By Ronnie Cummins and Will Allen
Part 2 of 2
This article was originally published on the Organic Consumers Association website.
Our planet has five pools or repositories where greenhouse gases are absorbed and stored: the oceans, the atmosphere, the soils, the forests, and hydrocarbon deposits. 6 Because U.S farm and forest soils are so degraded from chemical-intensive, mono-crop farming practices and over-logging they are only able to absorb and store half (or less) of the carbon gases than they would be capable of if they were organically managed. As a result of this reckless mismanagement, the atmosphere and the oceans are absorbing the bulk of the greenhouse gases that normally would be absorbed by farmland and forests. This has led to a catastrophic excess of GHGs in both the oceans and the atmosphere. This excess has caused changes in climate and extreme fluctuations in weather; including droughts and torrential flooding. It also causes oceanic acidification, oceanic dead zones, and dramatic declines in fish and crustacean populations.
Unfortunately, when they evaluate agricultural pollutants, pro-agribusiness government bureaucrats in the EPA and USDA do not include many of the greenhouse gas emissions. They do not take into account the transportation, cooling, freezing, and heating of farm products as agricultural GHG emissions, even though our food travels an average of 1500 miles to our tables and is routinely frozen and cooled to ensure its deliverability. They don’t count the CO2 and “black carbon” particle emissions from trucks, tractors, combines and other equipment used on farms. They don’t count the emissions from fertilizer manufacture or use, wasteful packing, sewage sludge spread on farm and range land, or the methane emitted from factory farms and the billions of tons of rotting, non-composted food in our landfills and garbage dumps. Instead, they lump and thereby conceal all these farm and food related GHG emissions under the categories of industrial manufacture, transportation, or electrical use. As a result, the public spotlight never shines on mounting agricultural, food, garbage, and sludge pollution.
Because government officials deliberately fail to evaluate the real farm and food-derived greenhouse gas emissions, they are free to act as if the emissions coming from agriculture are not significant compared to the U.S. total, even though they represent more than one-third of the total pollutants. Consequently, most lawmakers and the public don’t realize how urgent it is to regulate and drastically curtail factory farm and Food Inc.’s emissions.
Chemical Fertilizer and Sewage Sludge: Silent Killers
The most damaging greenhouse gas poisons used by farmers and ranchers are synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and municipal/industrial sewage sludge. Obviously pesticide manufacture and use are also serious problems and generate their own large share of greenhouse gases during manufacture and use (more than 25 billion pounds per year). But, about six times more chemical fertilizer is used than toxic pesticides on U.S. farms, and an additional huge volume of sewage sludge is spread on farm and range land as well. 7
German chemical corporations developed the industrial processes for the two most widely used forms of synthetic nitrogen in the early 1900s. But, until World War II, U.S. use of synthetic nitrogen as a fertilizer was limited to about 5% of the total nitrogen applied. Up until that time most nitrogen inputs came from animal manures, composts and fertilizer (cover) crops, just as it does on organic farms today. 8
During the Second World War, all of the European powers and the U.S. greatly expanded their facilities for producing nitrogen for bombs, ammunition, and fertilizer for the war effort. Since then, the use of nitrogen fertilizer and bomb making capacity has soared. By the 1990s, more than 90% of nitrogen fertilizer used in the U.S. was synthetic. 9
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the average U.S. nitrogen fertilizer use per year from 1998 to 2007 was 24 billion 661 million pounds. To produce that nitrogen the manufacturers released at least 6.7 pounds of greenhouse gas for every pound produced. That’s 165 billion, 228 million pounds of GHGs spewed into the atmosphere every year, just for the manufacture of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. 10 And, most of those emissions are nitrous oxide, the most damaging emissions of U.S. agriculture.
Besides its greenhouse gas impacts, nitrogen fertilizer has other negative environmental consequences. Two-thirds of the U.S. drinking water supply is contaminated at high levels with carcinogenic nitrates or nitrites, almost all from excessive use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Some public wells have nitrogen at such a high level that it is dangerous and even deadly for children to drink the tap water. Nitrogen fertilizer is also the greatest contributor to the infamous “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay, the coasts of California and Oregon, and 400 other spots around the world. Since very little synthetic nitrogen fertilizer was used before 1950, all of the damage we see today occurred in the last 60 years.
If we did an environmental impact statement on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer today, we would never give it a permit for agricultural use. Until it is banned for the production of food and fiber, we must impose a high carbon tax on its manufacture and use. Unfortunately, at this point, agriculture is excluded from even the weak cap and trade plan passed by the House. So, although factory farming is responsible for more greenhouse gases than any other U.S. industry, it will not be regulated under the proposed legislation designed to limit greenhouse gases, unless we demand it. We must demand that synthetic nitrogen fertilizer be highly taxed and regulated in the short term, and phased out, as soon as possible. 11
We must also demand an end to the giveaway or sales of hazardous sewage sludge in agriculture, gardening or forestry . Instead of sewage sludge-contaminated and chemical-intensive farms, organic agriculture produces safer, nutritionally superior, comparable crop yields during normal weather, as well as much greater yields under drought and heavy rain conditions, without the use of synthetic pesticides, sewage sludge, or chemical fertilizer.
The Good News on Organics and Climate Change
The heretofore unpublicized “good news” on climate change, according to the Rodale Institute 12 and other soil scientists, is that transitioning from chemical, water, and energy-intensive industrial agriculture practices to organic farming and ranching on the world’s 3.5 billion acres of farmland and 8.2 billion acres of pasture or rangeland can sequester up to 7,000 pounds per acre of climate-destabilizing CO2 every year, while nurturing healthy soils, plants, grasses, and trees that are resistant to drought, heavy rain, pests, and disease. And as we have noted, organic farms and ranches provide us with food that is much more nutritious than industrial farms and ranches-food filled with vitamins, anti-oxidants, and essential trace minerals, free from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), pesticides, antibiotics, and sewage sludge.
In 2006, U.S. carbon dioxide pollution from fossil fuels (approximately 25% of the world’s total) was estimated at nearly 6.5 billion tons. If a 7,000 lb/CO2/ac/year sequestration rate were achieved on all 434 million acres of cropland in the United States, nearly 1.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide would be sequestered per year, mitigating close to one quarter of the country’s total fossil fuel emissions. If pastures and rangelands were similarly converted to organic practices, we would be well on our way to reversing global warming.
Toxic Sludge from Municipal Sewage Treatment Plants
Besides synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, unhealthy foods, pesticides, GMOs, and climate and environmentally destructive factory farm meat, a serious problem in the U.S. is the increasing use of hazardous sludge from sewage treatment plants to fertilize farm and pasture land. Sixty percent of all the sludge produced in the U.S. is currently applied to farmland that grows food for cattle and people. Estimates range from eight billion to more than 100 billion pounds. 13
A critical mass of scientific studies indicate that municipal sewage sludge routinely contains hundreds of dangerous pathogens, toxic heavy metals, flame retardants, endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, pharmaceutical drugs and other hazardous chemicals coming from residential drains, storm water runoff, hospitals, and industrial plants. Poisonous sludge is currently being spread on at least 70 million acres on 140,000 (non-organic) farms and ranches across the U.S. So-called EPA “regulation” of sludge is among the worst in the world. Unless we stop this dangerous practice, the sludge industry will destroy millions of acres of farmland as well as urban land we will need for future urban gardens. Sludge is also an increasingly worrisome greenhouse gas emitter.
The Organic Movement Must “Get Political” and Become a Major Player
We must advocate and agitate, as well as “walk our talk” in our daily lives. We must organize a U.S. and global mass movement for the conversion of the world’s 3.5 billion acres of farmland and 8.2 billion acres of rangeland and pasture to organic production as soon as possible. Organic regulations prohibit the use of synthetic nitrogen, pesticides, sludge, antibiotics, artificial hormones, GMOs, and other environmentally destructive, health-threatening, greenhouse gas emitting practices. Organic must become the norm, not just the alternative. To facilitate a mass transition to organic we must force the U.S. Congress, as well as local and state governments, to fund a great “organic transition,” including the creation of thousands of cadres of organically trained extension agents, and a million new urban, community, and school gardens. Thousands of U.S. farmers have already made the transition to organic. Now a million more need to do the same.
More and more farmers around the world are learning that they can significantly reduce greenhouse gas pollution and produce substantial, high quality yields by switching to organic farming practices. While we develop our alternative marketplace and pressure legislators and the regulators to act, we must urge conscientious conventional farmers to use existing federal Conservation Reserve, Conservation Security, EQUIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program), and special practice programs to help them begin the switch to organic as soon as possible.
Restoring Climate Stability: Soil and More
U.S. farmers, as well as farmers all over the world, have known for at least 200 years that they should replace lost soil fertility. Over the last two centuries, numerous strategies were devised in the U.S. to replace soil nitrogen and soil organic matter, without the use of chemicals. Many of these strategies are widely used today by organic and biodynamic farmers.
As early as 1813, John Taylor lamented the loss of vegetable (organic) matter in the soil and felt that we were destroying our precious soil fertility by over cropping and sloppy farming practices. 14 Since the 1840s, fertilizer manufacturers and alchemists tried to convince farmers to replace fertility with store bought chemicals. But, farmers were wary of these products and the claims made by their salesmen.
Other scientists argued over the years that soil with high-organic matter content was far more productive and fertile even in times of drought and excess moisture. 15 As a result, U.S. farmers traditionally replaced their organic matter with fertilizer crops, manure, and compost, and most did not buy store bought fertilizer until the 1950s.
In 2007 and 2009, results similar to these conclusions were reported from studies of the Morrow agricultural experiment plots at the University of Illinois, in Champaign-Urbana (the oldest continuously planted U.S. experimental farm plot). There, researchers found that continuous corn on a synthetic nitrogen fertilized plot since 1955 suffered significant carbon losses and soil nitrogen losses compared to pre-1955 when the plots were fertilized organically with manure, fertilizer crops, and compost. 16
A significant factor in the decline of these soils was the loss of organic matter, since soil organic matter both feeds soil microorganisms and the miccorhizal fungi-both vital components of a healthy soil. Since 1950, the soils of the major farming areas of the U.S. have been bombarded yearly with vast quantities of soil-killing pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, just as the Morrow plots were. The Morrow plot conclusions should be a wake-up call to farmers and synthetic fertilizer consultants. Those conclusions are that currently recommended fertilizer applications are from 40 to 190% excessive and that long-term fertility suffers when farmers depend on synthetic fertilizers and don’t replace lost organic matter utilizing organic soil management.
On several chemically abused pieces of ground where we farmed, and with cotton, vegetable, and corn farmers we have advised, we were able to dramatically increase the soil organic matter in three or four years from 1.5% to 3 or 4%, effectively doubling the amount of GHG sequestration while eliminating nitrate fertilizer runoff and emissions. Using a small amount of compost and growing fertilizer crops in the fall and winter months and cash-fertility crops in the spring and summer accomplished these increases. Each percentage point increase in organic matter represents a major increase in soil nitrogen, i.e., nitrogen produced by microorganisms decomposing organic matter. Each percentage increase in organic matter also enables the soil to absorb and store more carbon.
Beyond Factory Farm Beef, Pork, and Poultry
Along with changing the way we farm, we must also alter what we farm, and what we eat. Our excessive dependence on meat is not sustainable over the long term since, as we have noted, 80% of our agriculture is devoted to producing animals, which is the least energy efficient food. To raise meat on factory farms takes too many input calories (primarily fossil fuel), too much acreage, too much nitrogen fertilizer, as well as hazardous pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones, not to mention millions of acres of genetically modified (GM) crops.
A few examples illustrate this point clearly. It takes 10 to 12 pounds of grain (corn, wheat, soy, cottonseed) to produce one pound of marketable feedlot beef (that is 5000 to 6000 pounds of grain to produce 500 pounds of meat). It takes one gallon of oil to grow and ship the feed for one pound of beef. It requires 78 calories of fossil fuel (mostly to grow the grain) to produce one calorie of protein from feedlot-produced beef. 2500 gallons of water are needed to produce a single pound of confinement beef.
We all need to eat less (or better yet none) of the non-organic fatty meats that are grown in abusive feedlots, hog hotels, and poultry prisons. Just reducing U.S. meat intake by a third would reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by one-third. And, if you replace the factory farm meat in your diet with range fed organic meat you will reduce your personal carbon footprint, strike a blow for humane treatment of farm animals, and improve your health. Meat eaters don’t necessarily have to stop eating meat, they just need to understand which meat is safe and humanely raised (organic and grass-fed), and sustainable.
Ultimately, if we change our eating habits, and curtail our Madison Avenue and mass media-induced need to buy and consume so many clothes and consumer products, we can significantly reduce our carbon footprint. Whether or not government bureaucrats and corporations change their behavior in the short term will be determined by the strength of U.S. and global grassroots movements . But we will never be able to build, motivate, and lead these movements unless we first start walking our talk and create viable models of organic conversion and green economics in our individual lives and in our local communities.
On the other hand, changing our habits is not enough-we must demand that the Obama administration act and impose a carbon tax, including a tax on chemical agriculture. We need to demand much higher emission reduction commitments, along with an end to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, nationalization of the big banks and financial institutions, and a restoration of democracy, starting with publicly funded elections. The remaining TARP bank rescue money should go to kick-start green energy, transportation, and sustainable agriculture projects, and to train and hire the jobless to retrofit and build the new green economy. These are strategic Main Street issues; communities want new green infrastructure, healthy food, new industries, and new quality jobs.
A New Works Project Administration
A modern day Works Project Administration could train and employ a massive green corps to create the green infrastructure and post-carbon economy. When FDR created the Works Project Administration in the 1930s there were about 60,000,000 workers in the labor market. Twenty-five percent, or 15,000,000 people were unemployed. Today, there are 154,400,000 workers in the labor market. The Labor Department estimates that 10.3% of the population is unemployed. Most analysts argue that the percentage is closer to 16.5%. Whoever is right, and whether it is 15.9 million or 24.7 million, more people are out of work now than during the Great Depression. And they desperately need jobs and training, just like people did during the Depression.
Environmentalist Bill McKibben is right, we need to mobilize a grassroots army to demand reductions in emissions and armies of workers to convert our infrastructure to a green economy. That means you must text, twitter, e-mail, and use FaceBook, Google, YouTube and other resources to get educated about climate change. Once you understand the gravity of the situation you will be able to change your habits, inform your friends, and participate in climate change demonstrations. Get organized at the local level and then coordinate your local efforts with nationwide networks such as the Organic Consumers Association and www.350.org.
Your children and grandchildren are depending on you to make their world livable. The hour is late.
Note: Contact these organizations or individuals for information and to meet others in your community who are participating in efforts to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions:
Organic Consumers Association: www.organicconsumers.org
Center for Food Safety/Navdanya: www.coolfoodscountdown.org
6. Agriculture and Climate Change: Impacts and Opportunities at the Farm Level . A Policy Position Paper of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. 2008
7. Three times more phosphorous and potash fertilizer are used than pesticides, so farmers use about 8 times as many pounds of commercial fertilizer as toxic pesticides.
8. Allen, Will, 2008. The War on Bugs, Chelsea Green, pp. 93-96, 144
9. Ibid., pp. 146-147
10.United States Department of Agriculture Fertilizer Use Statistics, 1998-2007
11. Until we stop being a military country, we will continue to make synthetic nitrogen for bombs.
12. “The Organic Revolution, How We Can Stop Global Warming” by Ronnie Cummins, and Alexis Baden-Mayer from the Organic Consumers Association. October 19, 2009
13. The U.S. EPA estimates that 16 billion pounds of dry sludge are produced each year and that one-half of that is applied to farmland. Synagro (a division of the Carlyle Group), which is the largest distributor of sludge, contends that about 135 billion pounds of sludge are applied to farmland.
14. Taylor, John Arator, 1813, Reprint 1977, The Liberty Fund, Indianapolis
15. Wells, David, 1852. Comparison of the Organic Matter Content of Soils from Massachusetts and Ohio. Lawrence Scientific School, Harvard University.
16. R.L. Mulvaney, S.A Kahn and T.R. Ellsworth, Synthetic Nitrogen Fertilizers Deplete Soil Nitrogen: A Global Dilemma for Sustainable Cereal Production. Published in 2009 by The Journal of Environmental Quality. S.A Khan, R.L. Mulvaney, T.R. Ellsworth, and C. Boast. The Myth of Nitrogen Fertilization for Soil Carbon Sequestration . Published in the November/December 2007 issue of The Journal of Environmental Quality. Cawood, Matt, 2009 Why Synthetic Nitrogen is Bad for Soil Carbon Published in Stock and Land, Oct. 4.
Will Allen is an organic farmer, community organizer, activist, and writer who farms in Vermont. He is a Policy Advisor for the Organic Consumers Association. His book The War on Bugs was published by Chelsea Green in 2008. His website is www.thewaronbugsbook.com
The farm website is www.cedarcirclefarm.org
Ronnie Cummins is an organizer, writer, and activist. He is the International Director of the Organic Consumers Association and co-author of the book, Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers . His organization’s website is www.OrganicConsumers.org
Kate Duesterberg edited this article. She is an organic farmer who co-manages Cedar Circle Farm, with Will Allen, in Vermont. She previously worked as an organizer for Rural Vermont, coordinated the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Vermont, and was the managing director of the Sustainable Cotton Project.