Although few realize it, agriculture is connected to many of the most important and most controversial issues of the modern world. As part of our goal to educate people about the importance of agriculture and to make the garden a learning center, we hope in the future to hold panel discussions, lectures, and film screenings on a variety of topics.
You might not believe it, but agriculture has been estimated to be one of the largest consumers of petroleum products out of all industries in the United States. From production to packaging to transportation, agriculture has become a heavily petroleum dependent industry. Starting with the Green Revolution in the 1960s, farmers began to replace internal inputs (compost, manure, etc.) with external inputs (chemical fertilizers, pesticides). These chemical inputs are largely petroleum based, and account for most of the fossil fuel consumption by agriculture. Other oil consumption has come from the shift from fresh, local produce to package, transported “food.” It”s now estimated that the average meal travels about 1500 miles to make it from a farm to a table. In California, that number is about 500 miles, because most of the produce in the United States is produced in California.\n
No matter what study you read, you”ll find that agriculture is the largest consumer of water in the world. About 70% of all potable water is used in agriculture. In the last 50 years, with the increasing migration away from sustainable, ecologically balanced agriculture towards industrial agriculture, the demand on the earths fresh water resources has increased significantly. To give an example, a hybrid varieties of rice introduced into India during its Green Revolution used about 5 to 6 times more water than the indigenous varieties they replaced. Although production from these hybrid varieties was significantly higher in their initial years of use, production levels have slipped since their introduction, and water table levels in the regions of India where these varieties were introduced have dropped to levels that make it impractical to continue to farm on these lands. With water becoming an increasingly scarce resource, especially for the worlds most marginalized populations (that is, most of the worlds population), the unsustainable levels of water use in agriculture are not only impractical, but also unconscionable.
With the introduction of chemical fertilizers and pesticides into food production, agriculture moved from a process which maintained and sustained nature to an industry which denuded and denigrated it. The modern industrial agriculture system uses hundreds of pesticides, none of which have been tested for their long term effects on human health or the environment. These chemicals take a long time to degrade naturally, and find their way to our bodies through our water ways and by drifting through the air. Even more alarming is that none of these chemicals have been tested on humans for their effects when they are combined with other chemicals, as they are in our water supply. A glaring example of this irresponsible chemical use is that of Atrazine, and chemical herbicide developed by the Swiss company Syngenta. Atrazine is one of the most widely used pesticides in the world, with 76 million pounds being applied in the US in 2003. Atrazine was banned in the EU in 2004 due to its consistent groundwater contamination. A study at UC Berkeley found that, even at low levels, atrazine could cause demasculinization and femininization in male frogs. The United States EPA has failed to ban the use of atrazine twice.
Agriculture is also a leading cause of deforestation across the globe. Sadly, this problem is not due to more land being converted to feed the worlds population, but instead as a result of the spread of industrialization and the Western mindset, which have led to increasingly resource-greedy populations to demand more and more meat in their diets. This meat is most often produced in Latin America, where forests (such as the Amazon) are cut down to create grazing lands. This deforestation not only causes the loss of forests which could be considered the lungs of the planet, but also contributes dramatically to species loss, increases in petroleum consumption, increasingly unsustainable uses of water, and displacement of already marginalized indigenous peoples.
Loss of Biodiversity
Any good biologist will tell you that diversity is the key to any systems ability to respond and react to changes. As our agricultural systems move toward monoculture, we are seeing a huge loss in biodiversity. In the US, 72% of land planted with potato is planted with just four varieties. 70% of peas are of just two varieties, and 50% of cotton is of just 3 varieties. These statistics show an unrecoverable loss in the diversity of American agriculture in the last fifty years. With these losses, we are coming to see that we have severely disabled the ability of our agriculture to respond to changes, especially those rapid changes which are occurring as a result of climate change. This loss of diversity also has an adverse effect on human health, as it reduces the quantities and quality of nutrients that we intake through our diets.
All of the issues mentioned above have a significant impact on climate change. Current estimates put agriculture”s contribution (direct and indirect) to greenhouse gas emissions at 25%, with that number expected to rise. This fact is quite significant, because you will likely never hear it repeated on the news or in politics, and that is because there is no money to be made in reducing this number. The only way to reduce the emissions and impact of agriculture, would be to convert agriculture to a system that identifies more with the past than the present. That is, a sustainable, non-polluting agriculture would make use of the organic, locally based agriculture practices of yesteryear, rather than the wasteful and hyper-destructive practices of today. This effort will require the downsizing of the goliath that is agribusiness, which pours money into lobbying efforts to keep itself alive