Dear EarthTalk: I’ve been hearing more and more references to the need to clean up our agricultural practices for reasons pertaining to health, food quality, even global warming. What are the major environmental issues today associated with agriculture?
— Tony Grayson, Newark, NJ
What amazes many environmental advocates to this day is how the widespread adoption of synthetic chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers for use in agriculture was dubbed the “Green Revolution,” when in fact this post-World War II paradigm shift in the way we produce food has wreaked untold havoc on the environment, food quality and human health.
Agricultural output has certainly increased as a result of these changes, but with the vast majority of the world’s farms now relying on petroleum-derived synthetic chemicals to grow crops and petroleum-derived fuels to drive the engines of production—modern agriculture has become overwhelmingly toxic to the atmosphere and is hastening global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that agricultural land use contributes 12 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions; here in the U.S. almost 20 percent of our carbon dioxide emissions come from agricultural sources.
Intensive use of chemicals isn’t good for our nutrition intake, either. Overworked, depleted agricultural soils generate fruits and vegetables with fewer nutrients and minerals than those produced by farmers decades ago. And much of the food we eat is laced with chemicals that end up in our bloodstreams.
Beyond its effect on the food we put in our bodies, modern agriculture generates large amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous and other fertilizers running off into our streams, rivers and oceans, compromising not only the quality of our drinking water and the health of riparian ecosystems, but also causing those huge oxygen-depleted ocean dead zones we hear about in coastal areas such as the Gulf of Mexico.
Yet another issue with modern farming is the amount of animal waste generated and concentrated in small areas, which creates unsanitary and potentially dangerous conditions for the animals and humans alike. And the widespread use of antibiotics on farm animals to keep disease in check results in the development of stronger strains of bacteria that resist the antibiotics used by humans to ward off infection and sickness.
Also, many worry about the potential impacts of the widespread use of genetic engineering, whereby genes in plants, animals and microorganisms are manipulated to select for specific traits. These genetically modified organisms, reports Greenpeace, “can spread through nature and interbreed with natural organisms,” thus contaminating the natural environment in unforeseeable and uncontrollable ways.
The good news is that rapidly increasing consumer demand for healthier food is forcing agribusiness to see the wisdom of moving away from business-as-usual. Organic farming, which eschews chemical fertilizers and pesticides in favor of more natural choices, holds considerable promise for greening up our agricultural systems. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, organic cropland acreage averaged 15 percent increases between 2002 and 2008, although certified organic cropland and pasture accounted for only about 0.6 percent of U.S. total farmland in 2008. So we still have along way to go.