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Highest Quality Study Proves Eating This Way Is A Pollution Solution

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

factory farming pollution

Story at-a-glance -

  • Rising pollution from factory farming methods is severely impacting local environments, polluting the water supply, air quality and increasing the risk for illness and disease for those living there. However, regenerative farming strategies have a negative impact on pollution
  • The results of a study evaluating soil under holistic-managed grazing strategies for 20 years has demonstrated Will Harris' farm offsets at least 100% of the carbon emissions from his cattle farm, and the ecosystem he's created produces a net result of six times more carbon-efficiency than the average production system per pound of cow
  • In the past 40 years, scientists have discovered 33% of the world's land suitable for crops has been lost to erosion or pollution; reversing this trend is difficult as it takes time and energy from farmers committed to regenerative techniques to build soil biodiversity and ecological health
  • Unfortunately, governmental policies support industrial farming and therefore a rising tide of air and water pollution. Regenerative farmers have some protection against erratic climate, and purchasing from local farmers who use regenerative techniques helps reduce local pollution

In the 1940s, the Green Revolution changed agricultural practices. The beginning of the Revolution is often attributed to Norman Borlaug who developed high-yield varieties of wheat enabling Mexico to produce more wheat than was needed by citizens in their country.1

Production of wheat and rice from high-yield varieties had dramatic success in Mexico and India, which on the surface appeared to solve food production issues. However, these new varieties were domesticated varieties bred to respond to fertilizers to increase the yield.2

The Green Revolution also reduced the number of species grown. For instance, before high-yield variety seed, there were 30,000 rice varieties grown in India.3 Now, there are 10. The homogeneity increased the susceptibility to pests and disease, which then drove the development of pesticides and insecticides.

Farmers unable to afford fertilizer and pesticide experience lower yields with new seed rather than the older strains that had adapted to local conditions, including water supply and pests.4 These changes led to many farmers planting only one crop year after year, also known as monoculture or monocropping.

This practice has led to poor soil biodiversity, unable to support healthy plant growth.5 As the soil structure and quality declines, farmers are forced to use more fertilizer, which contributes to further decline in soil quality and nutrient depletion.6 Monocropping also encourages the spread of pests and disease requiring pesticides for treatment, greatly contributing to groundwater and air pollution.

Rising Pollution From Factory Farms Impacts Local Environment

Years of monoculture farming and industrial livestock production has created rising air and water pollution problems, triggering large algae blooms,7 polluting groundwater supplies8,9 and deteriorating air quality.10

According to a report by the Office of Inspector General (OIG),11 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates there are 18,000 large concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) nationwide.12 These operations are a significant source of air pollutants. A lack of reliable methods for estimating emissions had prevented the EPA from determining statutory requirements.

In 2005, the EPA and the CAFO industry entered into an agreement in which the industry would fund an air emissions monitoring study. However, the OIG found13 that 11 years later the EPA still had not developed reliable emission estimation methods to determine if CAFO farms were complying with the Clean Air Act and other statutes.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,14 "the most pressing public health issue associated with CAFOs stem from the amount of manure they produce." A variety of potential contaminants including pathogens, E. coli, growth hormones, antibiotics and additive chemicals are contained within the waste products.

Large CAFOs may produce more excrement waste than some U.S. cities. For instance, an 800,000-hog CAFO produces 1.6 million tons of manure each year, which is 1.5 times more waste than Philadelphia.15 According to the EPA,16 manure is a primary source of nitrogen and phosphorus runoff to surface and groundwater.

Pew Research Center17 points out an individual farm animal requires less feed and produces less manure, which may suggest a lower impact, yet industrial farming concentrates on producing the most protein in the least amount of time.

Both animals and their waste are concentrated and usually exceed the capacity of the land used, polluting the local environment and resulting in an increased health risk for those living nearby.18

Animal waste is stored in open pits, called "lagoons,"19 placing local environments in danger of pollution through leakage and overflow during storms.20 This happened after hurricane Florence to large areas of North Carolina.21

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Life Cycle Study Shows Regenerative Farming Has Negative Effect on Pollution

North of Tallahassee, Florida, and on the far west side of Georgia lies White Oak Pastures, owned and operated by Will Harris. He is the largest private employer in the county and is known throughout the U.S. by health conscious consumers for the non-GMO grass fed beef he produces.22

After the release of a study earlier this year by Quantis,23 Will Harris' legacy may be as the rancher who discovered how to use cows to heal the land. After collecting and evaluating data spanning two decades, the research team was so surprised they asked academics from other universities to confirm the methodology. As noted by lead author Jason Rowntree, Ph.D.:

"[B]ased on historical sampling, White Oak Pastures' holistically managed fields went from 1 percent soil organic matter to 5 percent. Soil organic matter is a key indicator for soil health and among other factors, it influences soil aggregates and nutrient cycling.

Aggregate stability indicates how well the soil holds together under rainfall, providing greater resiliency to the landscape. In the case of White Oak Pastures, aggregate stability increased 4x."

The results amazed the researchers who chose White Oak Pastures as it is one of few farms with a 25-year history of using holistically managed grazing and a long history of soil sampling. Since Harris acquired neighboring properties over the years, scientists were able to analyze different soil samples spanning 20 years.24

The study concluded conversion of annual crops to perennial pastures and holistic grazing effectively stored more carbon in the soil than the cows emitted during their lives. This result runs contrary to conventional wisdom about beef production. In fact, Harris' farm has zero waste and operates on a "save more than you spend" carbon model.

The life cycle assessment data demonstrated the farm offsets at least 100% of the grass fed beef carbon emissions. Harris commented on the ecosystem he created on his farm leading to these results:25

"Our farm is creating more in terms of organic matter in the soil and microbial biodiversity than it is depleting. This shows that it is possible for humans to positively contribute to the environment through our food production system — using holistic management and planned grazing of livestock."

The study found the net result of carbon emissions from the farm was 111% lower than conventional beef production and six times more carbon-efficient than the average production system per pound of cow.26

Air Pollution and Soil Erosion Are a Result of Monocropping

In addition to the contributions to groundwater and air pollution from CAFO farms, industrial monocropping increases air pollution and soil erosion. In a warning that has since come to fruition, Wendell Berry wrote, "If the present attitude continues, we may expect government policies that will encourage the destruction, by overuse, of farmland"27 and "the fertility of the soil will become a limited, unrenewable resource like coal or oil."28

Scientists from the University of Sheffield's Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures released a report at a United Nations conference in 2015, revealing 33% of the world's land suitable for crops has been lost to erosion or pollution in the past 40 years.29

Mismanagement has reversed the natural process, turning farmland into a source of pollution as opposed to a sink. Large industrial agricultural concerns emit methane,30 nitrous oxide31 and carbon dioxide into the air, as well as nitrogen into the soil and surrounding waterways.

Reversing the process is not easy, but one farmer from New York, Ben Dobson, has been part of a worldwide "soil health revolution" focused on building organic matter in the soil.32

As a result, he enjoys healthier soil and his crops have thrived during erratic climate. Dobson commented that while the area had seen massive amounts of rainfall and more prolonged periods of drought in the recent years, his farm has not suffered more than a small drop in crop yield.33

Another farmer in New York, Klaas Martens has been using regenerative techniques for 20 years. He recalled in 2016 New York experienced one of the worst droughts in decades,34 and while neighboring farms had no crop yields, he had one of the best harvests that year.35

Cover Crops May Sink Carbon Dioxide Pollution Released From 22 Million Cars

Dobson took a journalist from Grist36 on a tour of his farm during an interview. He explained how succession planting the ground builds up carbon momentum in the land. On other farms, the opposite occurs as the soil is plowed and it unleashes carbon into the atmosphere.

In 2017, the EPA37 found total carbon emissions from agriculture accounted for 9% of all gas released. Instead, Dobson uses plants with a robust root system to help break up clay and store carbon further in the soil where it eventually becomes humus, a stable form of organic matter.38

He plans to plant as many trees as possible as their extensive root system contains nutrients before they may escape into groundwater, thus improving water quality. A study released in Science Advances shows cover cropping, practiced by Dobson and Harris, could mitigate 103 million metric tons of carbon pollution in the air,39 equivalent to the annual emissions of around 22 million cars.40

Dobson describes regenerative farming, of which cover cropping is one strategy, as a means of managing an ecosystem to support agriculture and livestock, as opposed to producing monocrops or a single livestock species. The process is organic, as it works with a natural process that has been successful for centuries before fertilizers, pesticides and chemicals were introduced.

"The idea is that we're managing complex systems and letting some things, such as advanced biological systems, evolve by not disrupting them. As a farmer, my challenge is: How do I farm well within a cycle?"

Policies Encourage Rising Farm Pollution

Unfortunately, governmental policies are supporting pollution. Despite the fact many of the practices of traditional industrial farming harm the environment through the release of multiple pollutants, many agricultural policies continue to support this form of farming. For instance, although industrial farming contributes to water pollution, the operations receive exemptions under the Clean Water Act:41

"You do not generally need a permit under Section 404 if your discharges of dredged or fill material are associated with normal farming, ranching, or silviculture activities such as plowing, cultivating, minor drainage, and harvesting for the production of food, fiber, and forest products or upland soil and water conservation practices.

This exemption pertains to 'normal farming' and harvesting activities that are part of an established, ongoing farming or forestry operation."

In an interview with Grist,42 Peter Lehner, lawyer at Earthjustice,43 pointed out New York land owners are eligible to receive a tax deduction based on the size of their operation and income without meeting any environmental requirements.44

New York State Assembly member Didi Barrett has a different idea of how to protect farmers in New York and at the same time support healthy soil. Barrett supported a two-year pilot project to test different farming methods in a way designed to protect soil health and fight environmental pollution.45

Her idea is to incentivize sustainable farming practices. The current pilot program involves experimenting with different techniques on farms in Dutchess County to determine if the proposed farming practices could be feasibly scaled to the rest of the state. This follows a study in 2017 investigating financial incentives to support regenerative farming practices.46

Regenerative Farming Makes Healthier Farms

Regenerative farming reduces soil erosion and topsoil destruction47 while improving fertility and biodiversity.48 The process helps protect water sources and diminishes water demand,49 thus reducing the need for irrigation. However, water is not the only resource being decimated by pollution.

Regenerative farming also reduces air pollution, particulate pollution and animal waste. What's more, one study50 showed organic farmers earn 22% to 35% more than their industrial counterparts51 and, as Dobson and Martens attest in their interview, during times of drought or excessive rainfall their crop yield has not fluctuated significantly.52

To be part of the pollution solution, seek out local farmers using regenerative strategies to build the health of their farm and reduce local pollution. Local cooperatives enable the purchase of eggs, meat and produce produced organically and regeneratively. In an interview I did with Harris, he noted that no farmer sets out to destroy the land or hurt animals on purpose.

He thinks most believe they are doing the right thing: They're growing the best crops and managing their livestock well. But what does animal welfare really encompass? According to Harris, this term really needs to cover more than the most obvious essentials.53

"[G]ood animal welfare used to mean you don't intentionally inflict pain and discomfort on the animal. You keep them fed. You keep them safe. You don't hurt them. And all of us believed that was good animal welfare, and most people still believe that.

To us, now, that is no longer sufficient. For me and my family and my employees, good animal welfare means it is incumbent upon us as herdsmen to create an environment in which the animals can express instinctive behavior.

Cows were born to roam and graze. Chickens were born to scratch and peck. Hogs were born to root and wallow. Those are instinctive behaviors. If they're deprived of that aptitude, that is poor animal welfare.

If you have a cow on a feedlot, a hog in a gestation crate, a chicken in a battery cage, they're safe, they're reasonably comfortable, but they can't express instinctive behavior.

It's like putting your child in a closet and saying, 'This is great. I keep the temperature at 72 degrees. I leave the light on. He'll never break his leg playing football. He'll never be abducted. He'll never be run over by a bus ... That may seem like great child rearing — except it's not."

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