The surprising fact is that agriculture emits more greenhouse gases than all our vehicles, trains and planes.
An amazingly large amount of methane is released by grain-fed cattle and by rice farms — and methane is many times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. There is also the nitrous oxide from fertilized fields, and carbon dioxide from the cutting of rain forests to grow crops or run cattle.
All the above is in addition to the fact that agriculture is the biggest user of our increasingly short fresh-water supply, as well as a major polluter due to runoff containing chemicals. And agricultural expansion threatens what biodiversity we have left.
With the likelihood of 2 billion more mouths to feed worldwide by mid-century, this is a big problem that is finally gaining attention. Even as mainstream a publication as National Geographic recently discussed the problem in detail.
We need to grow more food on the land already devoted to agriculture while at the same time greatly reducing the environmental impacts. A tall order, indeed. But it is doable if we have the will to do it.
The will has to come from consumers just as much as producers. First of all, we need to reduce our consumption of beef, particularly grain-fed beef. Not only will this help with our climate problem, it will also help with our health problems.
The medical profession recommends reduced red meat consumption and advises that 100 percent grass-fed beef is definitely healthier than grain-fed beef.
Grain-fed beef is also a very inefficient way of feeding people. For every 100 calories of grain fed to cattle, only 3 calories actually nourish people. We can make a big difference by limiting beef consumption and choosing only 100 percent grass-fed beef. For more animal protein, organic, locally grown chicken and eggs can serve as well as fish. And some sustainably grown pork (not from huge hog operations) can serve as an occasional change.
Then, of course, adding beans to dishes without meat also adds lots of protein. But in the U.S. and other “developed” countries, getting enough protein is not a problem anyway. In fact, the medical profession tells us we are actually eating too much protein and would be better off reducing our protein intake in favor of more healthy whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
We should support local organic agriculture. These more diversified and intensively managed organic farms use water more efficiently, produce virtually no polluting runoff, cut environmentally costly long-distance transport, and provide us healthier food.
Organic farms have to maintain healthier soil by recycling all kinds of organic waste back into the soil. And as an organic home gardener, I don’t even need a laboratory to tell me how much more satisfying it is produce grown in soil rich with organic matter. That organic matter feeds an astonishing number of beneficial microbes that help plants absorb the many nutrients found in such soil.
But even big, conventional farmers can be nudged to make major improvements in their environmental impacts by more precisely targeting fertilizer, water and chemical applications, and diversifying their crops to avoid the problems of monocultures. Monocultures deplete soil badly and are subject to heavy pest infestations requiring heavy pesticide applications.
One of the failures of the Obama administration in my view is its failure to wrest the U.S. Department Agriculture away from “Big Ag” and its lobbyists. We need an independent Agriculture Department that will encourage and then require better practices. We should also get rid of the huge subsidies paid for the main monoculture crops like corn.
Our family eats meat only twice a week, all organic, 100 percent grass-fed in the case of beef, and usually local. We also buy organic produce. Of course, we spend a little more on food, but I’m sure the cost is offset by the health and climate benefits.
We are also going to have to curtail the use of good farmland to grow biofuel crops and solve our energy needs with other technologies, including higher mandated efficiency standards.
Food waste also needs to be addressed. All kinds of experts in the field keep telling us that almost half of the total food produced is wasted before consumption. In the developed countries, most of the waste occurs in homes, restaurants and supermarkets. In the rest of the world, most of the waste is due to unreliable and inadequate storage and transport infrastructure.
I have personally long battled my supermarket to either compost its food waste or deliver it to local farms and gardens for composting. But big corporations do not pay attention to one voice. We all need to bring this issue up with out own supermarkets, and bring it up repeatedly. We can also encourage our local governments to require supermarkets and restaurants to see that their food waste is usefully recycled.
But the bottom line is that with this and other important issues, enough of us must find the will to act in order to make a difference.
Mary Boland’s column appears on the third Saturday of each month. She is a retired teacher and journalist, a proud grandmother and a longtime resident of Carbondale.