The 9% Lie: Industrial Food & Climate Change

Ronnie Cummins challenges the widely used official estimate of greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. agriculture.

By Ronnie Cummins
Independent Science News for Food and Agriculture

The Climate Emergency is finally getting the attention of the media and the U.S. (and world) body politic, as well as a growing number of politicians, activists and even U.S. farmers.
This great awakening has arrived just in time, given the record-breaking temperatures, violent weather, crop failures and massive waves of forced migration that are quickly becoming the norm. Global scientists have dropped their customary caution. They now warn us that we have to drastically reduce global emissions – by at least 45 percent – over the next decade. Otherwise, we’ll pass the point of no return – defined as reaching 450 ppm or more of CO2 in the atmosphere sometime between 2030 and 2050 – when our climate crisis will morph into a climate catastrophe. That’s when the melting polar ice and Arctic permafrost will trigger catastrophic sea rise, fueling deadly forest fires, climate chaos, crop failures, famine and the widespread disintegration of society as we know it.
Most people now understand that we must quickly move to renewable forms of energy, such as wind and solar, and reduce our fossil fuel emissions as much as possible. But it’s far less widely understood that energy conservation and renewables can’t do the job alone.

Ending Massive Emissions

Alongside the massive political and economic campaign to move to 100 percent (or nearly 100 percent) renewable energy as soon as possible, we must put an end to the massive emissions of our corporate-dominated food and farming system and start drawing down and sequestering in our soils and forests billions of tons of “legacy” CO2 from the atmosphere, utilizing the enhanced photosynthesis of regenerative farming, reforestation and land restoration.

Agroforestry contour planting at “The Hill,” Australia, where a number of innovative practices have incorporated trees into a progressively regenerative system. (Pixture, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Regenerative agriculture refers to farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity. This results in both carbon drawdown and improved water infiltration and storage in soils. Regenerative practices include:

  • Reduction/elimination of tillage and use of synthetic chemicals.
  • The use of cover crops, crop rotations, compost, and animal manures.
  • Integrating animals with perennial and annual plants to create a biologically diverse ecosystem on the farm.
  • Grazing and pasturing animals on grass, and more specifically using a planned multi-paddock rotation system.
  • Raising animals in conditions that mimic their natural habitat.

If regenerative food, farming and land use – which is essentially moving to the next stage of organic farming, free-range livestock grazing and eco-system restoration – are just as essential to our survival as moving beyond fossil fuels, why aren’t more people talking about this? Why is it that moving beyond industrial agriculture, factory farms, agro-exports and highly-processed junk food to regenerating soils and forests and drawing down enough excess carbon from the atmosphere to re-stabilize our climate is getting so little attention from the media, politicians and the general public?
New Poll Data

The International Food Information Council Foundation released a poll on May 22, 2019, that found that “22 percent [of Americans] had heard of regenerative agriculture and 55 percent said they had not heard of it but were interested in learning more.”

Why don’t more people know about the incredible potential of regenerative agriculture, or more precisely regenerative food, farming and land-use practices, to fix our climate, restore the environment, improve the livelihoods of farmers and rural communities and produce more nutritious food? Why is it that the U.S. and global climate movement until recently has focused almost exclusively on reducing emissions through renewable energy?
Our collective ignorance on this crucial topic may have something to do with the fact that we never learned about these things in school, or even college, and until recently there was very little discussion of regeneration in the mass media, or even the alternative media.
But there’s another reason regeneration as a climate solution doesn’t get its due in Congress or in the media: powerful corporations in the food, farming and forestry sector, along with their indentured politicians, don’t want to admit that their current degenerate, climate-destabilizing, “profit-at-any-cost” production practices and business priorities are threatening our very survival.

And government agencies are right there, helping corporate agribusiness and Big Food bury the evidence that these industries’ energy-intensive, chemical-intensive industrial agricultural and food production practices contribute more to global warming than the fossil fuel industry.

The 9 Percent Claim

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) repeatedly claim that industrial agriculture is responsible for a mere 9 percent of our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. As the EPA explains, GHG “emissions from agriculture come from livestock such as cows, agricultural soils and rice production.”

After hearing this 9-percent figure regurgitated over and over again in the media, most people draw the conclusion that food and farming aren’t that important of a factor in global warming, especially when compared with transportation, electricity generation, manufacturing and heating and cooling our buildings.

Agribusiness in Monterey County, California. (Richard Masoner/Cyclelicious via Flickr)

What the EPA, USDA, Big Ag, chemical, and food corporations are conveniently hiding from the public is that there’s no way to separate “U.S. agriculture” from our “food system” as a whole. Their faulty math (i.e. concealing food and farming emissions under the categories of transportation, manufacturing, etc.) is nothing but a smokescreen to hide the massive fossil fuel use and emissions currently belched out by our enormously wasteful, environmentally destructive, climate-destabilizing (and globalized) food system.
USDA and EPA’s 9-percent figure is ridiculous. What about the massive use of petroleum products and fossil fuels to power U.S. tractors and farm equipment, and to manufacture the billions of pounds of pesticides and chemical fertilizers that are dumped and sprayed on farmlands?
What about the ethanol industry that eats up 40 percent of our chemical- and energy-intensive GMO corn production? Among other environmental crimes, the ethanol industry incentivizes farmers to drain wetlands and damage fragile lands. Taking the entire process into account, corn production for ethanol produces more emissions than it supposedly saves when burned in our cars and trucks.

Ethanol plant under construction, Butler County, Iowa, 2009. (Bill Whittaker, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

What about the massive release of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide from factory farms and the GMO, monocrop industrial grain farms that supply these feedlots and CAFOs with animal feed?
What about the methane emissions from the fracking wells that produce the natural gas that is used in prodigious amounts to manufacture the nitrogen fertilizer dumped on farmlands – fertilizer that then pollutes our waterways and creates oceanic dead zones as well as releasing massive amounts of nitrous oxide (300 percent more damaging than even CO2) into our already oversaturated atmosphere?
What about the 15-20 percent of global fossil fuel emissions that come from processing, packaging (most often non-recycled plastic), refrigerating and transporting our highly processed (mainly junk) food and agricultural commodities on the average 1,500 miles before they reach the consumer?
What about the enormous amounts of GHG emissions, deforestation and ecosystem destruction in the international supply chain enabling Big Box stores, supermarket chains and junk food purveyors to sell imported cheap food, in many cases “food-like substances” from China and overseas to undernourished and supersized U.S. consumers?
What about the enormous emissions from U.S. landfills where wasted food (30-50 percent of our entire production) rots and releases methane, when it could be used to produce compost to replace synthetic fertilizers?
A more accurate estimate of GHG emissions from U.S. and international food, farming and land use is 44-57 percent, not the 9 percent, as the EPA and USDA suggest.
We’re never going to reach net zero emissions in the U.S. by 2030, as the Green New Deal calls for, without a profound change, in fact a revolution, in our food, farming, and land use practices.

This essay is part of The Organic Consumers Association’s Regenerative Agriculture campaign. To sign their petition in support of a Green New Deal that puts regenerative food, farming, and land use front and center, sign here if you’re a farmer, and here if you’re an activist or a green consumer.

Ronnie Cummins is the co-founder and international director of the Organic Consumers Association. He is also the founder of Via Orgánica, a network of organic consumers and farmers based in Mexico.

This article is from Independent Science News for Food and Agriculture.

Before commenting please read Robert Parry’s Comment PolicyAllegations unsupported by facts, gross or misleading factual errors and ad hominem attacks, and abusive language toward other commenters or our writers will be removed.

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20 comments for “The 9% Lie: Industrial Food & Climate Change

  1. Mjh
    August 21, 2019 at 16:22

    The sky is falling, The end is near, All is lost, Our doom is nigh, Its A pockylips….. By 2040 we’ll be eating fritos on a flight to Mars on our way to open a new methane factory to start a terrafarm project… Get over it, heat is life, cold is death, and there will alwats be some noob pushing doom to get more taxpayer money to fix everything

  2. David Smith
    August 19, 2019 at 01:10

    It is a certainty we will reach 450ppmCO2 by 2030. Look up current CO2 level, look up the current yearly CO2 increase in ppm, and do the math, its math a third grader can do, its that simple. At 450ppmCO2 its game over(due to the effects of that level and the very long persistence of CO2). Even if we could achieve zero CO2 emissions now and freeze levels at the current 415ppmCO2 we have today(a fantasy), we would be in trouble, but throughout the 21st century the amount of yearly CO2 emissions have been drastically increasing from one year to the next and that trend will continue, indefinitely, due to political, social, and technical inertia. We have run out of time.

  3. BlindBoyGrunt
    August 18, 2019 at 16:25

    The criticism of the 9% estimate is a worthwhile contribution, if overstated. Much of the rest of the piece is nonsense, probably reflecting that this is outside Consortium News’ normal purview. The gloom and doom about global warming repeats fake news such as that there has been forced migration due to climate change – cf. many other examples of fake news about Syria, and elsewhere, that CN has covered very well. As others have commented, regenerative agriculture cannot feed nearly as many people as the current system does. The Green Revolution, i.e., the extension of fossil fuel-based ag to the poor nations, greatly reduced hunger in those countries. I’m all for expanding regenerative ag as much as possible, but to think that it is a magic bullet is to grasp at renewable straws (a great deal of that going on these days). The Industrial Revolution should be called the Fossil Fuel Revolution, and the most significant invention of the 20th century was the Haber-Bosch process because of the huge increase in food production it made possible (thanks to Vaclav Smil for pointing this out). One or two commenters repeated the overgrazing myth about livestock, and it is a myth (fake science, actually). If you are interested, you could start with Coughenor et al. (I forget the exact reference) a paper in Science in the 70s that showed that African pastoralists do not overgraze. Or Behnke and Scoones’ book – again I don’t recall the title off-hand. Or Tom Bassett’s paper in the Annals of the AAG that showed that a 10-fold increase in cattle in Ivory Coast caused an increase, not decrease in trees and other woody vegetation. Traditionally, globally, meat production was focused on lands that could not be farmed. Nothing wrong with that system, and in that sense I agree with the regenerative agriculture perspective.

  4. Satch Donneguy
    August 16, 2019 at 05:47

    A very good article by Mr. Cummins and many good comments. In reality, regenerative farming is an excellent, holistic approach to food production, structuring of society, and as a way of life. But, by and large it is a thing of the past. There are six billion people on the planet; there is a restriction of ownership of all things on the Earth to a very small and powerful subset of humanity. There can be no reasoning with the small, powerful subset – it is all about the money, power, and domination. The subset will continue to bomb and destroy civilizations until there are none to destroy. Then and only then, there may be an opportunity to start anew. The planet will recover from the ongoing travesty of humanity. The cast-aside knowledge of our times may not survive. Humanity may be doomed with each successive iteration to reach the same ugly pinnacle of folly before self-extinguishing. There is hope for life on the blue planet, but not much for mankind. The key to the problem is twofold: understanding and consumption. We are programmed to consume. I try consume as little as possible. I understand that consuming beyond what I need feeds the monster in us all, and plays into the hands of big money. Think if we all voted with our wallets, and only bought the essentials. Think if we lived quieter, more sane lives that focus on realizing our potentials. America does not practice what it preaches. We are hypocrits one and all. There is a book, Small is Beautiful. The prevalent attitude is that we are beyond all that. Indeed we are.

    • Brockland
      August 16, 2019 at 22:31

      People should be cautious about embracing politically correct memes that lead to defeatism and abandonment of power and responsibility here and now.

      Most people consume little and sometimes unwisely because they can’t afford otherwise nor have easy access to any better.

      Any system of thought that despises the accrual of middle class wealth and power and demands its surrender to elites or enables its frittering away to crooks, preventing the passing wealth and power on to an able next generation should be treated as suspect.

  5. Brockland
    August 15, 2019 at 19:02

    The fix is in; the Arctic and Antarctic are too be thawed for exploitation and that’s that. The U.S. isn’t burning through its temperately-located shale reserves without a plan beyond briefly taming Eurasian oil-exporting economies.

    The rest is crocodile tears and empty hand wringing to pretend climate change was all an accident of inevitable human nature, not an intent of cosseted elites. Also blunts hefty lawsuits and direct action from the global south which will be most detrimentally affected.

    Why didn’t the author mention oceanographer John Martin’s Iron Hypothesis?

    The iron hypothesis was proven correct in two small experiments off the Galapagos, and one off Vancouver Island. Carbon absorbed into phytoplankton and sunk into the deepest ocean when they died. In the case of Canada’s West Coast, temporarily restoring the local salmon fishery since phytoplankton are the base of the food chain.

    But we can’t have oceans full of fish feeding Asia any more than a Great Plains full of buffalo feeding the Aboriginals. The U.N. was also unusually hasty in enacting a blanket ban on geoengineering in 2010.

    The quickest, easiest way to remove excess carbon and save ocean life – fertilize the oceans with iron sulphate – is buried under a host of far nuttier aerosol schemes and a lockout on so-called geoengineering, as if having already released millions of years of stored carbon hasn’t essentially become a kind of geoengineering itself.

  6. August 15, 2019 at 16:04

    Good article. But there is no solution to climate change that does not also address human population growth. A growing population make all problems harder, if not impossible to solve. At most, our planet can sustainably support about 2 billion people. The last time the planet had 2 billion people was in about 1930. Look at your own family, how many people were there? My parents were born that year, so my siblings and I need to make sure our collective production of children and grandchildren totals to 2 people to replace my parents. Other families will look different, but over several generations, we could gradually reduce human population to that sustainable level of 2 billion.

    • anon4d2
      August 15, 2019 at 21:50

      But if socially responsible people raise few children, there will never be a majority for social responsibility.

  7. August 15, 2019 at 11:15

    To offer ‘regenerative agriculture’ as a simple solution to industrial farming and the climate disaster is to misunderstand what has been going on for a long time. Why are there so many people? Because industrial agriculture was able to supply cheap food on a huge scale while externalising the appalling cost on to lower-income nations and to the future. Now that there are this many people, we cannot step off the escalator and decide to return to lower-intensity agricultural systems that, while less costly (though not by as much as might be expected), simply cannot feed us all.

    Do we want the price of food to rise enormously, thus bringing back the periodic and vast famines of the past since humans began agriculture? That’s what ‘regenerative agriculture’ is almost guaranteed to supply. We’re stuck with industrial farming until we can find a way to reduce the human population without killing each other.

    “Some people try to argue that extensive farming systems – particularly grazing livestock – “mimic nature”. While some livestock farms are much better than others, there is none in this country that looks like natural ecosystems. Nature has no fences. It has large predators (wolves, lynx and other species that have been eliminated here on behalf of livestock farming) and a wide range of wild herbivores. In wet temperate nations such as the UK, natural vegetation in most places is dominated by trees. Even the best livestock farms deliver a depleted parody of nature: supporting a small subset of the species that might otherwise occupy the land.”
    https://www.monbiot.com/2019/08/13/spectre-at-the-feast/

  8. John Wright
    August 14, 2019 at 15:58

    How many Americans have heard of permaculture?

    Strange that was not asked, nor was permaculture even mentioned in the article.

    Regenerative agriculture is a form of permaculture.

    It would also be useful to include some real data to support the numbers he throws out.

    But, yes, our corporate food system is too often left out of this and other discussions.

  9. Tedder
    August 14, 2019 at 15:40

    Animals consume waste and can pasture on limited resources. They produce valuable manure. Food production should be secondary.

  10. TomG
    August 14, 2019 at 09:10

    I’m glad to see CN open the conversation on regenerative agriculture. We get weekly and often daily ‘animals bad/plants good’ mantra when it comes to any discussion food. The author makes good points even if he stops short of broadening the conversation even further. Perhaps in time…

    25% of the earths land is pasture and forest and inherently ruminant friendly. Only 4% is arable, highly depleted already and being paved over at an alarming rate. True accounting needs to take into account how these depleted plots of land are going to be healed to produce the plant based diet so strongly advocated by many. Conveniently left out of the equation is the irrigation, fertilization and transportation required to ramp up the plant based diet model as well as the expense of supplements needed for nutritional health.

    Because media and politicians alike want an ever-growing consumerist model economy we hear little or nothing about birth control and certainly nothing that threatens the processed food, subsidized carbohydrate industrial complex that is causing vast and rapid increases in chronic disease. We hear talking points on universal health care and taking on big pharma but nothing about actual health and better research and planning into regenerative agriculture.

    Somehow too many plant diet advocates can’t see the hundreds of millions of pastoral farmers around the world as a group to work with rather than against in the common cause of care and health. Nor can they admit to the cheap farm labor that picks those fruits and vegetables in lands from across the planet so that fruit and veg are in their local store 365 days a year with no sense of anything local and seasonal.

    As the Chinese learned from Mao’s collectivization of farmers, millions can starve to death when large hasty solutions are applied to food supplies. Whatever is done, we need to observe and learn from the earth’s free gifts and apply care thereto. Care requires four things: love, patience, awareness of our ignorance and action informed by the first three. With such care, peace is possible as well as the well being of our planetary home.

    • Tedder
      August 14, 2019 at 15:37

      I agree with your point that pastoral activity is important in any kind of sustainable agriculture. I learned that in Cuba, after the end of Soviet support and the US embargo, farmers are employing oxen to do the heavy work, and I have used horses for herding cattle in the Colorado mountains. Animals can and should be an element of sustainable agriculture.

  11. AnneR
    August 14, 2019 at 08:49

    While I agree with this article over most of its range and discussion, there is a rather significant omission in its agri-business GHG emissions and pollution (of waterways) “list”: i.e. the enormous quantities of fecal matter – shit – that the industrial scale animal agri-business produces. Shit – muck, manure call it what you will – produces methane, a considerably stronger GHG than CO2. Lots of it produces lots of methane. It also runs off or is piped into waterways joining the agri-chemical residues that seriously pollute water courses (and have had a fair hand in creating the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where the Mississippi River debouches).

    When it comes to maintaining pasture – sheep are the best: they muck it, tiller the plants, crop them – all without destroying the top soil (cattle, as they have been bred, are so heavy that their hoofs cut up pasture, land badly – not their fault, put that down to human interference in their growth parameters).

    And nowhere is there any mention of the ethics of raising animals – sentient creatures – so that we can guzzle their flesh to our heart’s overload.

    And agri-business/industrial agriculture is NOT farming.

    (My father was a herdsman, then a dairy farmer in his own right for a few years; my brother a tenant farmer for nearly 30 – in England.)

    • August 15, 2019 at 11:21

      Sheep are a blight on the land, as anyone with eyes can see. “… we pay billions to service a national obsession with sheep, in return for which the woolly maggots kindly trash the countryside. The white plague has done more extensive environmental damage than all the building that has ever taken place here, but to identify it as an agent of destruction is little short of blasphemy. Britain is being shagged by sheep, but hardly anyone dares say so. […]

      I’ve used Wales as my case study. Here, according to the 2010 figures, the average subsidy for sheep farms on the hills is £53,000. Average net farm income is £33,000. The contribution the farmer makes to his income by keeping animals, in other words, is minus £20,000. […]

      Deep vegetation on the hills absorbs rain when it falls and releases it gradually, delivering a steady supply of water to the lowlands. When grazing prevents trees and shrubs from growing and when the small sharp hooves of sheep compact the soil, rain flashes off the hills, causing floods downstream. When the floods abate, water levels fall rapidly. Upland grazing, in other words, contributes to a cycle of flood and drought. This restricts the productivity of more fertile lands downstream, both drowning them and depriving them of irrigation water. Given the remarkably low output in the upland areas of Britain, it is within the range of possibility that hill farming creates a net loss of food.

      Sheep have reduced most of our uplands to bowling greens with contours. Only the merest remnants of life persist. Spend two hours sitting in a bushy suburban garden and you are likely to see more birds and of a greater range of species than in walking five miles across almost any part of the British uplands. The land has been sheepwrecked.”
      https://www.monbiot.com/2013/05/30/sheepwrecked/

  12. Skip Scott
    August 14, 2019 at 07:12

    Great article. Thank you CN. This is the type of thinking that we will need to find real solutions to our climate crisis. We need to progress from linear thinking to seeing the interconnectedness of all these different aspects. To have any chance for a future we must move fast and smart.

  13. Tom Kath
    August 13, 2019 at 20:23

    “What about ????” I suggest the writer realistically ANSWER these questions instead of pretending that the answers are obvious.
    To say for instance that humans are a problem because they fart, may be perfectly true but absolutely insignificant and irrelevant.

  14. August 13, 2019 at 19:27

    What about raising animals for food and the tremendous waste of resources this entails?

  15. geeyp
    August 13, 2019 at 17:44

    We have tried to stay with organic foods since 1976, not always successful with all food groups, though we are always conscious in our choices. I do feel sorry for farmers who try their damndest to stay 100% organic. Corporations like Monsanto have snitches that literally watch the wind direction to accuse an innocent farmer of stealing Monsanto GMO seed. Then they put the poor hard-working farmer into court and drag them down with endless lawsuits that only Monsanto can afford to fight. This country needs these farmers more than any other corporation.

  16. Drew Hunkins
    August 13, 2019 at 15:21

    Also, the Washington military machine contributes a substantial amount of CO2 emissions across the globe with its 800 bases worldwide.

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