Eat the Sky: The Food and Climate Connection

Can we support a sustainable food system?

By Anna Lappé

The first half of 2010 is going down as the hottest January to July on record, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Despite this historic heat and growing evidence that skyrocketing manmade greenhouse gas emissions are fundamentally altering the climate, our elected leaders are dragging their feet on binding emissions limits—even backsliding on embracing climate science. When the 112th Congress was sworn in on January 6th, many in its ranks were unabashed climate change deniers.

Yet there’s hope. Worldwide, a people’s movement for real action on emissions reductions is emerging, from Kenya to Kentucky. In 2010, one of these civil society groups helped organize the single largest day of global collective action on climate when hundreds of thousands of people in over 180 countries took part in 350.org’s Day of Action.  

One strength of the movement is its holistic strategy, emphasizing that all sectors need to be engaged to reduce emissions, including food and farming. While many don’t think about dinner when pondering global warming, agribusiness is a major contributor to the crisis. Indeed, global industrial food systems – from agricultural chemicals to synthetic fertilizer and intensive animal production – are related to as much as one third of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock production alone is responsible for 18 percent of global emissions, a 2006 United Nations study found. (Maybe you’ve heard those not-so-funny cow fart jokes? Well, the jokes not only lack humor; they are also scientifically inaccurate. The methane gas comes out the other end, folks).

But don’t blame the cows; blame the food business.

For thousands of years, ruminants like cattle were an integral part of a global food system; they weren’t unsettling the atmosphere. In the last 100 years, we’ve experienced a revolution in food production, especially as the advent of synthetic fertilizer and petrochemicals allowed for monocultures of corn and soy to be planted by the tens of thousands of acres. Because the poor have not been able to make “market demand” on these crops, large-scale industrial livestock operations have instead transformed artificially cheap soy and grain into feed for livestock—or cars. Today, less than half of all grain and soy is fed to people, the rest goes to livestock or, increasingly, to biofuels.

These grain traders, biofuels producers, and industrial meat operators are significant sources of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in the food chain. ADM, Bunge and Cargill – three companies that control 90 percent of the world’s grain and are also big players in the biofuels markets – have been major forces behind deforestation in the Amazon, for example. Worldwide, nearly 17.4 percent of the global warming effect comes from land use changes, much of it from agribusiness pressure on forests in the Amazon and Indonesia.

Monoculture agriculture and industrial livestock production is also a significant worldwide user and abuser of water: globally, farming systems use as much as 70 percent of the world’s freshwater resources. Depleted water tables make farming regions in the Global South, already so vulnerable to climate fluctuations, much more susceptible to crippling drought, while much of agriculture’s water wastage could be averted through sustainable design.

Industrial livestock production is also dependent on synthetic soil fertility and petrochemical pest and weed management, which are all highly fossil fuel intensive. In addition, the spiking use of synthetic fertilizer industry has lead to a massive increase in nitrogen on the planet, much of it ending up as nitrous oxide in the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas 298 times as potent as carbon dioxide. These practices have also led to an epidemic of topsoil loss. By some accounts we’re losing topsoil 10 times faster in the United States than we are replacing it. And lost topsoil means greater vulnerability to flooding and drought.

What can we do to support climate-friendly farming systems, especially for livestock? We can choose carefully what meat and dairy we consume, and how much. However, emphasizing only dietary choices takes our sights away from where our real power lies: in ourselves as citizens. For we citizens should have a say in what our taxes support, a right to demand our taxes incentivize a food system that is healthy for people, humane to animals and better for the climate.

Perhaps our greatest power is in our collective ownership of the “commons” – the things like water, land and sky that we all share. Jay Walljasper, author of All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, describes the commons as “a wealth of valuable assets that belong to everyone.” As equal members of this commons, we have a responsibility to ensure it is protected for future generations. No one company or industry should have the right to use it up, pollute it, and destroy it.

In early January, Republicans promised a “sweeping agenda” that included questioning climate scientists and disbanding the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. In light of this new attack on the facts of climate change, we can let ourselves despair. Or, we can instead see ourselves as powerful members of this global commons and continue to do our part, choosing climate-friendly food, rolling up our sleeves, and working for climate sanity.

About Anna Lappé

Anna Lappé is a widely respected author and educator, renowned for her work as a sustainable food advocate. The co-author or author of three books and the contributing author to nine others, Anna Lappé’s work has been widely translated internationally and featured in The New York Times, Gourmet, Oprah Magazine, among many other outlets. Her latest book, Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It (Bloomsbury) was named by Kirkus as one of the best environmental book’s of 2010. The co-founder of the Small Planet Institute, Anna Lappé lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and their daughter.

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