In Hawaii, the debate over the safety of GMO products often centers around eating the food or being exposed to chemicals used in its production.
Both are important, even urgent, concerns. But there is another that may be just as urgent: the impact of industrial food systems on climate change.
Most experts agree that warning bells should sound when atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels reach 350 parts per million (ppm). But according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, CO2 levels last year exceeded 400 ppm and are rising. Climate change is real and its impacts are far-reaching, especially for island communities such as ours.
The global food system is responsible for about half of greenhouse gases (GHG), according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
Worldwide food production is generally put into two categories:
» The “industrial food complex,” characterized by large-scale commodity crops (corn, soy, wheat, canola, sugar beet), concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) fed by those commodity crops, and the processed food industry which uses these two sources for raw materials.
» The “traditional food web,” small-to-medium family farms, which do not grow commodity crops for industrial food. This includes pasture-fed animal operations, sustainable fish harvesting and organic farms.
According to the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development’s (IAASTD) Global Report — a joint program of the World Bank, World Health Organization and United Nations — traditional food produces 70 percent of what the world’s human population eats but taxes resources only 30 percent. Conversely, industrial food provides 30 percent of the world’s food and uses 70 percent of resources. This means industrial food is putting 5.4 times the GHG into the atmosphere for every calorie of food it produces compared to traditional food.
In the U.S., over 75 percent of food on chain grocery store shelves is from industrial food. The impacts on our planet:
» Industrial agriculture uses 26 times as much fossil fuel today to produce one calorie of food as it did in 1940.
» It takes 10 calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of CAFO meat.
» CAFOs create effluent lagoons the size of lakes that emit enormous amounts of methane. Methane is 21 times more potent of a GHG than CO2.
» Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers used in industrial farming off-gas nitrous oxide, which is 310 times stronger than CO2 as a GHG.
» As oceans become more acidic from GHG retention, a life-sustaining planet needs to rely increasingly on soil to function as its “kidneys,” sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere. Industrial food, with its heavy reliance on herbicides, changes the microbial balance of soil, and mono-cropping doesn’t allow soil to replenish.
How do we slow down this runaway train?
The first step is to restrict and regulate the actions of large corporations through the political process. Industrial food consists of the world’s largest companies driven to further their profit agenda through international trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership while externalizing their costs onto the communities in which they operate.
The industrial food complex claims the mantra of “feeding the world.” But according to the IAASTD, the traditional food web feeds the 2 billion people at the bottom of the economic ladder almost exclusively with no help from industrial food.
Bottom line: We need to counteract the misinformation put out by the multinational corporations, weed out the politicians working for industrial food, and elect leaders who will implement the more resource-conscious policies of traditional food systems.
Experts estimate it will take 50 years to restore natural soil content to pre-industrial farming levels, thus reducing GHG emissions by 23-30 percent.
It will take bold community action to start this reversal and reinvigorate inspired political leadership. We are hopeful. We believe Hawaii has already begun to turn the tide in that direction. And, like many people across these islands, we believe that if any community is up for this challenge, it is ours.
Gary Hooser, President Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action
Simon Russell, Vice President, Legislative Chair Hawaii Farmers Union United
Published in Honolulu StarAdvertiser July 2, 2014