In the mid-twentieth century, chemicals like DDT almost wiped out our birds. Now, on the dawn of the twenty-first century, in 2015, American scientists are reporting that pesticides are inflicting "irreparable harm to all beings on this planet, including the planet herself."
For example, the weed killer glyphosate is causing substantial harm. "Epidemiological evidence," a recent study shows, "supports strong temporal correlations between glyphosate usage on crops and a multitude of cancers that are reaching epidemic proportions." Neurotoxic insecticides like neonicotinoids are pushing honeybees on the verge of extinction. Honeybees have been with us for thousands of years. Besides, honeybees make possible a third of the food we eat.
According to Rosemary Mason, a UK physician and great environmentalist, "no one can escape" the toxic environment created by the agrochemical industry: "The devastating effects of these silent killers in our water do not distinguish between farmers or city dwellers, the global elite or the poor they are trying to eliminate, between media moguls or their reporters, between Monsanto executives, senators, presidents, lords or prime ministers," she wrote in 2015.
This toxic chemistry also affects the climate of the planet.
Animal farms concentrate thousands of animals under one roof, treating the animals like pieces of machinery. Such inhumane conditions breed disease among the animals and the neighborhood of the factory. Massive lagoons hold tenuously enormous amounts of urine, feces, and a cocktail of drugs and poisons used in the animal farms. These lagoons, according to "Cesspools of Shame," a 2001 report by Robbin Marks of the Natural Resources Defense Council, often overflow into creeks and rivers, killing fish and poisoning the water.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimated in 2006 that animal farms were responsible for something like 18 percent of CO2 equivalent of greenhouse gases per year. FAO said the livestock sector was responsible for (1) 18 percent of CO2 equivalent of greenhouse gases; (2) 37 percent of methane emissions, which are 23 times more lasting than CO2; and (3) 65 percent of nitrous oxide, which is 296 times more potent than CO2 and (4) 64 percent ammonia, which makes acid rain.
In 2009, two researchers from for the World Bank Group criticized the FAO estimate. They calculated the total emissions of livestock to be around 51 percent of CO2 equivalent in greenhouse gases. I agree with them.
Additional studies will throw more light and accuracy on the amounts of greenhouse gases coming out of livestock farms. But the key for us in 2015 is that large industrialized farms are a huge player among industries warming our world.
The chemistry of large farms makes them not climate friendly. But higher temperatures also threaten those farms. The UN Conference on Trade and Development reported in 2013 that climate change has the potential to devastate agriculture and food security.
Pesticides are part of that potential harm. Once in the soil, pesticides poison beneficial microorganisms responsible for the nutrition of the crops and for the healthy structure of the soil. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers destabilize the soil further by destroying its health and carbon sequestration. In other words, synthetic fertilizers make it difficult for the soil to keep carbon in the land. This is horrible as healthy soils are grant sinks for organic carbon. Finally, all agricultural machinery burns petroleum, an Earth-warming chemical.
Global warming is primarily the result of burning fossil fuels. Industrialized farming is a giant link in that process.
Alternatives exist. These alternatives -- biodynamic agriculture, organic farming, community-supported agriculture, biological or regenerative agriculture, peasant or ecological farming - are forms of applied biology that have nature as their primary model. They are desired biological pathways to family agriculture, which has the potential to heal some of the wounds of industrial agriculture.
Miguel Altieri, professor of entomology and agroecology at the University of California-Berkeley, has been working with peasants in Latin America for decades. He reports that peasants using their traditional methods, local seeds and local talent make their farms productive and resilient. He says more plant diversity and complexity defend farms from the damage of extreme climate conditions.
What Needs to Be Done
Manure, compost and cover crops bring health to the land. According to Timothy LaSalle, director of the Rodale Institute, compost, manure and cover crops build mychorrhiza fungi that keep carbon in the soil for a very long time. Healthy, carbon-rich land, says LaSalle, also "holds water: 1 pound of carbon holds 40 pounds of water... we can put 1,000 pounds of carbon back into an acre each season; that means 40,000 pounds of water will be in that soil."
Thomas J. Goreau, biogeochemist and president of the Global Coral Reef Alliance, is suggesting that soil health needs boosting from microbes. Add "beneficial microbes," he says, "to stimulate the soil cycles where they have been interrupted by use of insecticides, herbicides, or [synthetic] fertilizers."
We in the United States must return to small family farms that work with manure, compost, and cover crops. This makes the soil healthy and capable of sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. However, we must discard pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and large machinery.
Second, unite animals with crops in small farms. The manure of the animals would fertilize the crops and make the farms climate friendly.
Mix agroecology in the design of a new American agriculture of millions of small farms. The small farmer is unbeatable. Acre for acre, the small farmer grows more food than the conventional farmer. Small farmers have science on their side as well. Agroecology simply brings that to light.
Small farmers practice not merely good husbandry but, just as importantly, they and their agriculture are expressions of agricultural, ecological, and biodiversity principles.
Small farms are our best defense against predatory plantations. They are also vital in the regeneration of the soil in capturing and sequestering carbon, giving us enough time to eliminate the burning of fossil fuels and slow down the global engine of climate change.