An abundant food supply helped facilitate mankind’s population explosion—from one to six billion—in only 200 years.
Scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison compiled satellite imagery that suggests an area the size of South America is used for crop production, and an area nearly double that is used to raise livestock.
This deforestation has exterminated the foliage necessary to combat carbon dioxide and, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels have increase sevenfold since 1950.
According to a 2012 report in Nature, based on numbers from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, the food industry is responsible for one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions.
The meat industry shoulders most of the blame as 67 percent of crops grown in the U.S. are consumed by animals. It takes 100 calories of grain to produce three calories of beef, and Americans alone consumed 45,937,000,000 pounds of red meat in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
A dairy cow produces around 12 gallons of wet manure—120 to 148 pounds per day. In order to continuously produce milk, cows must be artificially inseminated annually. Newborns are torn from their mothers within 24 hours so humans can collect the milk. Males live for 351 days before becoming veal, while the mothers, physically burdened from five years of lactation, are ground to beef.
Unlike dairy, four corporations control nearly 85 percent of the meatpacking industry. Tyson Foods reported record profits of $864 million in 2014.
To achieve this kind of cash flow, large corporations employ “concentrated animal feeding operations” (CAFOs). The beasts are fed to maximize weight gain in the shortest amount of time and confined for months on end, jostling about in their own feces. CAFOs account for 50 percent of the animals raised for food, producing double the waste of the human population.
In order to thwart the diseases inherent to poor living conditions, livestock consume 80 percent of the U.S. antibiotic supply, complicating human illness as antibiotic-resistant bacteria enter the water supply.
Commercial agriculture has exploited the ideals of monoculture. Vast fields of genetically similar plants, grown year after year, require varied weapons to meet production quotas and inhibit pests, which can devastate ecosystems that lack genetic diversity.
Humans have been dealing with agricultural pests for 4,500 years, using natural weapons like sulfuring compounds, dried daises, or smoke from burning fish and straw. But the 20th century brought a chemical onslaught of pesticides and fertilizers.
For abundant yields, plants require a little extra nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, but runoff into adjacent watersheds results in “aquatic hypoxia”—a lack of oxygen, which eliminates marine life. Worldwide dead zones now account for an area that dwarfs the size of Texas.
In the 1970s, agricultural giant Monsanto introduced glyphosate, today’s best-selling herbicide, and glyphosate-resistant breeds, which seemed a like cure-all. Farmers simply sowed the seeds and then sprayed this chemical. Almost everything died but the intended crop.
Then natural selection set in. There are now 24 “super weeds” in 18 countries that are resistant to Monsanto’s formula, forcing farmers to use more herbicides. Monsanto, DuPont, and Dow—the three largest pushers of genetically modified seeds—also happen to be the three largest herbicide producers.
Manipulating genetic material is sometimes the only way to combat a problem, like the Papaya Ringspot Virus for which no natural immunization exists. Genetically engineered organisms can resist herbicides, pathogens, insects, and even unfavorable weather conditions.
But genetically modified organisms have a tough time coexisting with traditional crops. Birds, bees, and wind carry seeds to random destinations, where the seeds can lay dormant for years before sprouting, flowering, and potentially contaminating organic crops.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) conducted a 2004 study of organic seeds and found Monsanto’s genes in “some 50 percent of the [six traditional varieties of] corn and soybean samples and more than 80 percent of the canola samples...[S]eeds are the wellspring of our food system,” concluded the UCS report, “the base on which we improve crops and the source to which we return when crops fail. Seeds will be our only recourse if the prevailing belief in the safety of genetic engineering proves wrong. Heedlessly allowing the contamination of traditional plant varieties with genetically engineered sequences amounts to a huge wager on our ability to understand a complicated technology that manipulates life at the most elemental level.”
The ethics of profit guide the agriculture industry, which shows little signs of change even though produce can be grown vertically, floor-by-floor, in specifically designed greenhouses. Roots don’t even require dirt. Aeroponics, hydroponics, and aquaponics make use of growing mediums that require a fraction of the energy and water, while generating remarkably bounteous harvests. In aquaponics, cultured bacteria morphs fish waste into nitrate, feeding the plants, which in turn filter the water. Mother Nature has, in fact, mastered the art of sustainability. But harmony is not profitable.
Joshua Bruns is a sustainability advocate and a senior at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where he is studying sociology and philosophy.