Many of us rely on the agriculture industry’s production to curb world hunger and provide food for every living citizen. Today’s global poverty rate hovers around 700 million and it is a stark reminder that despite our best efforts, many continue to go hungry. The overwhelming response from the ag industry to this ongoing problem has been to produce more food in quick succession so that less people go hungry. This is the argument made time and again to an impatient science and lawmaker community whose efforts to mitigate climate change are being dealt with in the form of legislation and global pacts such as the Paris Climate Agreement. Unfortunately, the industry has largely dodged scrutiny and continues to tout their efforts as combating world hunger -- a bigger problem than climate change as they say. Unfortunately, the production has come at the dire expense of air pollution which is killing millions each year.
The North American Meat Institute tells us that not only is the meat and poultry sector the largest sector of the US agriculture industry, but it is also responsible for feeding 318 million people and generates roughly $864 billion annually, stimulating the US economy. These numbers are impressive, but behind them comes a steep price for which the entire world is now in debt.
The livestock industry, a booming workhorse has seen an increase in production since the end of WWII. As the world population swelled, traditional farming methods quickly became a thing of the past. Food supplies were squeezed tight and could no longer keep up with the demands of a growing global economy. In place of traditional farming, industrial farming was introduced. Industrial agriculture is the process of relying heavily on chemicals to produce single crop production and build massive animal production facilities for housing livestock. Each method requires vast amounts of land and valuable resources.
Livestock Production: What’s At Stake
Let’s consider the amount of energy and resources used in industrialized agriculture. When it comes to industrialized agriculture, cattle almost always make their living quarters in factory farms. Jammed tight to increase value and production, herders yield the highest profits when they can mass produce meat or milk. Unfortunately, their tight quarters means animal waste is improperly stored. Similar to landfills, animal waste is collected and stored in pits where oxygenation is low. As a result, an alarming amount of methane gases build up, releasing into the atmosphere and significantly contributing to air pollution.
Water usage to run these gigantic farms consumes nearly 70 percent of all freshwater resources. This is mostly used in the form of irrigation. Irrigation is used to flush out huge manure systems and also serves as a drinking water source for livestock.
Grain is yet another large contributor to methane emissions in our food chain. Soy, corn and wheat are harvested in massive quantities and not only used for low nutritious feed for livestock, but it is also put into many of the foods that we as humans have come to rely on in unhealthy ways (i.e. high fructose corn syrup). These grains are not digested properly by cows, contributing to increased amounts of waste.
Monocropping, the practice of harvesting one grain over a large swath of land negatively impacts soil health and renders high quality crop yields. Similar to deforestation, monocropping allows less human labor and more machinery for the sole purpose of cutting costs and increasing profits.
Support Your Local Farmers
A case for small farmers who can bring the farm straight to the community often for less cost and in a healthful and sustainable way. Small owned farms do not mass produce. Instead, they often allow their cattle to graze in pastures. Some, but not all small farmers also grass feed their cattle, decreasing the use of feed which is also a methane emission culprit.
Unlike industrial agriculture, small farming generally adopts a no-till farming method -- the absence of soil degradation through single crop production. This type of farming can make for a huge proponent of decreasing the methane emissions that go into the air. Crops like trees have reserves in which they take in the methane emissions that industrial farming produces. When farmland is re-plowed each harvest season, instead of being left undisturbed, it stirs up into the atmosphere the emissions that were once stored.
Change the Game, Change the Industry
Numerous studies have been conducted to determine how the industry can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To combat the release of methane gases into the air, farmers would have to invest in decomposition materials and machinery. This is seen as a barrier to increasing profit margins and is often met with resistance. However, it is a small step in the right direction.
One positive change is already underway. The University of California at Davis produced a study that showed in 1950 the number of dairy cows that produced milk in the US was 22 million. That number shrunk in 2015 to nine million. That’s a 59 percent reduction in the production of dairy.