Thursday, March 13, 2008

Food and Climate Change


In discussions about what to do to reverse climate change, most people--whether environmentalists, politicians, or plain ordinary folks--overlook an obvious, yet largely ignored, source of greenhouse gas emissions: the global industrial food system. This elephant in the room seems to escape attention in the media, in legislative chambers, and in coffeeshop discussions, despite the fact that our crop- and livestock-raising practices represent about 33 percent of the greenhouse gas totals generated by human activities.

Anna Lappé, writing for, cites data analysis by the Pew Center on Global Climate that blames the livestock sector by itself for one-fifth of the total world emissions. This represents more emissions than is produced by all the planes, trains, and automobiles on the planet.

We are deeply wedded to a system that is inexorably leading to climate changes that could eventually make the planet uninhabitable.

Industrial farming is particularly problematic because it is a key emitter of methane and nitrous oxide, which have, respectively, 23 and 296 times the global warming effect of carbon dioxide. In the United States, widespread use of nitrogen fertilizer, roughly half of which is wasted in leaching and runoff, contributes to approximately three-quarters of the country's nitrous oxide emissions. Globally, agriculture is responsible for nearly two-thirds of methane emissions.

With climate scientists warning we need an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to avert planetary catastrophe, it's clear we need bold action -- and that bold action must include re-thinking food.

The article, despite the grim scenario depicted, has a hopeful tone, highlighting a rapidly emerging counterweight to the excesses of industrial farming: climate-friendly farming practiced on family-scale farms. Miniscule in scope at the moment compared to the overall agricultural behemoths that dominate the landscape, organic gardening as practiced by small farms such as Seattle Tilth, may be our best bet for the future.

As Anna concludes:

An organization such as Seattle Tilth may seem like a tiny drop in the climate-change bucket, but its impact should not be measured in isolation. Dozens of sister efforts are flourishing -- from Austin, Texas, to Ypsilanti, Mich. -- encouraging people to reconnect with their food and giving people the opportunity to get their hands in the dirt.

Yes, the specter of climate chaos is daunting, but day-by-day and garden-by-garden organizations such as Seattle Tilth are showing a homegrown way to address the crisis.

Well said...