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Cummins writes: "A growing number of organic consumers, natural health advocates and climate hawks are taking a more comprehensive look at the fundamental causes of global warming."

Factory farms are cruel and bad for the environment and our health. (photo: Alexandre Meneghini/AP)
Factory farms are cruel and bad for the environment and our health. (photo: Alexandre Meneghini/AP)

How Factory Farming Contributes to Global Warming

By Ronnie Cummins, EcoWatch

22 January 13


growing number of organic consumers, natural health advocates and climate hawks are taking a more comprehensive look at the fundamental causes of global warming. And its led them to this sobering conclusion: our modern energy-, chemical- and genetically modified organism (GMO)-intensive industrial food and farming systems are the major cause of man-made global warming.

How did they reach this conclusion? First, by taking a more inclusive look at the scientific data on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions - not just carbon dioxide (CO2), but also methane and nitrous oxide. Next, by doing a full accounting of the fossil fuel consumption and emissions of the entire industrial food and farming cycle, including inputs, equipment, production, processing, distribution, heating, cooling and waste. And finally, by factoring in the indirect impacts of contemporary agriculture, which include deforestation and wetlands destruction.

When you add it all up, the picture is clear - contemporary agriculture is burning up our planet. And factory farms or, in industry lingo, Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), play a key role in this impending disaster.

The science behind global warming is complex. Without question, coal plants, tar sands and natural gas fracking have contributed heavily to GHG pollution, the major cause of global warming. We must unite to shut down these industries. Similarly, consumer overconsumption of fossil fuels represents another big piece of the climate-crisis equation. We absolutely must rethink, retrofit and/or redesign our gas-guzzling cars and our energy-inefficient buildings, if we want to reduce fossil fuel use by 90 percent over the next few decades.

But we also must address the environmental impact of factory farming.

Today, nearly 65 billion animals worldwide, including cows, chickens and pigs, are crammed into CAFOs. These animals are literally imprisoned and tortured in unhealthy, unsanitary and unconscionably cruel conditions. Sickness is the norm for animals who are confined rather than pastured, and who eat GMO corn and soybeans, rather than grass and forage as nature intended. To prevent the inevitable spread of disease from stress, overcrowding and lack of vitamin D, animals are fed a steady diet of antibiotics. Those antibiotics pose a direct threat to the environment when they run off into our lakes, rivers, aquifers and drinking water.

CAFOs contribute directly to global warming by releasing vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere - more than the entire global transportation industry. The air at some factory farm test sites in the U.S. is dirtier than in America's most polluted cities, according to the Environmental Integrity Project. According to a 2006 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, including 37 percent of methane emissions and 65 percent of nitrous oxide emissions. The methane releases from billions of imprisoned animals on factory farms are 70 times more damaging per ton to the earth's atmosphere than CO2.

Indirectly, factory farms contribute to climate disruption by their impact on deforestation and draining of wetlands, and because of the nitrous oxide emissions from huge amounts of pesticides used to grow the genetically engineered corn and soy fed to animals raised in CAFOs. Nitrous oxide pollution is even worse than methane - 200 times more damaging per ton than CO2. And just as animal waste leaches antibiotics and hormones into ground and water, pesticides and fertilizers also eventually find their way into our waterways, further damaging the environment.

Factory farms aren't just a disaster for the environment. They're also ruining our health. A growing chorus of scientists and public health advocates warn that the intensive and reckless use of antibiotics and growth hormones leads to factory-farmed food that contains antibiotic-resistant pathogens, drug residues such as hormones and growth promoters, and "bad fats." Yet despite these health and environmental hazards, the vast majority of consumers don't realize that nearly 95 percent of the meat, dairy and eggs sold in the U.S. come from CAFOs. Nor do most people realize that CAFOs represent a corporate-controlled system characterized by large-scale, centralized, low profit-margin production, processing and distribution systems.

There's an alternative: a socially responsible, small-scale system created by independent producers and processors focused on local and regional markets. This alternative produces high-quality food, and supports farmers who produce healthy, meat, eggs and dairy products using humane methods.

And it's far easier on the environment.

Consumers can boycott food products from factory farms and choose the more environmentally-friendly alternatives. But first, we have to regain the right to know what's in our food. And that means mandatory labeling, not only of genetically engineered foods, but of the 95 percent of non-organic, non-grass-fed meat, dairy and eggs that are produced on the hellish factory farms that today dominate U.S. food production.

In 2013, a new alliance of organic and natural health consumers, animal welfare advocates, anti-GMO and climate-change activists will tackle the next big food labeling battle: meat, eggs and dairy products from animals raised on factory farms, or CAFOs. This campaign will start with a massive program to educate consumers about the negative impacts of factory farming on the environment, on human health and on animal welfare, and then move forward to organize and mobilize millions of consumers to demand labels on beef, pork, poultry and dairy products derived from these unhealthy and unsustainable so-called "farming" practices.

Opponents and skeptics will ask, "What about feeding the world?" Contrary to popular arguments, factory farming is not a cheap, efficient solution to world hunger. Feeding huge numbers of confined animals actually uses more food, in the form of grains that could feed humans, than it produces. For every 100 food calories of edible crops fed to livestock, we get back just 30 calories in the form of meat and dairy. That's a 70-percent loss.

With the earth's population predicted to reach nine billion by mid-century, the planet can no longer afford this reckless, unhealthy and environmentally disastrous farming system. We believe that once people know the whole truth about CAFOs they will want to make healthier, more sustainable food choices. And to do that, we'll have to fight for the consumer's right to know not only what is in our food, but where our food comes from. your social media marketing partner


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-30 # Above God 2013-01-22 09:51
Rommie Cummins can go and graze his yard like the did during the "Potato Famine". A million Irish died when potato blight wiped out the crop.The Irish would approach the British land owners with green stain around their mouths from eating grass. Billions would starve with "Organic Farming" methods as insects,bacteri s,viruses and fungi destroy the crops.
+16 # Kev C 2013-01-22 12:53
Now what part of organic agriculture do you not understand? The biodiversity, the soil science, the sustainability, the rotation of crops, the balanced nature of soil micro-organisms and insect pollinators and insect predators or all of it? There is a lot more to organic agriculture than what I have listed here but then I have other things to do right now so won't waste too much time making the point. I think I have already done that. And Ronnie Cummins is right. So is the research that was used to support the argument. And if you had taken the trouble to read the research links you would see Ronnie Cummins had nothing to do with that. All independently assessed and peer reviewed by other scientists with an interest in finding the truth.
The only way we can recover planet Earth from mortal danger is to stop intensive agricultural practices and stop being so damned wasteful. This is not a sweetie shop with everything going for free. Its our home planet and its the only one we have got so get wise and grow up. We don't need stupid statements to muddy the scientific findings.
+3 # Holmes 2013-01-22 21:22
Actually when we went Minimum Tillage in the SW of Western Australia, we did reduce our total energy inputs, tractor hours, slow up our water erosion rates (in one trial to less than soil formation rates in a landscape 1.5 bill years old, similar to wind erosion. We also improved out utilization of rain (mostly rain fed agriculture here) so that farmers could routinely approach the limits of yield for the available water. This also reduces the rate of salination of the landscape, a huge problem here.

I feel that the myth of 'organic farming' is just that. It is good farming. You use the best tools for the situation, and with a bit of thought and care, you will be surprised just how close the outcomes in total land care the result will be.

If you use 10 grams / ha of a pesticide to kill sorrel which requires not more than 50 g of oil to make, and which repeated cultivations / stock rotations / pH adjustments will not control, you cannot even drive your tractor to the field on 50 mL of oil.

While working in the are, I felt that the old Scottish song ' You take the High Road, and I take the Low road..' seemed appropriate as total land care was our aim. The option of walking away and letting the bush regenerate is on the table as subsidies in the EU and USA are severely costing these farmers. Covering the area with solar panels and selling electricity is another.
0 # AMLLLLL 2013-01-22 14:17
Hey Above, relax and watch this:

The whole movie is much more pleasantly informative if you're not afraid to watch.
+1 # MainStreetMentor 2013-01-24 06:51
again: "It's the greed, stupid!" And greed which implements negative environmental impact - environmental impact which has long term, disastrous effects for every living thing. The greedy who promote, advocate and initiate CAFOs are in fact and deed, condeming their own children and grandchildre - and ALL their posterity for a chance at another dollar bill.
+3 # Eliza D 2013-01-25 17:15
AG-Millions, if not billions are set to starve or be poisoned to death by Big Agriculture's methods of farming and meat production. The power of the FDA to police our food supply has been eviscerated over the last decade with more lax regulations and the number of inspectors cut to laughable levels. Furthermore, the GMO food animals are fed has been shown to cause sterility in rats by the third generation, and some research has shown, contributed to skyrocketing rates of childhood learning disorders, autism, diabetes and cancer. Think carefully about what socially responsible, small-scale systems really mean. When the people who produce our food know us they are more likely to be invested in our health, while when we know the people who produce our food, we can demand more safeguards and have a higher level of trust that what we ingest is healthy. Right now, we have inhumane and unhealthy system in which meat producers think it's fine to bathe meat in bleach and ammonia, two toxic chemicals, in order to render it free of pathogens. Is that what you want?
-10 # BostonPundit 2013-01-22 10:51
The author writes:
"The science behind global warming is complex. Without question, coal plants, tar sands and natural gas fracking have contributed heavily to GHG pollution, the major cause of global warming. We must unite to shut down these industries. Similarly, consumer overconsumption of fossil fuels represents another big piece of the climate-crisis equation. We absolutely must rethink, retrofit and/or redesign our gas-guzzling cars and our energy-ineffici ent buildings, if we want to reduce fossil fuel use by 90 percent over the next few decades."

I wonder if there is an quantitative evidence that doing what he/she suggests will fix the problem.

Two questions seem important to me - we can ask these without taking any position on global warming:

1. Can we do anything about climate change? If the answer is yes,

2. Should we try? This question means answering questions about feasibility, cost, unintended consequences, etc. Could we make things worse? What about China and India - how do their actions fit into the mix?

I have found no serious discussion of these points.

One other point. If we did not have factory farming but had the same number of chickens, pigs, etc. spread out, wouldn't they produce the same amount of gas? If the suggested solution is to cut back on production which it seems to be, is that realistic in today's world?
+8 # Kev C 2013-01-22 12:53
You clearly do not understand the true cause of the potato famine. A lack of crop rotation, the use of the same potato hybrid and the monoculture mentality which allowed the spores responsible for potato blight to accumulate to fatal concentrations in the soil. Nothing to do with insects. Nothing to do with bacteria or viruses except as secondary causes of mortality among an already weakened nation due to malnutrition. That my friend is what caused the potato famine and as a result of the Irish people limiting their crop varieties to just a few they ended up going hungry. That is what you get when you grow monoculture crops. One little pathogen wipes out all your food supplies and with nothing else to fall back on they went hungry. Add to this the spread of human pathogens which killed most of the people and you have a disaster in the making that was the Irish Potato Famine.
+3 # Kev C 2013-01-22 13:00
If we ate a balanced diet we wouldn't be needing to eat meat with every meal and we would therefore not need so much land for so many animals. Add to this the plain simple fact that the only reason we have so many is it is profitable to the businesses to cram so many into such small spaces. That is why it is being done.
As for there not being a debate about climate change or the causes or the mitigations then my friend you have clearly just arrived on planet Earth. So may I suggest you go visit some of the very good climate websites for a full update on what has been happening on planet Earth.
May I recommend:

Both the above will introduce you to the full background information you will need to see what has already been discussed.
Have a nice day on your first visit to planet Earth. Its a nice planet. Please do not trash it. Thank you. :)
-4 # BostonPundit 2013-01-22 20:07
To Kevin Coleman
There's no need to be snippy especially when you are wrong.

Just to be sure, I went to the skepticalscienc e site. As I expected, it had plenty of refutation for climate change skeptics - not relevant to anything I wrote.

Sure there was a generalized statement that the cost of correction is outweighed by the cost of doing nothing and that we have the technology to do reduce CO2.

But also: "The bottom line is that while achieving the necessary GHG emissions reductions and stabilization wedges will be difficult, it is possible. "

OK, how difficult? What cost? What side effects? What unknowns?

Also . Wonderful collection but no answers to what I asked. In fairness, there is so much there that perhaps I missed it.

Richard Rood at climatepolicy.o rg: "Addressing these problems requires the use of complex software systems, multidisciplina ry scientific information, rigorous and transparent evaluation, and interpretation of the knowledge produced and its uncertainty."
-4 # BostonPundit 2013-01-22 20:09
Also for Kevin Coleman

It is not useful to make supercilious comments especially when you are wrong.

As Richard Rood also wrote:

"Hence, it is not especially useful to pose a belief-based versus a knowledge-based argument. I have already stated that both sides of the argument are belief-based and that both sides of the argument are informed by knowledge. Hence, these arguments easily fall into attacks on personal identity – I the scientist work from the foundation of knowledge and the ability to generate knowledge. You do not. Therefore, you are wrong. This form of argument is not useful."

Welcome to the rational side of Planet Earth. We're across the Big Pond from Banbury, old chap!
+3 # MJay 2013-01-22 10:58
The knowledge was available 80 plus years ago to to have free power to eliminate commercial air polution altoether. Unfortunately the master financiers would not allow that, so Man's Greed speeds on towrd human suicide full speed ahead.
Oh well have fun complaining. MJay
+5 # Kev C 2013-01-22 13:03
He's not complaining. He's trying to educate the masses. I reckon he has done a very good job for such a complex subject in such a short piece. Only time will tell but we all owe it to the next generations to reverse the destruction post haste. Profit must never trump sustainable farming practices as practised by the indigenous cultures for centuries.
+10 # tbcrawford 2013-01-22 11:17
Feeding the world has a lot to do with the commercializati on of food distribution and "modern" economics. Local ethnic farmers have the seed diversity and expertise for their areas that a one-size-fits-a ll GE crop cannot. They sustain ancient knowledge and seed treasure for drought-resista nce and other local best practices that must be sustained. Pesticides and mass production are the death knell for such farming, not the solution no matter what our scientific hubris wants us to believe!
+10 # Majikman 2013-01-22 11:41
It all begins with education and truth. Every child, and adult for that matter, should have to visit a CAFO or view a non-biased documentary to see where one's food really originates. If you saw the horrendous conditions, including slaughter methods, working conditions, etc. you'd never buy pristine packaged supermarket meat again.
+2 # Street Level 2013-01-22 13:45
I agree, what's out there IS horrendous!
I tell people to watch "A River of Waste" on factory farming. The poultry industry takes their CAFO waste and blows it out in a field that is near houses and schools. Kids died of cancer from CAFO waste and of course, the industry and the government say there's no connection.
+1 # AMLLLLL 2013-01-22 14:44
Yes indeed, Majikman; go to FRESHthemovie.c om. What a breath of fresh air!
+5 # Helen 2013-01-22 12:20
Now that President Obama has promised his administration will address Global Warming, let's all ask them for a comprehensive approach which would include their looking into the impact of factory farms. Meanwhile, I am eating very little meat and buying organically raised fruits and vegetables. All our little efforts can add up.
+2 # RnR 2013-01-23 07:54
I can't read this stuff nor look at the pictures, I become physically sick.

Suffice it to say that this means of generating money attracts the absolute worst garbage of the human race.

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