Transforming Agriculture, Perennially

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Big Agriculture Is Leading to Ecological Collapse

Publication: FP

Author: Matthew R. Sanderson and Stan Cox

Today, there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than at any point in the past 3.6 million years. On April 5, atmospheric carbon dioxide exceeded 420 parts per million—marking nearly the halfway point toward doubling the carbon dioxide levels measured prior to the Industrial Revolution, a mere 171 years ago. Even amid a pandemic-induced economic shutdown—during which global annual emissions dropped 7 percent—carbon dioxide and methane levels set records in 2020. The last time Earth held this much carbon dioxide in its atmosphere, sea levels were nearly 80 feet higher and the planet was 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer. The catch: Homo sapiens did not yet exist.

Change is in the air. U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines announced climate change is “at the center of the country’s national security and foreign policy.” Business-as-usual is no longer a viable strategy as more institutions consider a future that will look and feel much different. In this context, it is striking to read a recent piece in Foreign Policy arguing “big agriculture is best.”

“Big agriculture is best” cannot be an argument supported by empirical evidence. By now, it is vitally clear that Earth systems—the atmosphere, oceans, soils, and biosphere—are in various phases of collapse, putting nearly one-half of the world’s gross domestic product at risk and undermining the planet’s ability to support life. And big, industrialized agriculture—promoted by U.S. foreign and domestic policy—lies at the heart of the multiple connected crises we are confronting as a species.

The litany of industrial agriculture’s toll is long and diverse. Consider the effects of industrial animal agriculture, for example. As of this writing, animal agriculture accounts for 14.5 percent of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions annually. It is also the source of 60 percent of all nitrous oxide and 50 percent of all methane emissions, which have 36 times and 298 times, respectively, the warming potential of carbon dioxide. As industrial animal agriculture has scaled up, agricultural emissions of methane and nitrous oxide have been going in one direction only: up.

Efforts to scale industrial agriculture are undermining the planet’s capacity to support life at more local scales too. Consider Brazil, home to the Amazon Rainforest, which makes up 40 percent of all remaining rainforest and 25 percent of all terrestrial biodiversity on Earth. Forest loss and species extinctions have only increased as industrial agriculture has scaled up in Brazil. Farmers are burning unprecedented amounts of forest to expand their operations in pursuit of an industrial model. In August 2019, smoke blocked the sun in São Paulo, Brazil, 2,000 miles away from the fires in the state of Amazonas.

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