By Ronnie Cummins
A growing number of organic consumers, natural health advocates and climate hawks are taking a more comprehensive look at the fundamental causes of global warming.
It has led them to this sobering conclusion: Our modern energy-, chemical- and GMO-intensive industrial food and farming systems are the major cause of man-made global warming.
How did they reach this conclusion? First, by taking a more inclusive look at the scientific data on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions - not just carbon dioxide (CO2), but also methane and nitrous oxide.
Next, by doing a full accounting of the fossil fuel consumption and emissions of the entire industrial food and farming cycle, including inputs, equipment, production, processing, distribution, heating, cooling and waste. And finally, by factoring in the indirect impacts of contemporary agriculture, which include deforestation and wetlands destruction.
When you add it all up, the picture is clear: Contemporary agriculture is burning up our planet, and factory farms or, in industry lingo, Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), play a key role in this impending disaster.
The Global Impact of Factory Farming
The science behind global warming is complex. Without question, coal plants, tar sands and natural gas fracking have contributed heavily to greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution, the major cause of global warming. We must unite to shut down these industries.
Similarly, consumer overconsumption of fossil fuels represents another big piece of the climate-crisis equation. We absolutely must rethink, retrofit and/or redesign our gas-guzzling cars and our energy-inefficient buildings, if we want to reduce fossil fuel use by 90 percent over the next few decades.
But we also must address the environmental impact of factory farming.
Today, nearly 65 billion animals worldwide, including cows, chickens and pigs, are crammed into CAFOs. These animals are literally imprisoned and tortured in unhealthy, unsanitary and unconscionably cruel conditions.
Sickness is the norm for animals who are confined rather than pastured, and who eat genetically engineered (GE) corn and soybeans, rather than grass and forage as nature intended.
To prevent the inevitable spread of disease from stress, overcrowding and lack of vitamin D, animals are fed a steady diet of antibiotics. Those antibiotics pose a direct threat to the environment when they run off into our lakes, rivers, aquifers and drinking water.
How Factory Farms Affect Global Climate
CAFOs contribute directly to global warming by releasing vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere - more than the entire global transportation industry. The air at some factory farm test sites in the US is dirtier than in America’s most polluted cities.
According to a 2006 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, including 37 percent of methane emissions and 65 percent of nitrous oxide emissions.
The methane releases from billions of imprisoned animals on factory farms are 70 times more damaging per ton to the earth’s atmosphere than CO2.
Indirectly, factory farms contribute to climate disruption by their impact on deforestation and draining of wetlands, and because of the nitrous oxide emissions from huge amounts of nitrate fertilizers used to grow the genetically engineered corn and soy fed to animals raised in CAFOs.
Nitrous oxide pollution is even worse than methane – 200 times more damaging per ton than CO2. And just as animal waste leaches antibiotics and hormones into ground and water, pesticides and fertilizers also eventually find their way into our waterways, further damaging the environment.
CAFOs — A Major Contributor to Poor Health
Factory farms aren’t just a disaster for the environment. They’re also ruining our health. A growing chorus of scientists and public health advocates warn that the intensive and reckless use of antibiotics and growth hormones leads to factory-farmed food1 that contains antibiotic-resistant pathogens, drug residues such as hormones and growth promoters, and “bad fats.”
Yet despite these health and environmental hazards, the vast majority of consumers don’t realize that nearly 95 percent of the meat, dairy and eggs sold in the U.S. come from CAFOs. Nor do most people realize that CAFOs represent a corporate-controlled system characterized by large-scale, centralized, low profit-margin production, processing and distribution systems.
There’s an alternative: A socially responsible, small-scale system created by independent producers and processors focused on local and regional markets. This alternative produces high-quality food, and supports farmers who produce healthy, meat, eggs and dairy products using humane methods. And it’s far easier on the environment.
Why We Need to Label Factory-Farmed Food
Consumers can boycott food products from factory farms and choose the more environmentally-friendly alternatives. But first, we have to regain the right to know what’s in our food. And that means mandatory labeling, not only of genetically engineered foods, but of the 95 percent of non-organic, non-grass-fed meat, dairy and eggs that are produced on the hellish factory farms that today dominate US food production.
In 2013, a new alliance of organic and natural health consumers, animal welfare advocates, anti-GMO and climate-change activists will tackle the next big food labeling battle: meat, eggs and dairy products from animals raised on factory farms, or CAFOs.
This campaign will start with a massive program to educate consumers about the negative impacts of factory farming on the environment, on human health and on animal welfare, and then move forward to organize and mobilize millions of consumers to demand labels on beef, pork, poultry and dairy products derived from these unhealthy and unsustainable so-called “farming” practices.
Opponents and skeptics will ask, “What about feeding the world?” Contrary to popular arguments, factory farming is not a cheap, efficient solution to world hunger. Feeding huge numbers of confined animals actually uses more food, in the form of grains that could feed humans, than it produces. For every 100 food calories of edible crops fed to livestock, we get back just 30 calories in the form of meat and dairy. That’s a 70-percent loss.
With the earth’s population predicted to reach nine billion by mid-century, the planet can no longer afford this reckless, unhealthy and environmentally disastrous farming system. We believe that once people know the whole truth about CAFOs they will want to make healthier, more sustainable food choices. And to do that, we’ll have to fight for the consumer’s right to know not only what is in our food, but where our food comes from.
Keep Fighting for Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods
While California Prop. 37 failed to pass last November, by a very narrow margin, the fight for GMO labeling is far from over. The field-of-play has now moved to the state of Washington, where the people's initiative 522, "The People's Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act," will require food sold in retail outlets to be labeled if it contains genetically engineered ingredients. As stated on LabelitWA.org:
"Calorie and nutritional information were not always required on food labels. But since 1990 it has been required and most consumers use this information every day. Country-of-origin labeling wasn't required until 2002. The trans fat content of foods didn't have to be labeled until 2006. Now, all of these labeling requirements are accepted as important for consumers. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also says we must know with labeling if our orange juice is from fresh oranges or frozen concentrate.
Doesn't it make sense that genetically engineered foods containing experimental viral, bacterial, insect, plant or animal genes should be labeled, too? Genetically engineered foods do not have to be tested for safety before entering the market. No long-term human feeding studies have been done. The research we have is raising serious questions about the impact to human health and the environment.
I-522 provides the transparency people deserve. I-522 will not raise costs to consumers or food producers. It simply would add more information to food labels, which manufacturers change routinely anyway, all the time. I-522 does not impose any significant cost on our state. It does not require the state to conduct label surveillance, or to initiate or pursue enforcement. The state may choose to do so, as a policy choice, but I-522 was written to avoid raising costs to the state or consumers."
Remember, as with CA Prop. 37, they need support of people like YOU to succeed. Prop. 37 failed with a very narrow margin simply because we didn't have the funds to counter the massive ad campaigns created by the No on 37 camp, led by Monsanto and other major food companies. Let's not allow Monsanto and its allies to confuse and mislead the people of Washington and Vermont as they did in California. So please, I urge you to get involved and help in any way you can, regardless of what state you live in.
- No matter where you live in the United States, please donate money to these labeling efforts through the Organic Consumers Fund.
- If you live in Washington State, please sign the I-522 petition. You can also volunteer to help gather signatures across the state.
- For timely updates on issues relating to these and other labeling initiatives, please join the Organic Consumers Association on Facebook, or follow them on Twitter.
- Talk to organic producers and stores and ask them to actively support the Washington initiative.
About the Author
Ronnie Cummins is the founder and Director of the Organic Consumers Association. He has been a writer and activist since the 1960s, with massive expertise in human rights, anti-war, anti-nuclear, consumer, labor, environmental, and sustainable agricultural areas. He is the author of several published articles, a children's book series called Children of the World, and Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers.
About the Organic Consumers Association
The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) is an online and grassroots 501(c)3 public interest organization promoting health, justice, and sustainability. It prides itself as the only organization in the United States focused on promoting the views and interests of the country's estimated 76 million organic and socially responsible consumers.
The OCA participates in the important issues of food safety, industrial agriculture, genetic engineering, children's health, corporate accountability, Fair Trade, environmental sustainability, and other key topics. The Organic Consumers Fund, a 501(c)4, is the OCA's grassroots action and lobbying arm.