Climate Change and Industrial Agriculture

Our society depends on industrial agriculture for cheap foods. Yet ongoing climate change already has led to extreme weather, including droughts, floods, and heat waves, all so severe as to damage or destroy crops. We need to consider what humanity will face as these manifestations of rising world average temperature proceed – all humanity, not just the affluent West.

Industrial agriculture is the large scale, high output, low cost agricultural methods adopted in the United States, Canada, and Australia, and being imposed increasingly on the rest of the world. It is the agriculture that raises millions of chickens crowded together, each in caged living space less than their wing spread. One recent result was the recall of over 500 million eggs produced by chickens infected with salmonella. These eggs were cheaper by about half than eggs from “Free Range” chickens. The excrement from these farms infects chickens and anything it contacts.

Industrial agriculture also involves large scale, crowded, industrial facilities for raising cattle and pigs. There animals are crowded to prevent them moving, except to eat. They are fed antibiotics to promote growth and overcome the filth in which they live. Indeed, these animals in North America consume more antibiotics than the humans in the rest of the world. As the antibiotics are not fed in relation to any infection or in therapeutic dosages, bacteria rapidly become resistant to them. The result is antibiotic resistant bacteria on meat products from these farms. The meat from these animals is much cheaper than meat from range fed cattle and pigs.

Industrial agriculture also means large scale, mono-culture cropping of plants like corn, soy, wheat, barley, and cereals in general. Often these plants have been genetically engineered (GE) to be resistant to the broad spectrum herbicide glyphosate (Roundup Ready), or to produce toxins from Bacillus Thuringiensis (BT), a soil bacteria used especially in corn cropping. Farmers who raise these GE plants also buy the herbicide, as well as the seeds, from Monsanto, a monopoly company. The practice of farmers with these GE crops is to raise them on a large scale and apply heavy doses of herbicide, using machinery both to plant and harvest. The farmers must also use heavy doses of commercial fertilizer containing nitrogen and phosphorus to replenish the soil depleted by monoculture. The result is food that is cheaper than food raised organically or on a small scale, using crop rotation, composting, or no-till methods.

The requirements for large-scale farming include heavy machinery and fossil fuel to operate them. Fossil fuel must also be used to transport crops or meat or eggs to market. At a store in Victoria, I often find apples from New Zealand cheaper than apples from British Columbia. I find grapefruit from Texas and Mexico, even Florida, and many fruits and vegetables come from California or Mexico. These foods are available throughout the year, not just during the local growing seasons. Fossil fuels are utilized to transport food over very long distances and to keep products of industrial agriculture available and cheap. Fossil fuels are also used in the manufacture and transport of fertilizers.

How will climate change affect our dependence on industrial agriculture for cheap foods from around the world? What about the ongoing availability of cheap fossil fuel?

It is already clear that severe weather from global warming will cause serious crop failures. This year wheat crops failed in Russia and Asia because of extreme heat and drought. There were problems with getting wheat crops planted in Canada owing to a wet, cool spring. Floods and winds have destroyed much of this year’s crops in Pakistan and elsewhere. As developing nations are forced by import of cheap food from industrial farming to give up small scale and family farming, any failure throughout the world will have impacts nearly everywhere.

Genetic engineering has not succeeded in producing crops resistant to drought, excess moisture, or heat, or capable of germination under extreme conditions of wet or dry springs. GE and industrial farming have also resulted in loss of genetic diversity of plants and animals. Seed saving by farmers has been replaced by yearly seed purchase from GE companies like Monsanto by those engaged in industrial agriculture.

Global warming will also impact industrial farming of animals who cannot survive extremes of heat and cold. The availability of water for plants and animals will be reduced. Already, especially in the USA, industrial agriculture is using up “fossil water,” water not replaced yearly and in limited supply.

The price of fossil fuels is currently high, but much lower than its past peak. Though there is still argument about when or if there is peak oil, clearly, oil will have to come from places accessible only by complex technology, such as deep in the oceans, even the Arctic oceans, or from tar sands. The dangers to the environment are manifest from recent events in the Gulf of Mexico and the contamination of the Athabasca River. Oil from tar sands contributes gross quantities of CO2 and other pollutants that increase global warming. Natural gas is being derived from shales by methods requiring the breakup of shale and rock formations and consequent contamination of ground water.

Fossil fuel supply and hence its current lower price are both also subject to the danger of imperialist war in the Middle East and local resistance to exploitation and environmental damage in places like Nigeria and Ecuador.

Is there a solution? If so, I am not sure what it will be. Urban gardening for food and organic farming are spreading and offer hope. Resistance to GE crops is alive, especially in Europe. The movement for food sovereignty, manifest in La Via Campesina, is growing. Cuba and Venezuela are working toward local sustainable food security. However, their examples are unlikely to appeal to the leaders of the “Developed World”.

Moreover, world population continues to increase and the availability of food grown by sustainable methods does not keep pace. The powers of industrial agriculture and those who profit from it to influence the moral, economic, and political decisions that must be made are such that needed rational and revolutionary proposals may not be adopted in time.

As members of Science for Peace, we have the obligation, in my opinion, to educate, to agitate, and to act in all possible ways to bring sustainable agriculture to Canada as an example to the world.

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ISSN 1925-170X (Print) | ISSN 1925-1718 (Online)