For more than half my life I lived beside the Mississippi River. In my childhood we ate river shrimp, smaller but tastier than salt water varieties. No longer. The river at New Orleans is too polluted. Its major pollutants are chemical runoffs from corn, cotton and soy farms upstream. River shrimp aren’t the only casualty. In the Gulf of Mexico, starting at the mouths of the river and spreading west along the coast, is a dead zone, which expands and contracts during the year. The rush of nutrients fuels blooms of algae, which die, decompose and produce bacteria that consume all the oxygen. In 2017, the dead zone was the largest scientists had ever measured—8,776 square miles, the size of New Jersey. Worldwide, hundreds of dead zones cover nearly 100,000 square miles each summer.
Industrialized agriculture is an ecological disaster. Before elaborating, I’ll announce my focus for this column and the next: the need to withdraw from the prevailing food system, a major part of a culture that distorts our nature by replacing cooperation with domination, in this case over Nature itself. Our personal withdrawals will advance the political project of building an alternative at the local level. That project is well under way in Ashland, so my emphasis won’t be on persuasion but on information to firm up and guide our resolve.
Industrialized agriculture is simply unsustainable. It consumes roughly 10 calories to produce one calorie to burn in our bodies. The energy difference comes from burning fossil fuels. If the average person requires 2500 calories per day, collectively in this country we require one quadrillion (quad) Btus of food energy yearly. Multiplied ten-fold, the food we consume accounts for 10 quads, or 10%, of our total annual energy use. We’re eating petroleum.
But the ratio of energy inputs to outputs varies by food. Producing plant-based foods requires far fewer calories than animal-based foods. There’s also variation within the latter category. For beef the ratio is roughly 20:1, pork 7:1, eggs 4.5:1, chicken 3:1; milk just > 1:1. Their requirements for land and water vary as well, though not echoing exactly the energy requirements.
Then there are the environmental impacts. Skipping further discussion of wasteful water use and pollution, and all mention of soil depletion, there are the greenhouse gas releases. Mostly they’re from burning the fossil fuels the system requires. Then, there’s the release of methane by animals and their manures if (as is often the case in feedlots) the manures aren’t returned to the soil. The worse releases are from fermentation in the stomachs of ruminants (they convert about 6% of their food to methane), and of these, cattle release the most. Pound for pound, the impact of methane is >25 times greater than CO2. Overall U.S. emissions of methane have declined since 1990, but those from agriculture have increased.
We are not condemned to complicity in all this. Many of us can produce some of our food. All of us can consume with moral intention. I’ll write about both next week. Now I’ll conclude with a testimonial by Kristin S., an intern with Rogue Farm Corps ( “My time here has forever changed the way I think about farming and food ... Additionally, my experience here has forever changed the way I will shop for food. I intend to seek out community supported agriculture programs wherever I live and utilize co-ops and farmers markets whenever I can.”
Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.