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Changing the Climate, or Changing the Way We Farm?

by David Wann

Old Perspective: Conventional agriculture is a stewardship profession, working with natural systems to produce what humans need at affordable prices. Environmental impacts are justified by the need to feed hungry people.
New Perspective: Agriculture as an industry is not as “natural” as it was 75 years ago. The process of growing food emits more greenhouse gases than the transportation sector, and more than manufacturing and residential emissions combined. It is the most unregulated sector in the global economy. For example, while wastewater treatment plants are required for humans in all industrial countries, no such treatment is required for the planet’s 20 billion livestock, whose wastes generate huge volumes of methane and nitrous oxide. Agriculture offers huge opportunities to reduce the threat of global warming if we make fundamental changes in the way we farm.

When we think about the causes of global warming, we’re more likely to point a finger at coal-fired power plants and buildings with poorly insulated roofs than farm fields. Yet recent data indicates that the food system as a sector is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Livestock production alone contributes 18 percent, and other agricultural practices such as fertilizer production and use, irrigation, and the operation of farm machinery contribute at least another five percent.  The impacts of our industrialized food system don’t stop there, however. In fact, the growing of food accounts for only one-fifth of the energy used to bring food to our tables. The other four-fifths is used to move, process, package, sell, store, preserve, and prepare food. The refrigerator emits far more carbon dioxide than the tractor.

Agriculture produces greenhouse gases in several basic ways:

  • Direct use of fossil fuels to power machinery
  • Application of both manufactured fertilizers (which are energy-intensive) and manure (which emits methane) to fields, and decomposition of wastes
  • Radical indigestion in cattle, which can digest grass perfectly but not grain; deforestation to clear land for crops and grazing
  • Soil tillage that releases gases from the soil

The Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2009: Into a Warming World identifies five strategies to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions:

  • Put more carbon and compost into the soil (fundamentals of organic farming)
  • Grow a higher percentage of carbon-storing crops (including cover crops) on farmland
  • Raise livestock with more climate-friendly methods (including a higher percentage of range-fed meat)
  • Protect existing forests and grasslands to absorb greenhouse gases
  • Restore vegetation in degraded areas to absorb gases

Though these strategies may seem inaccessible to a largely non-farming population, there are several key ways that citizen-consumers can help change the way food is produced (no small challenge, since agriculture is a ten millennia-long habit). By helping to reverse two key dietary trends of the past half-century—fossil-fueled food and relentless increases in meat consumption—we can each play a leading role in preventing climatic catastrophe.

Organically grown peas from a small backyard garden in Portland, Oregon.
Organically grown peas from a small
garden in Portland, Oregon.

Photo by Laurie Menk Otto.

An increase in the consumption of organic food will help store more carbon in the soil, and a decrease in per capita consumption of meat can reduce all three major greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide (from fertilizer manufacture and deforestation to raise livestock), nitrous oxide emissions from manufactured fertilizers (used to grow the grains and soybeans that fatten livestock before slaughter), and methane, which is emitted from livestock and their manure. Methane and nitrous oxide are many times more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide, a primary reason why livestock production is a global warming nightmare.

If we think about food and agriculture systems not just logically (profit, price, and yield) but biologically, fundamental flaws are right in our faces. First, our reliance on non-renewable resources like fossil fuels creates a sense that stewardship of soil and water are not necessary. Yet agriculture is quintessentially solar-powered and can lead the way to a future powered by renewable energy. Second, we’re doing very strange things with food: cattle are designed to eat grass, but we force-feed them grain, which requires massive doses of antibiotics. (70 percent of the antibiotics produced in the U.S. are fed to livestock). We are grain-eating omnivores who can’t digest grass, and require only 30 to 50 grams of protein a day, yet we eat more like 110 grams per day including a half a pound of meat, which in turn causes health effects like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.  Isn’t it time to rethink both the way we eat and the way we farm? 

Yes, personal as well as cultural changes will be necessary, but once the overall direction is set, the changes can be incremental and relatively painless. We can get a lot of mileage out of a few simple dietary changes. For example, eating no meat on a given day is like driving about 25 fewer miles in a car with average fuel efficiency. If every American took on this meat-free-day challenge, it would be have the effect of taking eight million cars off American roads.

Maybe, in addition to starting a garden on the White House lawn, the First Family should challenge each household to learn a few gourmet, meatless recipes every few months. Instead of bacon and eggs for breakfast, try hunger-busting ten-grain cereal and fresh fruit. Instead of burgers for lunch, prepare pita sandwiches filled with fresh vegetables and hummus. Instead of pork chops for dinner, serve pasta topped with fresh tomatoes and pesto. According to a group of Swedish researchers, producing a pound of beef creates 11 times as much greenhouse gas emission as a pound of chicken and 100 times more than a pound of carrots, so it appears we could be far more sustainable if we find a few good recipes for chicken curry and carrot cake.

As our personal and national dietary habits change, we help level an upward trend in developing countries like India and China, since meat eating is largely about keeping up with the Joneses in other industrialized countries. We also send a clear signal to the world’s farmers: we value the preservation of a stable climate, one of our most precious, commonly shared assets.


David Wann works to present images of a more sustainable American lifestyle in articles, books, and films. His most recent book is The New Normal: An Agenda for Responsible Living, which challenges us to do some heavy lifting and transform our non-sustainable culture by transforming ourselves. Simple Prosperity presents 17 forms of real wealth that meet human needs directly, providing twice the satisfaction for half the resources. He is coauthor of Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic and Superbia! 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods, and the author of The Zen of Gardening in the High and Arid West: Tips, Tools, and Techniques. Wann’s award-winning film Designing a Great Neighborhood was recently featured at the Princeton Film Festival. Visit his website at www.DaveWann.com.
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This excerpt is from The New Normal: An Agenda for Responsible Livingby David Wann, © 2011. Reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Griffin and the author.

The New NOrmal: An Agenda for Responsible Living, by David Wann

In Simple Prosperity, Dave Wann showed readers how to have an abundant, sustainable life. In The New Normal, he challenges us to do some heavy lifting and transform our non-sustainable culture by transforming ourselves. For Wann, our current “old normal” lifestyle — buying water in disposable bottles, allowing the government to ignore global warming — will not preserve the planet. To nurture our world, he challenges us to rethink our lives, stand up for a healthy planet and move towards a “new normal” lifestyle in an agenda that includes:

  • Initiating local business alliances that actively lobby for local buying
  • Creating an investment strategy that values the balance of nature
  • Supporting the design, manufacture, and use of products made with natural chemicals
  • Publicly advocating a more efficient use of water by placing a higher cultural value on wetlands, streams, rivers, and lakes

The New Normal is Dave Wann’s way forward, a blueprint for a better life that preserves our world.




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