Regenerative, Organic Agriculture is Essential to Fighting Climate Change

Ronnie Cummins November 8, 2019

According to GRAIN, an international nonprofit made up of small farmers and social movements, 44% to 57% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from the global food system.

The cli­mate emer­gency is final­ly get­ting the atten­tion of the media and the U.S. (and world) body politic, as well as a grow­ing num­ber of politi­cians, activists and even U.S. farmers.

This great awak­en­ing has arrived just in time, giv­en the record-break­ing tem­per­a­tures, vio­lent weath­er, crop fail­ures and mas­sive waves of forced migra­tion that are quick­ly becom­ing the norm. Glob­al sci­en­tists have dropped their cus­tom­ary cau­tion. They now warn us that we have to reduce glob­al emis­sions, by a dras­tic 45%, over the next decade. If we don’t, we’ll pass the point of no return — defined as reach­ing 450 parts per mil­lion or more of CO2 in the atmos­phere — some­time between 2030 and 2050, at which point the cli­mate cri­sis will morph into a cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe. That’s when the melt­ing polar ice and Arc­tic per­mafrost will trig­ger cat­a­stroph­ic sea rise, fuel­ing dead­ly for­est fires, cli­mate chaos, crop fail­ures, famine and the wide­spread dis­in­te­gra­tion of soci­ety as we know it.

To pre­vent such an out­come, most peo­ple now under­stand that we must quick­ly move to renew­able forms of ener­gy and reduce our fos­sil fuel emis­sions as much as pos­si­ble. But it’s far less wide­ly accept­ed that ener­gy con­ser­va­tion and renew­ables can’t do the job alone.

Along­side the mas­sive polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic cam­paign to move to 100% (or near­ly 100%) renew­able ener­gy as soon as pos­si­ble, we must put an end to the mas­sive emis­sions of our cor­po­rate-dom­i­nat­ed food and farm­ing sys­tem and start draw­ing down and seques­ter­ing in our soils and forests bil­lions of tons of lega­cy” CO2 from the atmos­phere, using the enhanced pho­to­syn­the­sis of regen­er­a­tive farm­ing, refor­esta­tion and land restoration.

Regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture” refers to farm­ing and graz­ing prac­tices that, among oth­er ben­e­fits, reverse cli­mate change by rebuild­ing soil organ­ic mat­ter and restor­ing degrad­ed soil bio­di­ver­si­ty. This results in both car­bon draw­down and improved water infil­tra­tion and stor­age in soils.

Regen­er­a­tive prac­tices include:

• Reduc­tion or elim­i­na­tion of tillage and the use of syn­thet­ic chemicals

• Use of cov­er crops, crop rota­tions, com­post and ani­mal manures

• Inte­grat­ing ani­mals with peren­ni­al and annu­al plants to cre­ate a bio­log­i­cal­ly diverse ecosys­tem on the farm

• Graz­ing and pas­tur­ing ani­mals on grass, and more specif­i­cal­ly using a planned mul­ti-pad­dock rota­tion system

• Rais­ing ani­mals in con­di­tions that mim­ic their nat­ur­al habitat

If regen­er­a­tive food, farm­ing and land use — which essen­tial­ly means mov­ing to the next stage of organ­ic farm­ing, free-range live­stock graz­ing and eco-sys­tem restora­tion — are just as essen­tial to our sur­vival as mov­ing beyond fos­sil fuels, why aren’t more peo­ple talk­ing about this? Why is it that mov­ing beyond indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture, fac­to­ry farms, agro-exports and high­ly-processed junk food to regen­er­at­ing soils and forests and draw­ing down enough excess car­bon from the atmos­phere to re-sta­bi­lize our cli­mate is get­ting so lit­tle atten­tion from the media, politi­cians and the gen­er­al public?

Our col­lec­tive igno­rance on this cru­cial top­ic may have some­thing to do with the fact that we nev­er learned about these things in school, or even col­lege, and until recent­ly there was very lit­tle dis­cus­sion of regen­er­a­tion in the mass media, or even the alter­na­tive media.

But there’s anoth­er rea­son regen­er­a­tion as a cli­mate solu­tion doesn’t get its due in Con­gress or in the media: Pow­er­ful cor­po­ra­tions in the food, farm­ing and forestry sec­tor, along with their inden­tured politi­cians, don’t want to admit that their cur­rent degen­er­ate, cli­mate-desta­bi­liz­ing, prof­it-at-any-cost” pro­duc­tion prac­tices and busi­ness pri­or­i­ties threat­en our very survival.

And gov­ern­ment agen­cies are right there, help­ing cor­po­rate agribusi­ness and Big Food bury the evi­dence that these indus­tries’ ener­gy-inten­sive, chem­i­cal-inten­sive indus­tri­al agri­cul­tur­al and food pro­duc­tion prac­tices con­tribute more to glob­al warm­ing than the fos­sil fuel industry.

The U.S. Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture (USDA) repeat­ed­ly claim that indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture is respon­si­ble for a mere 9% of our nation’s green­house gas emis­sions. As the EPA explains, green­house gas (GHG) emis­sions from agri­cul­ture come from live­stock such as cows, agri­cul­tur­al soils and rice production.”

After hear­ing this 9% fig­ure regur­gi­tat­ed over and over again in the media, most peo­ple draw the con­clu­sion that food and farm­ing aren’t that impor­tant of a fac­tor in glob­al warm­ing, espe­cial­ly when com­pared with trans­porta­tion, elec­tric­i­ty gen­er­a­tion, man­u­fac­tur­ing and heat­ing and cool­ing our buildings.

What the EPA, USDA, Big Ag, chem­i­cal, and food cor­po­ra­tions are con­ve­nient­ly hid­ing from the pub­lic is that there’s no way to sep­a­rate U.S. agri­cul­ture” from our food sys­tem” as a whole. Their faulty math (i.e. con­ceal­ing food and farm­ing emis­sions under the cat­e­gories of trans­porta­tion, man­u­fac­tur­ing, etc.) is noth­ing but a smoke­screen to hide the mas­sive fos­sil fuel use and emis­sions cur­rent­ly belched out by our enor­mous­ly waste­ful, envi­ron­men­tal­ly destruc­tive, cli­mate-desta­bi­liz­ing (and glob­al­ized) food system.

USDA and EPA’s nine-per­cent fig­ure is ridicu­lous. What about the mas­sive use of petro­le­um prod­ucts and fos­sil fuels to pow­er U.S. trac­tors and farm equip­ment, and to man­u­fac­ture the bil­lions of pounds of pes­ti­cides and chem­i­cal fer­til­iz­ers that are dumped and sprayed on farmlands?

What about the ethanol indus­try that eats up 40 per­cent of our chem­i­cal- and ener­gy-inten­sive GMO corn pro­duc­tion? Among oth­er envi­ron­men­tal crimes, the ethanol indus­try incen­tivizes farm­ers to drain wet­lands and dam­age frag­ile lands. Tak­ing the entire process into account, corn pro­duc­tion for ethanol pro­duces more emis­sions than it sup­pos­ed­ly saves when burned in our cars and trucks.

What about the mas­sive release of car­bon diox­ide, methane, and nitrous oxide from fac­to­ry farms and the GMO, monocrop indus­tri­al grain farms that sup­ply these feed­lots and CAFOs with ani­mal feed?

What about the methane emis­sions from the frack­ing wells that pro­duce the nat­ur­al gas that is used in prodi­gious amounts to man­u­fac­ture the nitro­gen fer­til­iz­er dumped on farm­lands — fer­til­iz­er that then pol­lutes our water­ways and cre­ates ocean­ic dead zones as well as releas­ing mas­sive amounts of nitrous oxide (300 per­cent more dam­ag­ing than even CO2) into our already over­sat­u­rat­ed atmosphere?

What about the 15 – 20 per­cent of glob­al fos­sil fuel emis­sions that come from pro­cess­ing, pack­ag­ing (most often in non-recy­cled plas­tic), refrig­er­at­ing and trans­port­ing our high­ly processed (main­ly junk) food and agri­cul­tur­al com­modi­ties on the aver­age 1,500 miles before they reach the consumer?

What about the enor­mous amounts of GHG emis­sions, defor­esta­tion and ecosys­tem destruc­tion in the inter­na­tion­al sup­ply chain enabling Big Box stores, super­mar­ket chains and junk food pur­vey­ors to sell import­ed cheap food, in many cas­es food-like sub­stances” from Chi­na and over­seas to under­nour­ished U.S. consumers?

What about the enor­mous emis­sions from U.S. land­fills where wast­ed food (3050 per­cent of our entire pro­duc­tion) rots and releas­es methane, when it could be used to pro­duce com­post to replace syn­thet­ic fertilizers?

A more accu­rate esti­mate of GHG emis­sions from U.S. and inter­na­tion­al food, farm­ing and land use is 44 – 57 per­cent, not the 9 per­cent, as the EPA and USDA suggest.

We’re nev­er going to reach net zero emis­sions in the U.S. by 2030, as the Green New Deal calls for, with­out a pro­found change — in fact a rev­o­lu­tion — in our food, farm­ing, and land use practices.

Ron­nie Cum­mins is the co-founder and Inter­na­tion­al Direc­tor of the Organ­ic Con­sumers Asso­ci­a­tion. He is also the founder of Via Orgáni­ca, a net­work of organ­ic con­sumers and farm­ers based in Mexico.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH