning down our thermostats, but by buying food produced locally and regionally, pressuring politicians to require local purchasing for schools and institutions, or better yet, by growing some of our own.
Waste–Throwing Food into Landfills Instead of Composting 3-4%
Our industrial food and farming system currently discards 30-50% of all the crops and the food that is produced. Not only is this a prodigious waste of the fossil fuel energy and labor involved in producing this food, but the food waste itself generally ends up in garbage dumps and landfills, (rather than being converted into compost) releasing substantial amounts of methane and other GHGs. As ETC group points out, “Between 3.5-4.5% of global GHG emissions come from waste, and over 90% of these are produced by materials originating within the food system.” <http://grain.org/e/5102>
Industrial agriculture routinely uses millions of tons of climate destructive, soil destroying chemical fertilizer every year instead of natural compost from food waste, crop residues, and animal manure. In order to reduce methane emissions from rotting food in landfills cities and towns need to move toward “zero waste” regulations, such as the mandatory law in San Francisco that requires all organic waste (food, lawn and tree trimmings) from residential or commercial buildings to be composted. Not only has San Francisco drastically reduced its landfill expenses and methane emissions by doing this, but it has also created a valuable market for its compost, in part supplying the compost needs for organic farmers and vineyards in six counties surrounding San Francisco.And of course zero waste requires the recycling of cans, bottles, plastic, and paper as well, thereby reducing the emissions caused by manufacturing new products from virgin as opposed to recycled materials.
The Bottom Line on Greenhouse Gas Emissions
The bottom line for stopping and eventually reversing global warming is that 44-57% of all greenhouse gases come our degenerative food and farming system. There is absolutely no way we will be able to reach 90-100% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050—the global consensus on what we have to do to avoid catastrophic runaway global warming—without a profound transformation in our food, farming, and land use practices.
Of course we also need to transform our energy system as well as our food system, the 43-56% of human induced emissions (the equivalent of 5 billion tons of carbon or 18 billion tons of CO2) that every year belch forth from our non-food transportation, housing, utilities, manufacturing, and land use sectors.
Adding up both total food, and total non-food derived global emissions comes to approximately 10 billions tons of carbon (the equivalent 36.7 Billion tons of carbon dioxide) pumped up into our already supersaturated atmosphere every year. Not all of these anthropocentric emissions stay in the atmosphere however. Approximately 3 billion tons are soaked up every year by the oceans, while another 1-2 billion tons are absorbed by our soils, plants and forests, leaving a net increase of five billion tons of carbon in the atmosphere every year.
Unfortunately, the oceans have already absorbed too much CO2, which is acidifying them. This acidification, combined with rising global temperatures, threatens the entire ocean food chain (which billions of humans depend upon). So we’ve got to stop using the oceans as our GHG garbage dump, or main carbon sink, as soon as possible.
Regenerating our soils, grasslands, wetlands, peat bogs, and forests, has multiple benefits. As our soils sequester or absorb more carbon they also become more fertile and productive, resilient to climate change, and able to store more rain water and moisture in their soils. The food that comes from regenerated or carbon-rich soils is more nutrient dense, filled with the important vitamins, nutrients, and trace minerals that we need to ward off disease and stay healthy. As soils improve so will the yields and food quality of crops and animals that small and medium-sized farmers and ranchers produce.
Because our global farm, pasture, rangelands, and forest soils (approximately 4 billion acres of croplands, 8 billion acres of pasture/rangelands and 10 billion acres of forest) are so degraded from chemical-intensive, mono-crop farming practices, erosion, desertification, and over-logging they are only able to absorb and store a fraction (25-50%) of the carbon that they once sequestered (and that they are capable of sequestering once again) if they were managed in a regenerative or organic manner.
As a result of this reckless mismanagement, the atmosphere and the oceans are absorbing the bulk of the greenhouse gases that normally would be absorbed by farmland, grasslands, and forests. This has led to a catastrophic excess of GHGs in both the oceans and the atmosphere. This excess has caused changes in climate and extreme fluctuations in weather; including droughts and torrential flooding. It is also driving oceanic acidification, oceanic dead zones, and dramatic declines in fish and crustacean populations. It is also increasingly melting the polar ice sheets, threatening to raise ocean levels several meters or more over the next 50 years, flooding coastal areas where hundreds of millions of people will have to move–literally melting down the global economy.
Little understood is the fact that the potential for CO2 storage in our soils and forests (where carbon sequestration content is now one-half or less than it was before the advent of the industrial revolution) is three times greater than our current 400 ppm CO2-laden atmosphere. And of course regenerating our soils will not only help us start to mitigate and eventually reverse global warming, but will improve our health and the economic situation of the world’s three billion small farmers and rural villagers. As the Rodale Institute puts it:
“Changing farming practices to organic, regenerative and agro-ecological systems can increase soil organic carbon stocks, decrease greenhouse gas emissions, maintain yields, improve water retention and plant uptake, improve farm profitability, and revitalize traditional farming communities while ensuring biodiversity and resilience of ecosystem services.” < http://rodaleinstitute.org/assets/WhitePaper.pdf>
Since we are fast approaching the tipping point of runaway global warming, our collective global survival and revival mission for the next 25 years must be to reach zero emissions, as soon as possible, and at the same time to “net sequester” or draw down as much excess CO2 from the atmosphere as possible. If we manage to do this our children and grandchildren descendants will be able to survive and even thrive in the remaining years of this century and beyond. If we fail, we are condemning our descendants to what only can be described as climate hell.
InsideClimate News 2017: Agriculture Begins to Tackle Its Role in Climate Change InsideClimate News By allowing countries to decide how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the landmark Paris climate agreement opened the door to new solutions.