Climate Catastrophe: Surviving the 21st Century
“The catastrophic impacts of climate change are not only going to take place in the distant future. They are taking place now.”
– Vandana Shiva, Soil not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis
Climate Stabilization Requires a Cultural and Political Revolution
The climate, energy, and political catastrophe we are facing is mind-boggling and frightening. Yet there is still time to save ourselves, to move beyond psychological denial, despair, or false optimism. There is still hope if we are willing to confront the hydra-headed monsters that block our path, and move ahead with a decisive plan of action. The inspirational message we need to deliver is that we’re not just talking about drastically reducing fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution, but rebuilding society, creating in effect a New Woman and a New Man for the 21st Century. What we are witnessing are the early stages of a mass grassroots consciousness-raising and taking back of power from out-of-control corporations, banks, corporate-controlled media, and politicians. This cultural and political revolution will empower us to carry out a deep and profound retrofitting of industry, government, education, health care, housing, neighborhoods, transportation, food and farming systems, as well as our diets and lifestyles.
The scale of human and physical resources needed to turn our current suicide economy into a green economy is daunting, but absolutely necessary and achievable. The only viable roadmap for survival-an 80-90% reduction in fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050-means we must force a drastic reduction in military spending (current wars and military spending are costing us almost one trillion dollars a year). We must tax the rich and the greenhouse gas polluters, and bring our out-of-control politicians, banks, Federal Reserve System, and corporations to heel.
The good news, as Van Jones and others have pointed out, is that this 21st Century green economy will not only stabilize the climate, but enable us to retrain and reemploy the U.S. workforce, including low-income youth and 16-25 million unemployed workers, as building retrofitters, solar and wind installers, recyclers, organic gardeners, farmers, nutritionists, holistic health care providers, and other green economy workers.
Beyond Copenhagen: Civilization at the Crossroads
The negotiators and heads of state at the December 2009 Copenhagen Climate negotiations abandoned the summit with literally no agreement on meaningful greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane) reduction, and little or no acknowledgment of the major role that industrial (non-organic) food and farming practices play in global warming. Unfortunately the statements and behavior of Copenhagen delegates, and the enormous divisions between the Global South and the industrialized nations, make it clear that galvanizing a legally binding international agreement to drastically reduce greenhouse gas pollution will be a protracted and difficult struggle.
China and the United States are equally and jointly responsible for more than 40% of the current global climate destabilizing GHGs. China’s emissions arise from 20% of the world’s population. U.S. emissions come from 5%. Although China, India, Mexico, Brazil and other developing nations are responsible for a growing discharge of GHGs, most of the greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and oceans today are directly attributable to the United States and Europe’s industrial and transportation emissions since the early 1900s.
From an ethical, legal, and survival perspective, North America, E.U. and Japan must lead the way. To avoid a disastrous rise in global temperature (a literal climate holocaust), the wealthy, highly industrialized nations must acknowledge the seriousness of the crisis, cut their emissions, and stop playing blame and denial games with China, India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and other developing nations. Major cuts by the developed nations need to start now, and they need to be deep, not 7% as President Obama proposed in Copenhagen, nor the 20% that the E.U. offered.
The hour is late. Leading climate scientists such as James Hansen are literally shouting at the top of their lungs that the world needs to reduce emissions by 20-40% as soon as possible, and 80-90% by the year 2050, if we are to avoid climate chaos, crop failures, endless wars, melting of the polar icecaps, and a disastrous rise in ocean levels. Either we radically reduce CO2 and carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e, which includes all GHGs, not just CO2) pollutants (currently at 390 parts per million and rising 2 ppm per year) to 350 ppm, including agriculture-derived methane and nitrous oxide pollution, or else survival for the present and future generations is in jeopardy. As scientists warned at Copenhagen, business as usual and a corresponding 7-8.6 degree Fahrenheit rise in global temperatures means that the carrying capacity of the Earth in 2100 will be reduced to one billion people. Under this hellish scenario, billions will die of thirst, cold, heat, disease, war, and starvation.
If the U.S. significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions, other countries will follow. One hopeful sign is the recent EPA announcement that it intends to regulate greenhouse gases as pollutants under the Clean Air Act. Unfortunately we are going to have to put tremendous pressure on elected public officials to force the EPA to crack down on GHG polluters (including industrial farms and food processors). Public pressure is especially critical since “just say no” Congressmen-both Democrats and Republicans-along with agribusiness, real estate developers, the construction industry, and the fossil fuel lobby appear determined to maintain “business as usual.”
During the Bush years, scientific warnings and public demonstrations against global warming were ignored or trivialized, even though many of our protests were large and well organized. Now, in theory, we finally have a Congressional majority and a President who claim to be willing to listen and take action to stop global warming. But in order to get their attention, and move from small change to major change, we are going to have to turn up the volume. We have to stop thinking that things are going to get better because Obama is right-minded. Things are going to get better if and when we force Obama and our out-of-control politicians and corporations to bend to the people’s will.
Beyond Copenhagen: Making Polluters Pay
Instead of the weak “cap and trade” bill supported by Wall Street speculators, and passed by the House, we need a real tax on GHG pollution. Yes, we can and must directly rebate working class and poor people for increased energy costs, but hundreds of billions of dollars in GHG and corporate taxes annually must be earmarked over the next decade for green infrastructure development, including a new electric grid, a mass transition to organic agriculture, mass transit upgrades, deep retrofitting of the nation’s five million commercial and 83 million residential buildings, and a crash program of alternative energy research and development.
We must continue to expose the worst greenhouse gas polluters, such as utilities companies, petrochemical corporations, car manufacturers, coal and mining companies, the construction industry, and corporate agribusiness, and demand that they begin to retool their industries immediately. We must move beyond polite protest and scattered dissent and dramatically take our message to the streets and the corporate suites, Congress, state legislatures, and our local governments.
The Deadly Greenhouse Footprint of American Consumers
We all know in general that cars, trucks, coal and power plants, household heating and cooling, and manufacturing industries spew a majority of the greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and the oceans. But did you know that U.S. household use of fossil fuels (housing, transportation, and food) accounts for 67% of total energy consumption and 67% of GHG’s emitted? 1
Heating, lighting, and cooling our poorly insulated and designed 113 million homes and apartments and running our electrical and gas appliances consumes 26.6% of total U.S. fossil fuels.
Cruising in our gas guzzling (averaging 22 miles per gallon) and underutilized cars (average 1.4 passengers per journey) burns up another 23.4% of energy.
Eating highly processed and packaged foods and animal products, produced on chemical and energy-intensive factory-style farms, transported over long distances, and throwing our waste foods into the garbage (rather than composting them) eats up another 17.3% of the nation’s energy.
The average U.S. citizen generates 19.6 tons of climate destabilizing greenhouse gases every year, more than twice as much as the European Union and Japan (9.3 tons per capita), and 7.3 times as much as the developing world (2.7 tons per capita).
The Tab for Saving the U.S. from Climate Chaos: $700 Billion a Year
The estimated costs over the next 40-50 years to replace coal and natural gas with solar and wind in electricity generation, at current levels of use, is $15 trillion (which is about the equivalent of U.S. GNP for one year). 2
We must reduce fossil fuel use by 80-90% in the nation’s five million commercial and 83 million residential buildings (which currently use up 40% or 40 quadrillion BTUs of our total energy), including reducing building size, changing lighting and windows, making wall, ceilings and floors as thick and as airtight as possible (R-50 or R-60), and placing furnaces and ductwork inside the retrofitted space. The estimated costs for this in future decades will amount to another $10-15 trillion This figure is based upon deep retrofitting costs of $50,000 per residential unit, and $600,000-$2,000,000 per commercial building, with two million new more compact units per year replacing old housing and business stock and meeting new 90% fossil fuel reduction standards.
Converting from our current energy and chemical/GMO-intensive food and farming system (which currently accounts for 35% of our greenhouse gases and $800 billion in diet-related health care costs annually) to one which is organic, relocalized, energy-efficient, and carbon sequestering, will cost at least another $100 billion per year, or $5 trillion over 50 years.
Rebuilding our mass transit systems and reorganizing personal transportation (5-15 people in high-mileage “smart jitneys” and electric cars and vans instead of 1.4 passengers in gas guzzlers, along with a massive increase in bicycle use) will cost us at least another $100 billion a year, or $5 trillion over 50 years.
In other words we need to start redirecting $700 billion a year in federal expenditures away from war and corporate welfare, offer training and jobs in a giant green jobs program (similar to the Works Project Administration program of the New Deal era in the 1930s), and build a new green, full-employment economy. Where are we going to get this money? Not by raising taxes on working people and the poor, but by taxing the rich and the greenhouse gas polluting corporations, and guaranteeing loans from a new citizen-controlled Federal Reserve and banking system.
A major part of this transition to an organic and low-carbon economy will require innovative public and private financing for home, transportation, food and farming retrofitting along the lines of the recent PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) program in California. 3 Under this “Slow Money” regime, homeowners, renters, businesses, and farmers can immediately start to reduce their energy bills and carbon footprints and get their homes, businesses, and farms retrofitted for no money down, with low-interest costs being added to their mortgages and tax bills over an extended 30-40 year period.
Can we afford $700 billion per year? Obviously we can, although shortsighted, unsustainable corporate profits will no doubt suffer. Keep in mind that the Pentagon budget, not including the wars for oil and strategic resources in Afghanistan and Iraq, will cost us over $700 billion dollars this year. And don’t forget that Obama and his advisors recently handed over approximately $12 trillion in subsidies and grants to the Wall Street criminals and pathological kleptomaniacs who rule our out-of-control financial system. Clearly, what we are proposing is chump-change compared to our recent corporate giveaways.
Honest businesses, homeowners, consumers, farmers and industries that reduce their carbon footprint and help develop the green economy can and should receive substantial tax credits. Speculators, mercenaries, toxic polluters, and Masters of War can go to financial hell, where they belong.
The Hidden Greenhouse Gas Damage of Food Inc.
Although transportation, industry, and energy producers are significant polluters, few people understand that the worst U.S. greenhouse gas emitter is “Food Incorporated,” industrial food and farming. Industrial farming 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 cattle grazing-including whacking down the last remaining tropical rainforests in Latin America and Asia for 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 and indirect impacts of industrial agriculture and the food industry are the major cause of global warming. No strategy for reducing excess greenhouse gases back to the “safe” level of 350 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere can be successful without drastically reducing emissions from industrial agriculture and sequestering billions of tons of greenhouse gases in the soil through organic and sustainable farming, ranching, land restoration, and forestry practices-driven in part by mas consumer demand for products that are organic, sustainable, and climate friendly.
Currently conventional (energy and chemical-intensive non-organic) 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 animal gas, and manure ponds), and 96% of nitrous oxide (mostly from synthetic fertilizer manufacture and use, the millions of tons of animal manure from cattle herds, pig and poultry flocks, and millions of tons of sewage sludge spread on farms). 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 now admit that they have previously drastically underestimated the dangers of the non-CO2 GHGs, including methane and nitrous oxide, which are responsible for at least 20% of global warming. 4
A major portion of the CO2e (all GHGs not just CO2) emitted by industrial farming comes from long distance transportation, heating, freezing, and processing. So, the more you cook from scratch, buy locally, and eat raw vegetables and fruits, the less CO2e you produce. The bottom line is that we as a society are what we eat. In the oncoming era of climate chaos and peak oil, we must make the transition to energy efficient, climate adaptable, local and regional based organic farms, urban gardens, and primarily vegetarian diets, or we will likely not survive.
Almost all U.S. food and farm-derived methane comes from factory farms, huge herds of confined cows, hogs, poultry operations, as well as rotting food waste thrown into land-fills instead of being separated out of the solid waste stream and properly composted. To drastically reduce methane releases we need an immediate ban on factory farms, dairies, and feedlots. We also need mandatory separation and recycling of food wastes and green garbage at the municipal level, so that that we can 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 animal feed. Since about 80% of U.S. agriculture is devoted to producing meat, dairy, and animal feed, reducing agriculture GHGs means eliminating the overproduction and over-consumption of meat and animal products.
Organic Farming and Ranching Can Drastically Reduce GHG Emissions
The currently catastrophic, but largely unrecognized, GHG damage from chemical farms and industrial food production and distribution must be reversed. This will involve wholesale changes in farming practices, government subsidies, food processing and handling. It will require the conversion of a million chemical farms and ranches to organic production. It will require the establishment of millions of urban backyard and community gardens.
If consumer pressure and grassroots mobilization geared toward changing public policies cannot force U.S. factory farmers to change the way they farm, process, and ship their products it will be almost impossible to deal with catastrophic U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. 5 On a very hopeful note, however, if farmers do change, and make the transition to organic farming, farm and ranch land can become a significant sink or sequester pool for greenhouse gasses, literally sucking excess greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and the ozone layer and sequestering them safely in the soil, where they belong.
Our planet has five pools or repositories where greenhouse gases are absorbed and stored: the oceans, the atmosphere, the soils, vegetation (plants, especially perennial plants and forests), and hydrocarbon deposits. 6 Because U.S farm, pasture, rangelands, and forest soils are so degraded from chemical-intensive, mono-crop farming practices and over-logging they are only able to absorb and store half (or less) of the carbon gases than they would be capable of if they were organically managed. 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 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 also causes oceanic acidification, oceanic dead zones, and dramatic declines in fish and crustacean populations.
Little understood is the fact that the potential for CO2 storage in our soils (where carbon sequestration content is now one-half or less lower than before the advent of the industrial revolution) is three times greater than our current 389 ppm CO2-laden atmosphere. According to Dr. James Hansen, the world’s leading expert on climate change, 50 ppm of this excess carbon (as well as excess methane and nitrous oxide) could be sucked down and stored in the soil over the next 50 years utilizing organic and sustainable land management (farming, ranching, and forestry) practices.
Unfortunately, when they evaluate agricultural greenhouse gas pollutants, pro-agribusiness government bureaucrats in the EPA and USDA do not include many of the ten quadrillion Btus of fossil fuel energy energy consumed by our industrial food, farming, and ranching system, nor the corresponding greenhouse gas emissions. They do not take into account the transportation, cooling, freezing, and heating of farm products as agricultural GHG emissions, even though our food travels an average of 1500 miles to our tables and is routinely frozen and cooled to ensure its deliverability. They don’t count the CO2 and “black carbon” particle emissions from trucks, tractors, combines and other equipment used on farms. They don’t count the massive energy use (four quadrillion Btus) in kitchens and restaurants to store and prepare industrial, highly processed food. They don’t count the emissions from fertilizer manufacture or use, wasteful packing, sewage sludge spread on farm and range land, or the methane emitted from factory farms and the billions of tons of rotting, non-composted food in our landfills and garbage dumps. They vastly underestimate the massive release of CO2 and other GHGs from farm, pasture, and rangelands that have been destroyed (losing their capacity to sequester billions of tons of carbon in the soil) by chemicals, GMOs, and non-sustainable grazing practices. Instead, they lump and thereby conceal all these farm, ranching, and food related GHG emissions under the categories of industrial manufacture, transportation, or electrical use. As a result, the public spotlight never shines on mounting agricultural, food, garbage, and sludge pollution.
Because government officials deliberately fail to evaluate the real farm and food-derived greenhouse gas emissions, they are free to act as if the emissions coming from agriculture are not significant compared to the U.S. total, even though they represent more than one-third of the total pollutants. Consequently, most lawmakers and the public don’t realize how urgent it is to regulate and drastically curtail factory farm and Food Inc.’s emissions.
Chemical Fertilizer and Sewage Sludge: Silent Killers
The most damaging greenhouse gas poisons used by farmers and ranchers are synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and municipal/industrial sewage sludge. Obviously pesticide manufacture and use are also serious problems and generate their own large share of greenhouse gases during manufacture and use (more than 25 billion pounds per year). But, about six times more chemical fertilizer is used than toxic pesticides on U.S. farms, and an additional huge volume of sewage sludge is spread on farm and range land as well. 7
German chemical corporations developed the industrial processes for the two most widely used forms of synthetic nitrogen in the early 1900s. But, until World War II, U.S. use of synthetic nitrogen as a fertilizer was limited to about 5% of the total nitrogen applied. Up until that time most nitrogen inputs came from animal manures, composts and fertilizer (cover) crops, just as it does on organic farms today. 8
During the Second World War, all of the European powers and the U.S. greatly expanded their facilities for producing nitrogen for bombs, ammunition, and fertilizer for the war effort. Since then, the use of nitrogen fertilizer and bomb making capacity has soared. By the 1990s, more than 90% of nitrogen fertilizer used in the U.S. was synthetic. 9
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the average U.S. nitrogen fertilizer use per year from 1998 to 2007 was 24 billion 661 million pounds. To produce that nitrogen the manufacturers released at least 6.7 pounds of greenhouse gas for every pound produced. That’s 165 billion, 228 million pounds of GHGs spewed into the atmosphere every year, just for the manufacture of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.10 And, most of those emissions are nitrous oxide, the most damaging emissions of U.S. agriculture.
Besides its greenhouse gas impacts, nitrogen fertilizer has other negative environmental consequences. Two-thirds of the U.S. drinking water supply is contaminated at high levels with carcinogenic nitrates or nitrites, almost all from excessive use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Some public wells have nitrogen at such a high level that it is dangerous and even deadly for children to drink the tap water. Nitrogen fertilizer is also the greatest contributor to the infamous “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay, the coasts of California and Oregon, and 400 other spots around the world. Since very little synthetic nitrogen fertilizer was used before 1950, all of the damage we see today occurred in the last 60 years.
If we did an environmental impact statement on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer today, we would never give it a permit for agricultural use. Until it is banned for the production of food and fiber, we must impose a high carbon tax on its manufacture and use. Unfortunately, at this point, agriculture is excluded from even the weak cap and trade plan passed by the House. So, although factory farming is responsible for more greenhouse gases than any other U.S. industry, it will not be regulated under proposed EPA regulations designed to limit greenhouse gases, unless we demand it. We must demand that synthetic nitrogen fertilizer be highly taxed and regulated in the short term, and phased out, as soon as possible, with cover crops, compost and compost tea (as currently utilized in organic farming and ranching) providing a viable substitute. 11
We must also demand an end to the giveaway or sales of hazardous sewage sludge in agriculture, gardening or forestry. Instead of sewage sludge-contaminated and chemical-intensive farms, organic agriculture produces safer, nutritionally superior, comparable crop yields during normal weather, as well as much greater yields under drought and heavy rain conditions, without the use of synthetic pesticides, sewage sludge, or chemical fertilizer.
The Good News on Organics and Climate Change
The heretofore unpublicized “good news” on climate change, according to the Rodale Institute 12 and other soil scientists, is that transitioning from chemical, water, and energy-intensive industrial agriculture practices to organic farming and ranching on the world’s 3.5 billion acres of farmland and 8.2 billion acres of pasture or rangeland can sequester up to 7,000 pounds per acre of climate-destabilizing CO2 every year, while nurturing healthy soils, plants, grasses, trees and animals that are resistant to drought, heavy rain, pests, and disease. And as we have noted, organic farms and ranches provide us with food that is much more nutritious than industrial farms and ranches-food filled with vitamins, anti-oxidants, and essential trace minerals, free from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), pesticides, antibiotics, and sewage sludge.
In 2006, U.S. carbon dioxide pollution from fossil fuels (approximately 25% of the world’s total) was estimated at nearly 6.5 billion tons. If a 7,000 lb/CO2/ac/year sequestration rate were achieved on one-half to all 434 million acres of cropland in the United States, 800 million to 1.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide would be sequestered per year, mitigating one-eight to one quarter of the country’s total fossil fuel emissions. If U.S. pastures and rangelands were similarly converted to organic and “carbon ranch” practices (high-density rotational “mob” grazing being the most advanced range restoration and carbon sequestering technique), and these practices were spread across the globe, we would be well on our way to reversing global warming. The massive CO2 sequestration potential of organic farming and ranching are literally our lifeline to survival, buying us the precious time we need to move to a carbon neutral, alternative energy economy.
According to Courtney White of the Quivira Coalition, thousands of ranchers and pastoralists around the world are already demonstrating that “carbon ranching” can bring about a Great Sequestering of greenhouse gases, utilizing (1) high-density, planned grazing systems; (2) restoration of riparian zones and wetlands; (3) removal of excess woody vegetation and replacement with perennial grasses; (4) conserving land from further urban development; (5) organic, no-till farming practices; and (6) management of public and private land for long-term econlogical and economic sustainability.
Toxic Sludge from Municipal Sewage Treatment Plants
Besides synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, unhealthy foods, pesticides, GMOs, and climate and environmentally destructive factory-farmed foods, a serious problem in the U.S. is the increasing use of hazardous sludge from sewage treatment plants to fertilize farm and pasture land. Sixty percent of all the sludge produced in the U.S. is currently applied to farmland that grows food for cattle and people. Estimates range from eight billion to more than 100 billion pounds. 13
A critical mass of scientific studies indicate that municipal sewage sludge routinely contains hundreds of dangerous pathogens, toxic heavy metals, flame retardants, endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, pharmaceutical drugs and other hazardous chemicals coming from residential drains, storm water runoff, hospitals, and industrial plants. Poisonous sludge is currently being spread on at least 70 million acres on 140,000 (non-organic) farms and ranches across the U.S. So-called EPA “regulation” of sludge is among the worst in the world. Unless we stop this dangerous practice, the sludge industry will destroy millions of acres of farmland as well as urban land we will need for future urban gardens. Sludge is also an increasingly worrisome greenhouse gas emitter.
The Organic Movement Must “Get Political” and Become a Major Player
We must advocate and agitate, as well as “walk our talk” in our daily lives. We must organize a U.S. and global mass movement for the conversion of the world’s 3.5 billion acres of farmland and 8.2 billion acres of rangeland and pasture to organic production and grazing as soon as possible. Organic regulations prohibit the use of synthetic nitrogen, pesticides, sludge, antibiotics, artificial hormones, GMOs, and other environmentally destructive, health-threatening, greenhouse gas emitting practices. Organic must become the norm, not just the alternative. To facilitate a mass transition to organic we must force the U.S. Congress, as well as local and state governments, to fund a great “organic transition,” including the creation of thousands of cadres of organically trained extension agents, and a million new urban, community, and school gardens. In the next Farm Bill, we must eliminate all subsidies to farmers and ranchers except for land stewardship, soil-building subsidies based upon the amount of carbon-sequestering organic matter added to the soil. Thousands of U.S. farmers and ranchers have already made the transition to organic food production and soil and climate-friendly rotational grazing. Now a million more need to do the same. The fate of human civilization hangs in the balance.
More and more farmers around the world are learning that they can significantly reduce greenhouse gas pollution and produce substantial, high quality yields by switching to organic farming practices. While we develop our alternative marketplace and pressure legislators and the regulators to act to fundamentally reform the 2012 Farm Bill, we must urge conscientious conventional farmers to use existing federal Conservation Reserve, Conservation Security, EQUIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program), and special practice programs to help them begin the switch to organic as soon as possible.
Restoring Climate Stability: Soil and More
U.S. farmers, as well as farmers all over the world, have known for at least 200 years that they should replace lost soil fertility. Over the last two centuries, numerous strategies were devised in the U.S. to replace soil nitrogen and soil organic matter, without the use of chemicals. Many of these strategies are widely used today by organic and biodynamic farmers.
As early as 1813, John Taylor lamented the loss of vegetable (organic) matter in the soil and felt that we were destroying our precious soil fertility by over cropping and sloppy farming practices. 14 Since the 1840s, fertilizer manufacturers and alchemists tried to convince farmers to replace fertility with store bought chemicals. But, farmers were wary of these products and the claims made by their salesmen.
Other scientists argued over the years that soil with high-organic matter content was far more productive and fertile even in times of drought and excess moisture. 15 As a result, U.S. farmers traditionally replaced their organic matter with fertilizer crops, manure, and compost, and most did not buy store bought fertilizer until the 1950s.
In 2007 and 2009, results similar to these conclusions were reported from studies of the Morrow agricultural experiment plots at the University of Illinois, in Champaign-Urbana (the oldest continuously planted U.S. experimental farm plot). There, researchers found that continuous corn on a synthetic nitrogen fertilized plot since 1955 suffered significant carbon losses and soil nitrogen losses compared to pre-1955 when the plots were fertilized organically with manure, fertilizer crops, and compost. 16
A significant factor in the decline of these soils was the loss of organic matter, since soil organic matter both feeds soil microorganisms and the miccorhizal fungi-both vital components of a healthy soil. Since 1950, the soils of the major farming areas of the U.S. have been bombarded yearly with vast quantities of soil-killing pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, just as the Morrow plots were. The Morrow plot conclusions should be a wake-up call to farmers and synthetic fertilizer consultants. Those conclusions are that currently recommended fertilizer applications are from 40 to 190% excessive and that long-term fertility suffers when farmers depend on synthetic fertilizers and don’t replace lost organic matter utilizing organic soil management.
On several chemically abused pieces of ground where we farmed, and with cotton, vegetable, and corn farmers we have advised, we were able to dramatically increase the soil organic matter in three or four years from 1.5% to 3 or 4%, effectively doubling the amount of GHG sequestration while eliminating nitrate fertilizer runoff and emissions. Using a small amount of compost and growing fertilizer crops in the fall and winter months and cash-fertility crops in the spring and summer accomplished these increases. Each percentage point increase in organic matter represents a major increase in soil nitrogen, i.e., nitrogen produced by microorganisms decomposing organic matter. Each percentage increase in organic matter also enables the soil to absorb and store more carbon, from 3,000-7,000 lbs. or more of CO2 per year per acres.
Beyond Factory Farm Beef, Pork, and Poultry
Along with changing the way we farm, we must also alter what we farm, and what we eat. Our excessive dependence on (non-organic, non-rotationally grazed and grass-fed) meat, fed on monoculture annual grains (as opposed to perennial grasses) is not sustainable over the long term since, as we have noted, 80% of our agriculture is devoted to producing animals, which is the least energy efficient food. To raise meat on factory farms takes too many input calories (primarily fossil fuel), too much acreage, too much nitrogen fertilizer, as well as hazardous pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones, not to mention millions of acres of genetically modified (GM) crops.
A few examples illustrate this point clearly. It takes 10 to 12 pounds of grain (corn, wheat, soy, cottonseed) to produce one pound of marketable feedlot beef (that is 5000 to 6000 pounds of grain to produce 500 pounds of meat). It takes one gallon of oil to grow and ship the feed for one pound of beef. It requires 78 calories of fossil fuel (mostly to grow the grain) to produce one calorie of protein from feedlot-produced beef. 2500 gallons of water are needed to produce a single pound of confinement beef.
We all need to eat less (or better yet none) of the non-organic fatty meats that are grown in abusive feedlots, hog hotels, and poultry prisons. Just reducing U.S. meat intake by a third would reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by one-third. And, if you replace the factory farm meat in your diet with range fed organic meat you will reduce your personal carbon footprint, strike a blow for humane treatment of farm animals, and improve your health. Meat eaters don’t necessarily have to stop eating meat, they just need to understand which meat is safe and humanely raised (organic and grass-fed), and sustainable.
Ultimately, if we change our eating habits, and curtail our Madison Avenue and mass media-induced need to buy and consume so many clothes and consumer products, we can significantly reduce our carbon footprint. Whether or not government bureaucrats and corporations change their behavior in the short term will be determined by the strength of U.S. and global grassroots movements. But we will never be able to build, motivate, and lead these movements unless we first start walking our talk and create viable models of organic conversion and green economics in our individual lives and in our local communities.
On the other hand, changing our habits is not enough-we must demand that the Obama administration act and impose a carbon tax, including a tax on chemical agriculture. We need to demand much higher emission reduction commitments, along with an end to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, nationalization of the big banks and financial institutions, and a restoration of democracy, starting with publicly funded elections. The remaining TARP bank rescue money should go to kick-start green energy, transportation, and sustainable agriculture projects, and to train and hire the jobless to retrofit and build the new green economy. These are strategic Main Street issues; communities want new green infrastructure, healthy food, new industries, and new quality jobs
A New Works Project Administration
A modern day Works Project Administration could train and employ a massive green corps to create the green infrastructure and post-carbon economy. When FDR created the Works Project Administration in the 1930s there were about 60,000,000 workers in the labor market. Twenty-five percent, or 15,000,000 people were unemployed. Today, there are 154,400,000 workers in the labor market. The Labor Department estimates that 10.3% of the population is unemployed. Most analysts argue that the percentage is closer to 16.5%. Whoever is right, and whether it is 15.9 million or 24.7 million, more people are out of work now than during the Great Depression. And they desperately need jobs and training, just like people did during the Depression.
Environmentalist Bill McKibben is right, we need to mobilize a grassroots army to demand reductions in emissions and armies of workers to convert our infrastructure to a green economy. That means you must text, twitter, e-mail, and use FaceBook, Google, YouTube and other resources to get educated about climate change. Once you understand the gravity of the situation you will be able to change your habits, inform your friends, and participate in climate change demonstrations. Get organized at the local level and then coordinate your local efforts with nationwide networks such as the Organic Consumers Association and www.350.org.
Your children and grandchildren are depending on you to make their world livable. The hour is late.
Note: Contact these organizations or individuals for information and to meet others in your community who are participating in efforts to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions:
Center for Food Safety/Navdanya
1. Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change. Pat Murphy. New Society Publishers, pp. 120-127.
2.Ibid,, p. 85
3. “How innovative financing is changing energy in America” by Cisco Devries. Grist, January 27, 2010. https://www.grist.org/article/2010-01-26-how-innovative-financing-is-changing-energy-in-america#comments
4. “Los otros contaminantes que cambian el clima” by Jessica Seddon Wallack and Veerabhadran Ramanathan. Foreign Affairs Latinoamerica. Vol. 9 Number 4, 2009. pp. 29-40
5.Nutrient Overload: Unbalancing the Global Nitrogen Cycle. Staff of World Resources Program. 1998-1999
6. Agriculture and Climate Change: Impacts and Opportunities at the Farm Level. A Policy Position Paper of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. 2008
7. Three times more phosphorous and potash fertilizer are used than pesticides, so farmers use about 8 times as many pounds of commercial fertilizer as toxic pesticides.
8. Allen, Will, 2008. The War on Bugs, Chelsea Green, pp. 93-96, 144
9. Ibid., pp. 146-147
10.United States Department of Agriculture Fertilizer Use Statistics, 1998-2007
11. Until we stop being a military country, we will continue to make synthetic nitrogen for bombs.
12. “The Organic Revolution, How We Can Stop Global Warming” by Ronnie Cummins, and Alexis Baden-Mayer from the Organic Consumers Association. October 19, 2009 https://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_19404.cfm
13. The U.S. EPA estimates that 16 billion pounds of dry sludge are produced each year and that one-half of that is applied to farmland. Synagro (a division of the Carlyle Group), which is the largest distributor of sludge, contends that about 135 billion pounds of sludge are applied to farmland.
14. Taylor, John Arator, 1813, Reprint 1977, The Liberty Fund, Indianapolis
15. Wells, David, 1852. Comparison of the Organic Matter Content of Soils from Massachusetts and Ohio. Lawrence Scientific School, Harvard University.
16. R.L. Mulvaney, S.A Kahn and T.R. Ellsworth, Synthetic Nitrogen Fertilizers Deplete Soil Nitrogen: A Global Dilemma for Sustainable Cereal Production. Published in 2009 by The Journal of Environmental Quality. S.A Khan, R.L. Mulvaney, T.R. Ellsworth, and C. Boast. The Myth of Nitrogen Fertilization for Soil Carbon Sequestration. Published in the November/December 2007 issue of The Journal of Environmental Quality. Cawood, Matt, 2009 Why Synthetic Nitrogen is Bad for Soil Carbon Published in Stock and Land, Oct. 4.
Will Allen is an organic farmer, community organizer, activist, and writer who farms in Vermont. He is a Policy Advisor for the Organic Consumers Association. His book The War on Bugs was published by Chelsea Green in 2008. His website is www.thewaronbugsbook.comthe farm website is www.cedarcirclefarm.org
Ronnie Cummins is an organizer, writer, and activist. He is the International Director of the Organic Consumers Association and co-author of the book, Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers. His organization’s website is www.OrganicConsumers.org
Kate Duesterberg edited this article. She is an organic farmer who co-manages Cedar Circle Farm, with Will Allen, in Vermont. She previously worked as an organizer for Rural Vermont, coordinated the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Vermont, and was the managing director of the Sustainable Cotton Project.
Comments are closed.