How Modern Food Production is Contributing to Climate Change

Elizabeth Barrett, Liberal Studies/Psychology


In the past few decades, climate change has been a hot topic. Whether you believe in it or not, climate change is real, and it has been proven time and again that the processes we as humans use to make our daily lives easier are damaging the planet. There have been many changes and policies put out in attempt to slow down or curb emissions, when in fact one of the main culprits for pollution seems to be overlooked by those in charge, and that is simply the way we eat our food. The industrialization of our food supply has created an abundance of food, but modern food production is also leaving a massive carbon footprint, degrading the soil, and creating more problems than it is solving in the long run.  

According the UN, between 43% and 57% of our greenhouse gas emissions are related to food production, including deforestation or land manipulation, raising livestock, processing, packaging, and transportation. Deforestation alone can cause huge damage, as we are seeing with the current wildfires in Indonesia, which were sparked by the slash-and-burn techniques of deforestation. These fires continue to burn and contribute more emissions in one day than the US emits daily.  

The current farming methods for crops, combined with genetic modification and overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, are severely degrading soil and preventing it from doing what it’s supposed to do. Plants and trees absorb carbon from the atmosphere, and it leeches into the soil. Modern farming techniques not only release carbon into the air, but also destroy the soil’s ability to absorb it back.  

Industrialized crops are continuously plowed, doused with chemicals, and covered with fertilizer. Nitrogen-based fertilizer releases nitrous oxide, which is a huge contributor to greenhouse gasses. Farmers tend to overuse this for insurance, and then it gets wet, turns into nitrous oxide and rises into the air.

Corn is the largest crop industry in the US, with soy coming in second. Yet, only a tiny fraction of these crops actually go to feed the population, and most of that is in the form of high fructose corn syrup. According to Scientific American, 40% of it goes to make bio fuels, and roughly 36% goes to feeding animals. Corn is the most genetically modified and pesticide covered crop we have, and there have been many studies showing the negative effects modern corn is having on not only the land, but the health of the animals eating it.  

What goes into the animals isn’t the only worrisome thing, however. What’s coming out is causing a stink as well. All those animals being fattened up for slaughter are also emitting gas. Methane, which is much better at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon, is the most destructive of the greenhouse gasses. According to the NASA Goddard Institute, methane gas emissions have increased by 150% since the turn of the 19th century.

You can see how this is troubling. It’s not just carbon we have to worry about, but also the buildup of nitrous oxide and methane in the atmosphere, and the destruction of the soil’s ability to do its job. We’ve seen what bad soil practice can do, as exemplified by the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression.

This does not even bring into the discussion the issues of water waste from maintaining massive crops, and the pollution that occurs from pesticide runoff. Nor does it discuss the excess carbon pollution involved in gathering, processing, packaging, and transporting these foods.  

The bottom line is, our soil and air are being polluted in every way, and unless things change now, the damage may not be reversible. More people need to plant their own gardens and eat less meat.  This would reduce the demand for both livestock and crops. The desire to conserve the planet as it is must rise above greed. The solutions are very simple, but it will take massive effort by a lot of people, and by cooperation of governments to help reduce these emissions and perhaps reverse them.

If not, the future will be darker than the Dust Bowl.


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