Energy and Food Independence
Topic: Progressive Op-Ed Program
It seems fitting that the same week we celebrate the independence of our Nation, the House passed historic climate change legislation. In theory, this bill should bring us closer to the goals of oil independence and freedom from the disastrous future of a warming, melting planet. If America is to prosper in the 21st century, then we must take immediate action to reduce our role in causing the climate crisis. And yet, the bill left those of us who care about our shared environment shaking our heads. Is the Waxman-Markey bill is even slightly better for the planet than the status quo, or will it pave the way to increased, legalized pollution? Perhaps the most tragic part of the bill was the compromise with agribusiness interests that was required to secure its passage through the Agriculture committee.
Agribusiness likes to claim that “farmers are the first environmentalists” – a statement that should be true. Sadly, the large corporate interests that drive the agribusiness lobby like to hide behind the image of the American family farmer. And while the American family farmer may in fact be an environmentalist, the new climate change bill further entrenches the status quo of an agricultural system based on unsustainable usage of oil, water, and soil.
Soil represents one of our most powerful tools to sequester carbon, removing it from the atmosphere. However, in the last half-century oil-intensive industrial farming practices degraded our soil from up to 20 percent carbon to between 1- and 2-percent carbon. The chemical fertilizers and pesticides that degrade the soil also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, we all need to eat, so ending agriculture is not a viable option to combat global warming or to reduce our dependence on oil. But when it is done right, agriculture can sequester carbon, playing a positive role in the fight against climate change.
For example, if organic, regenerative methods were adopted on all the world’s farmland, agriculture has the potential to sequester up to 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, for corn, studies show that organic, no-till methods reduce fossil fuel needs by two-thirds over a conventional, tilled system. Last, measured over several decades, organic corn and soy yields matched conventional yields in most years. The exception was in drought years, when organic yielded 30 percent more corn than conventional. These findings, that organic methods can match conventional yields for corn and soy, are consistent with the findings of another study that evaluated a large number of crops around the world. That study found that organic agriculture yields, on average, 92 percent as much as conventional in the developed world.
We must also consider that in the developing world, organic outproduces conventional agriculture by 80 percent. That is not because organic produces more; it is because chemical-based methods yield less. Agriculture in the developed world relies on heavy amounts of petroleum-based fertilizer and other inputs, resources the developing world lacks. These numbers paint a disturbing picture for our future here at home as our oil runs out. Without abundant, cheap oil, our conventional agriculture may more closely resemble the decreased yields of the developing world.
In other words, in a warming world that is running out of oil, organic agriculture may be our best shot at feeding ourselves. Simultaneously, organic agriculture may be our ticket to reversing global warming by sequestering carbon into the soil. Yet, when faced with what could have been a very ambitious effort at curbing emissions, agribusiness fought for and won the right to continue business as usual. The average farmer might like the idea of decreased reliance on oil. Preventing a climate crisis will ensure these farmers can pass their farms down to future generations. But the corporations selling chemical fertilizer, pesticides, and genetically modified seeds to the farmer prefer to secure their own short-term profits over the long-term well-being of humanity. The passage of Waxman-Markey represents a loss for science, conservation, the family farmer, and the human race, but a big win for agribusiness. Independence from oil and freedom from climate change will have to wait for a future Fourth of July – it certainly didn’t happen this year.
This article was produced as part of Commonweal Institute's Progressive Op-Ed Program