Food, Farms, Forests, and Fracking: Connecting the Dots
If ever there was a time for activist networks and the body politic to cooperate and unite forces, it's now. Global warming, driven in large part by the reckless business-as-usual practices of multi-billion-dollar fossil fuel and agribusiness corporations, has brought us to the brink of a global calamity.
Greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution in the atmosphere has now reached 400 ppm of carbon dioxide (CO2), the highest level since our hunter and gatherer ancestors evolved 200,000 years ago. We are now facing, even though millions are still in denial, the most serious existential threat that humans have ever encountered. Through ignorance and greed, through unsustainable land use and abuse, through reckless deforestation, through unsustainable food, farming and ranching practices, and through overconsumption of fossil fuels, we have overloaded the atmosphere with dangerous levels of greenhouse gases: CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, and black soot.
If we look back 150 years, before the advent of modern energy-intensive agriculture, the industrial revolution, desertification and massive deforestation, there was once twice as much carbon matter or CO2 sequestered in the soil as there is right now. So where is this carbon that used to be in our soils, forests, farmlands, grasslands and wetlands? An alarming amount of GHG is up in our atmosphere right now, heating up the planet, melting the polar icecaps, and disrupting the traditional climate patterns that have enabled modern agricultural (post hunter-gatherer) civilizations to raise food, obtain water, and survive over the past 10,000 years.
Besides overloading the atmosphere, a dangerous portion of this GHG pollution has supersaturated the oceans, causing elevated temperatures and acidity to kill off coral reefs and plankton, in effect undermining the entire web of marine life. Scientists warn that these continued business-as-usual practices will, once atmospheric GHG pollution rises to 450 ppm and above, detonate runaway global warming and literally exterminate most life on earth.
So why is there 50-80 percent less carbon naturally sequestered in the plants, trees and soil relative to 150 years ago? Why are levels of methane (50-100 times more damaging per unit than CO2) and nitrous oxide (200 times more climate-disrupting per unit than CO2) steadily increasing? For starters, farmers and corporate agribusiness have ploughed up billions of acres of prairies and rangelands, destroying the deep-rooted perennial prairie grasses that sequestered billions of tons of greenhouse gases. In addition, in North America, European settlers slaughtered the vast herds of buffalo, 60 million animals, whose traditional migratory “mob” grazing preserved and maintained the perennial grasses. “Modern” agriculurists planted vast monocrops of grain and cotton, most often leaving the land completely bare between harvests. We drained the natural wetlands. Starting after the Second World War and accelerating ever since, we have allowed farmers to pour billions of tons of chemical fertilizer (the major source of nitrous oxide pollution) and pesticides on the soil, killing its natural capacity to stimulate plant growth and sequester carbon. Last but not least, we have allowed giant timber companies and now agribusiness multinationals to whack down a large portion of the world’s forests, especially the tropical rainforests, the lungs of the planet.
A continuation of industrial farming, ranching and forestry practices is a recipe for disaster, not only for humans but for every living organism. It’s not just the coal plants heating up the planet and creating climate chaos. It’s not just the gas-guzzling cars. It’s not just our poorly designed and badly insulated buildings and our overuse of heating systems, electrical appliances and air conditioning. Severe climate change is a direct result of what we eat every day and how we farm and confine and feed farm animals. We’ve got to get back to the traditional ways of organic farming, ranching, animal husbandry, cooking, and eating, and launch a global crash program of reforestation if want not just our children and grandchildren, but our species to survive.
Powerful, potentially world-changing grassroots movements are still for the most part working separately. If we want to solve the climate crisis, anti-GMO consumers, anti-fracking forces, the climate movement, alternative food and farming activists, animal welfare advocates, forest, wildlife and marine life conservationists, and the natural health community must connect the dots between our related issues. We must unite and create a powerful synergy between our public education and campaign efforts. Before it’s too late.
Time is short. The stakes are sky high.
Scientists warn that if we don’t rapidly make the transition to renewable energy, drastically limit the burning of fossil fuels, halt deforestation, and begin to naturally sequester carbon by ending our industrial farming system and shifting to a sustainable, organic alternative, we and our children and grandchildren will be forced to endure the catastrophic consequences of a 7- to 11-degree Fahrenheit rise in temperature by the end of the century.
If we fail to heed scientific research and continue to ignore the chaotic weather right in front of our eyes, we can expect permanent dust bowl conditions over the southwestern U.S., parts of the Great Plains and in heavily populated farming regions around the world. The oceans will rise by one foot by the year 2050, by 4 - 6 feet by 2100 and an additional 6 to 12 inches or more each decade, destroying our coast lines and coastal communities. The Earth will experience massive species extinction on land and sea, resulting in a 50-percent loss of biodiversity. Weather patterns will shift dramatically. We’ve already been hit by extreme weather events, events whose worst impacts, scientists say, will be “largely irreversible” for at least a thousand years.
It’s not just a fossil fuel problem.
Industrial agribusiness and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” separately and combined, play an even greater role in climate change than the overconsumption of fossil fuels.
Factory Farms, also called Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), are responsible for up to 51 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, more than the entire global transportation industry. Some scientists have labeled these factory farms “mini Chernobyls” for the way they pollute our air, soil, ground and surface water.
To feed the millions of tortured animals confined in CAFOs, the biotech industry supplies industrial farms with genetically engineered corn, soy, canola and cottonseed, crops that farmers douse with toxic herbicides and pesticides. This chemical-intensive, GMO industrial-model farming system threatens human health, the environment, and the livelihood of small farmers around the world. It also destroys the soil’s natural ability to sequester carbon, because of massive amounts of fossil fuels used on industrial farms and the billions of pounds of climate-disrupting chemical fertilizers and pesticides dumped on these farms.
The petroleum industry’s answer to reducing fossil fuel use, whether on industrial farms, on highways, or to cool or heat energy-inefficient buildings, is to sell us on its latest reckless scheme: hydraulic fracturing, better known as “fracking.” Fracking involves injecting massive amounts of water, sand and hundreds of highly toxic chemicals a mile deep into the ground to fracture shale rock in order to extract oil and gas. Companies like Chevron, Exxon-Mobil, Halliburton, and BP claim this process represents a “bridge to a clean energy future.” But independent scientists and informed citizens recognize extreme energy extraction for what it is: a superhighway to environmental and climate catastrophe.
Natural gas and oil development is already the second-largest contributor to greenhouse gas pollution in the U.S. The climate change footprint of natural gas, once the extraction process and the resulting methane (a greenhouse gas that is up to 105 times more powerful at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide) is factored in, is worse than coal. And, according to the U.S. Energy and Information Administration, if we pursue natural gas as a central component of our energy portfolio as planned, we’ll suffer an increase in temperature of approximately 7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2060 (a shocking 660 CO2 ppm).
Many movements. One voice
The climate change movement is growing louder and stronger every day. But slashing fossil fuel use can’t be our only solution to the impending climate calamity. And the climate movement can’t be the lone voice for calling for change.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be. Resistance to our out-of-control food and farming system has spawned an increasingly powerful and sophisticated alternative food and farming movement. Millions of Americans are demanding and purchasing healthy sustainable foods and are turning away from GMOs, factory farmed and highly processed foods, demanding truthful labels and a ban on harmful practices. Poll after poll show as many as 90 percent of Americans support labeling foods with GE ingredients. Some cities and counties are banning GE crops altogether. Consumers in dozens of states, through ballot initiatives or state legislation, are seeking to label foods containing GMOs. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has received over a million comments, the most ever submitted on one issue, from citizens demanding labels on GMOs.
Similarly, a powerful grassroots movement has sprung up around resistance to fracking. The movement has successfully banned fracking in Vermont and Quebec, and won temporary moratoriums in New York and New Jersey. Other states, including California, have proposed bans or moratoriums, as have cities and counties in Colorado, Oregon and other states. At last count, nearly 350 U.S. counties and cities had implemented moratoriums or outright bans.
Rethinking the solutions
We need to mobilize consciousness and action on multiple fronts to avert runaway global warming. These fronts include:
– Massive reductions (90 percent) in fossil fuel use over the next 20-30 years, not only in transportation, utilities, housing and industry, but most importantly in our food and farming sector. We must phase out GMOs, factory farms, chemical- and energy- intensive food production, processing, transportation and waste, and make the Great Transition to an organic, relocalized, humane and sustainable system of food and farming.
– Massive energy conservation through the retrofitting of buildings, transportation, utilities and industry, in order to make the transition to renewable forms of energy.
– Massive natural sequestration of excess CO2 (50-100 ppm of CO2 over next 50 years) through global reforestation, organic and no-till farm practices on cropland, and holistic grazing (carbon ranching) of animals on pastureland and grasslands.
– Bans on fracking, nuclear power, coal plants, deepwater oil exploration and other extreme energy extraction methods.
New studies indicate that organic crop cultivation and holistic rotational grazing of animals on perennial pastures dramatically increase the amount of organic carbon material in the soil. By abandoning industrial crop production, GMOs and factory farms in favor of organic and holistic farming and ranching we can accelerate plant photosynthesis on a global scale, reversing desertification and literally drawing down billions of tons of excess greenhouse CO2 out of the atmosphere. As the world's 3.5 billion acres of cropland and 8.3 billion acres of pasture and rangelands are transitioned to no-till organic farming and carbon ranching, we will be able to sequester anywhere from 1,000-7,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per acre per year, enough to restabilize the climate if we simultaneously embark on a program of global reforestation, energy conservation and conversion to renewable forms of energy. At the same time we must regenerate the 5 billion acres of forest that have been destroyed over the past 150 years.
By abolishing factory farms and industrial and GE crop cultivation, and making the Great Transition to traditional rotational “carbon” ranching and organic farming we can potentially sequester almost 100 percent of excess greenhouse gas emissions, and help bring the CO2 level back down to the safe level of 350 ppm.
The task at hand is daunting, but absolutely necessary. We need to jump start our 21st century revolution in consciousness, coalition building and action. Now. This doesn’t mean we have to give up on all of our daily responsibilities and our primary passions. But it does mean that we must all, or at least a critical mass of us, immediately connect the dots between climate-friendly food, energy, transportation, forestry, media, public education, public policy, and politics. We must harmonize our discourse, broaden our alliances and bring together the myriad currents of a U.S. and global movement for survival and revival into an unstoppable force.
Starting today, not next year, we've all got to become climate hawks, forest protectors, anti-fracking activists, proponents of healthy and climate-friendly organic farming and ranching, and democracy activists, to break up corporate control over the marketplace and over our elections, media and public policy. Starting today we must move together to save our climate, our civilization and Mother Earth.