As the threat of climate disruption becomes increasingly urgent, it makes sense that every source of greenhouse gas emissions should come under scrutiny. Both the reckless burning of fossil fuels and unsustainable agricultural practices are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. However, as the recent documentary film Cowspiracy rightly points out, the latter are too often overlooked as a potential source of reductions.
In fact, how we farm and what we eat can make a real difference for our climate future, and that knowledge should inform not only our personal choices but also our public policies. Eliminating or reducing meat consumption in your diet is one important way to reduce your contribution to climate change, since animal agriculture is the single largest source of global greenhouse gas emissions from food production. At the same time, the Sierra Club continues to support broader reforms in food production that will also help limit climate disruption.
Many current agricultural practices, such as large-scale monocropping (the practice of growing a single crop year after year on the same land) and concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFOs), consume disproportionate amounts of fossil fuels, pollute our water and air, deplete the soil, and diminish biodiversity. The good news is that we have many opportunities to improve in all of these areas.
We're calling for reform of industrial agricultural and food system practices, to minimize contributions to greenhouse gases and to maximize carbon sequestration in plants and soils. The pollution from concentrated animal-feeding operations in particular is grossly disproportionate to the amount of food produced. Growing heavily subsidized energy-intensive corn to convert to ethanol fuel makes no sense from an energy, food supply, climate or pollution standpoint and it should be opposed.
The single greatest source of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions is livestock, particularly factory-raised animals. Cattle (for both beef and milk, as well as for inedible outputs like manure and draft power) are responsible for about two-thirds of livestock emissions.
Fortunately, we can cut livestock emissions significantly not only by reducing personal meat consumption but also by following best practices and ending our reliance on concentrated animal-feeding operations. The Sierra Club continues to strongly oppose the establishment of new CAFOs and believes we should phase out existing operations as soon as possible.
Furthermore, ensuring soil maintains its carbon stock is a highly effective means of carbon sequestration. Yet, most agricultural soils have had their carbon stock dramatically reduced by soil loss, excessive tillage, overgrazing, erosion, and overuse of chemical nitrous fertilizers. In fact, the world's cultivated and grazed soils have lost 50 to 70 percent of their original carbon stock. In the process billions of tons of carbon have been released into the atmosphere. That's why it's critical that we rebuild soil carbon through regenerative agricultural practices.
Massive food production operations are at the root of many of these problems. Converting our natural landscapes into intensive agricultural operations can change land from carbon sinks to carbon sources. Deforestation, plowing up prairies, and filling wetlands destroys existing carbon sinks and releases that carbon into our atmosphere, increasing emissions.
As consumers, we each have a personal role to play as well, through our choices about the foods we eat:
- Whenever possible, we can support locally owned and operated farms, which are generally far less destructive and far more productive. This also reduces the need for long-distance transportation of foods.
- We can avoid highly processed, so-called "convenience foods," which are not only nutritionally inferior, but also waste energy and packaging materials.
- Striving to reduce food waste, through smaller serving sizes, composting, and recycling, will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
- Organically grown foods that don't rely on chemicals are better for the soil, climate, and our health.
- If we do choose to eat meat, we should look for grass-fed, responsibly raised beef, which is both healthier and far more sustainable than factory-produced beef.
Addressing climate disruption is important enough that we cannot afford to overlook any strategy for success. Fortunately, just as with transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy, we can reap important collateral benefits by adopting more responsible and sustainable agricultural practices and by making smarter lifestyle choices.
-- Bruce Hamilton, Sierra Club Deputy Executive Director