It is well documented that our modern methods of food production – industrial agriculture and intensive factory farmed meat – are heavily reliant on fossil fuels and create large amounts of carbon dioxide emissions. On the opposite side of the coin, our capacity to produce food will be severely reduced by the consequences of climate change. Around the world, small farmers and networks like Via Campesina are fighting for food sovereignty and small-scale sustainable agricultural production. Meanwhile, agribusinesses and agrochemicals companies such as Monsanto are sitting around the tables of the intergovernmental climate negotiations pushing for a further intensification of industrial agriculture as their 'solution' to climate change.
The modern system of food production uses vast amounts of toxic petrochemical pesticides and fertilisers and heavy, oil dependent machinery to plough, irrigate and harvest the land; it transports food thousands of miles across continents from production to consumption, refrigerating it for days or weeks while it is in transit, on the supermarket shelves and then at home before it is eaten.
Traditional farming relied on planting a diversity of crops that attracted a range of insects, some of which are natural enemies of insect pests. Industrial-scale agriculture prefers large monoculture plantations; this leaves fields without the usual range of insects, and crops became vulnerable to insect pests, requiring an increase in the use of pesticides. Much of the sprayed pesticide drains off into the groundwater and is a major source of water pollution in every agricultural region of the world. Pesticides also cause soil depletion and erosion by killing off millions of microscopic organisms and their habitats which maintain the fertility and structure of the soil. The depletion and erosion then requires ever-increasing amounts of petrochemical fertilizers to maintain the level of output. Despite the number of livestock we rear, industrial farmers use artificial fertiliser made from natural gas instead of using animal manure (poop) to bind nitrogen in the soil. This causes the release of even more nitrous oxide, which is a very strong greenhouse gas.
Aside from the high levels of petrochemicals used to maintain the system, industrial agriculture and intensive animal farming necessitate widespread deforestation and land-use change. Burning down forests and savannahs to create new fields for keeping livestock and producing grain (much of it for cattle feed) causes massive CO2 emissions, and the drying of swamps for similar purposes releases vast quantities of methane. These practices heavily contribute to climate change. As industrial methods of agriculture deplete the soil there is an ongoing need to burn down more and more forest to provide new land, and new soil, on which to grow crops. Furthermore, deforestation causes less water to evaporate in an area, which leads to less rainfall. The result is poorer harvests which force soy and cattle-farmers to use the remaining rainforest even more quickly, perpetuating a downward-spiral.
The industrial system has, over centuries and all across the world, "enclosed" farmland, forcing subsistence peasants and small farmers off their land so that it can be used by corporations for growing profitable export crops such as cocoa, sugarcane or soy. Millions of people lose their land and communities, and their independence and ability to grow their own food: they can then access food only through the market, forcing them into waged labour as their sole option for survival. Increasing agricultural output, using petrochemicals and new technologies, has little effect on global rates of hunger because it ignores the issues of access to land and purchasing power and diverts attention away from real solutions such as land redistribution and sustainable and affordable farming.
As for meat production, on top of the well-documented evils of factory farming – the inhumane conditions, the genetically modified animal feed, the hormones and antibiotics animals are pumped with and the practices used in slaughter – the intensive production of meat and dairy worldwide is responsible for about 18% of the greenhouse gases caused by humans. That is more than the percentage caused by global traffic and transport combined. Within the European Union alone huge numbers of animals (153 million pigs, 123 million cows, 99 million sheep, more than 500 million battery hens and almost 11 million tons of chicken meat) are produced for food consumption every year.
Animals produce greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4 - around 62 times stronger than CO2) during the digestion process, while other greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide (N2O - around 275 times stronger than CO2) come mainly from decomposing manure.
Factory farming of animals is also more energy intensive than traditional ways of raising food animals, requiring large inputs of fossil fuel, industrial fertilizers, and other synthetic chemicals. The ratio of fossil fuel energy inputs to food energy produced—not including food processing and distribution—averages 3:1 for all US agricultural products combined, but for industrially produced beef the ratio is as high as 35:1.
In many parts of the world meat consumption is considered a luxury. Increasing prosperity in the global south leads to the adoption of Western patterns of meat consumption, adding pressure on the land to produce all the extra grain needed for cattle feed, meaning ever less land is available for actual food production. Overall one third of the world's arable land is used for animal feed production.
The irony of this is that climate change is currently responsible for an increasing and dramatic loss of natural homes and animal habitats, contributing to the extinction of millions of species that we haven't yet domesticated for our personal consumption. Many animal and plant species are unable to adapt fast enough to higher average temperatures and changing weather patterns that in turn affect the food chain and cause even more species to die out. Dr James Hansen, now ex-chief climate scientist at the NASA space institute, has said that “climate change will become the primary cause of species extinction...The tipping point for life on the planet will occur when so many interdependent species are lost that entire ecosystems collapse.” The iconic image of climate change is the desperate polar bear swimming until he dies amongst melting ice caps. This is a tragic image, but also one which does not do justice to the range of eco-systems that are collapsing because of climate change and the natural disasters it causes.
Warming temperatures, increased rainfall, floods and droughts resulting from global warming threaten to disrupt farming systems around the world, dramatically reducing the amount of arable land available for growing food. Countries in the Global South will be hit hardest simply because of their location – those that are closer to the equator naturally have higher temperatures, and those temperatures are closer to or already higher than the temperatures suitable for agriculture. Seasons and weather patterns are already becoming unpredictable and extreme. Climate change also disrupts and alters pest and disease patterns, posing risks to agriculture everywhere.
In a few places, such as northern Europe and North America, higher temperatures will initially encourage higher yields, but this will be far less than enough to replace the volume of land that will be lost from the other effects of climate change.
Until recently, agriculture has been neglected in UNFCCC negotiations. However, further intensification of industrial agriculture is now being proposed as part of the solution to the problems of climate change, to which it has contributed in the first place, and proposals are being made to include agriculture as a source of credits through the Clean Development Mechanism; for example, agrofuels and genetically modified plants are both being proposed and employed as 'solutions' to climate change.
Agrofuels are promoted as a 'green' alternative to fossil fuels, made from sugary or oily plants such as sugarcane, rapeseed, oil palm, soybean or jatropha, for use in cars, airplanes, and for electricity generation in power stations.
Large areas of land are needed to grow enough agrofuel to replace a small amount of fossil fuel. Agrofuels are becoming the main reason for rainforest destruction. They cause significantly greater greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels because entire ecosystems are destroyed to make space to grow them. Agrofuels come from large-scale industrial agriculture; as industrial agriculture is one of the biggest single causes of climate change, expanding it to grow fuel is a dangerous idea.
A UN spokesperson has warned that 60 million people may soon become “agrofuel refugees” – people forced off their land to make way for huge areas of agrofuel crops. In Argentina alone, 200,000 families have been forced off their land for soya – many more will be displaced by the new agrofuel soya boom.
Moreover, the rapid expansion of agrofuels was one of the main causes of the 2007-2008 food crisis, when many food prices rose by over 100%, triggering riots around the world as people could no longer afford to buy rice or corn. Using food crops to make fuel for cars and using land to grow agrofuels instead of food causes food prices to rise, meaning less people across the world can afford to feed themselves.
Genetically modified (GM) crops are already being promoted by corporations as a solution to the food insecurity that will result from the effects of climate change. We are told that GM crops will increase productivity and that GM technology will create plants that are resistant to droughts and other agricultural problems caused by climate change.
What we are not told is that GM contamination of the food system causes a loss of biodiversity and weakens agro-ecosystems, making them vulnerable to plagues, creating pesticide resistance in insect pests, and the loss of crop varieties reduces an ecosystem's potential to adapt to climate change. GM crops in fact themselves contribute to climate change as the expansion of GM crops is used to justify further deforestation. Most GM crops produced today are used to feed livestock and sustain an emissions-intensive animal farming industry (and therefore also covertly poisoning the food-chain). And conveniently for chemicals companies (like Monsanto, who already owns 95% of all the GM crops in the world as well as producing the attendant pesticides and fertilisers needed to grow them), GM crops necessitate a further increased use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers.
GM crops suit well the corporate desire to patent seeds so that they can be exclusively commercialised and highly profitable. Especially for rural communities, the largest in the world and the most affected by climate change, genetic modification of agriculture will prevent them from accessing seeds, causing more poverty, hunger, and therefore the further break-down of communities and environmental refugees. For northern
consumers the lack of control and safety measures on GM products will weaken consumer choice and have health impacts such as increasing resistance to antibiotics, and increasing incidents of allergies and cancer. Ultimately, GM crops are yet another step further into a model of intensive monocrop agriculture for global exports basically based on intensive fossil fuel use, and only serve to weaken our capacity to face a major collapse – practically, politically and physically.
But really it doesn’t have to be this way. The international network for farmers’ organizations, Via Campesina, emphasise and demonstrate that small-scale agriculture actually reduces carbon emissions and climate change, as well as minimising the environmental impacts of farming on plants and animals, as well as the air, water, and soil. Organic and diversified farming practices increase bird and mammal populations on farmlands and ensure biological diversity for the planet. In terms of preserving and increasing soil productivity and biodiversity, small-scale sustainable agriculture is far more beneficial and efficient than industrial practices.
Industrial agriculture and intensive animal farming devastate our land, water, and air, and are now threatening the stability of our climate. Massive chemical and biological inputs cause widespread environmental damage as well as human disease and death, while vast monoculture plantations reduce the diversity of our plants and animals. Habitat destruction practices endanger wildlife, and factory farming practices cause untold animal suffering. Centralized corporate ownership of our food production system also destroys farm communities around the world, leading to mass poverty and hunger.
Climate change is already serious and likely to get worse, resulting in land loss, unpredictable changes of natural growing conditions and the extinction of millions of species. Meanwhile, those leading the destruction are sitting at the discussion tables of international negotiations, using climate change as an excuse to further expand this unsustainable and heavily polluting system, proposing solutions that only serve to expand and further centralise corporate control of food production. The problem cannot be solved by simply regulating the use of particular chemicals, or banning gm products in individual countries. The problem is systemic, and as such, requires a solution that dismantles and replaces the entire system.