Corporate agriculture’s food production recipe is loaded with oil and carbon.
There is oil in the food. We know oil is in our cars, plastics, and household chemicals. But do we know how much oil is in our hamburgers and fries?
It all starts at the well, where oil is pumped out, then makes its way through the refinery and specialty chemical plant, where it is processed into the fertilizers and pesticides that maintain the corn fields, which produce the unnatural feed at the cattle confined animal feeding operation (CAFO). This now becomes the “thousand cow burger” we hear about these days (and consume often). Along this journey, diesel pumps through multitudes of giant tractors and combines, airplanes dust crops, plastics is used for packaging, and semi-trucks and rail engines shift things from one place on the continent to another inside refrigerated containers. Combine this gas-guzzling carbon-spewing food machine with the displacement of natural ecosystems that would have otherwise naturally absorbed carbon outputs and the problem becomes compounded exponentially.
This is the story of how we get our food to the grocery store.
Big agriculture equals big problems and, on an industrial scale, affects the entire planet and our potential to thrive as a species indefinitely. “Worldwide food production could account for as much as 35 percent of greenhouse gas emissions,” says Eugene Cordero, climate scientist and co-author of Cool Cuisine: Taking a Bite Out of Global Warming.
The negative impacts of factory food is externalized, which makes cheap food an illusion of shady accounting—society is responsible for picking up the tab on the effects of environmental degradation (such as giant dead zones in the Gulf) and climate change (i.e.: the increase in quantity and strength of storms, desertification, etc.) caused by the industrial food system. We are paying cash out-of-pocket to support the degradation of our own habitat.
CAFO’s are producing extreme levels of methane, made worse by unnatural feed to cattle that have evolved to eat grass. Land used for intensive agriculture—such as mono-crops and CAFO’s—are displacing forests and native prairie lands, effectively eliminating valuable carbon “sinks” and sources of fresh oxygen, contaminating public waters, and destroying ecosystems.
How can we change?
“Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple,” says Bill Mollison, co-founder of Permaculture. Healthy farms equal healthy people and planet. By utilizing farming practices and land use management techniques that conserve the natural ecosystem and replenish the soils, the operation itself becomes a carbon sink while simultaneously producing food.
This is where we vote with our dollars. By choosing to purchase food that is organic, sustainably grown, local, in season, and appropriate to the local geography, we can curb many of these issues. By choosing to cut back on meat products, which take a far larger amount of energy to produce than plant products, we can do even more.
Albert Einstein noted decades ago that, "Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet." While full time vegetarianism may not be for everyone, incorporating vegetarian principles into your diet has huge benefits to our environment. Practicing part-time vegetarianism, such as “Meatless Mondays,” increases consciousness of what you are putting in your body and what the current food system is putting into the air and water. Only in the last 50 years have we grown accustomed to eating meat at every meal (thank you KFC and McDonalds!). Meat was typically a “special event” in the human diet.
One step further, growing your own organic food eliminates almost all of the carbon associated with food production. Of course, not everyone has the space or time to grow everything they need, but even an apartment balcony with a few potted tomato, eggplant, and pepper plants provides some of the food consumed in your household. A suburban backyard can supply most, if not all, of a typical family’s diet for much of the year.
Local food activist and writer Michael Pollan reminds us, “The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.”