Agriculture is one of the leading culprits of waste in the world. Waste is coming from manure, poultry houses and slaughter houses, harvest waste, fertilizer run-off, pesticides that go into the air, soil, and water, and topsoil erosion from fields. As with many issues that arise with global warming, our food system has proven to be one of the largest challenges.
Modern agriculture is far from what farming used to be. Today monoculture farming seems like the only technique used along with CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operation). Monoculture is planting one crop on a large field year after year. This diminishes the nutrients in the soil and causes more soil erosion when there is a lack of cover crop.Soil erosion results in less viable land to cultivate and increase sediment going down river, disrupting the ecosystems within them. A CAFO, as shown in the photo above, comprises of the majority of meat production in industrialized countries. Animals can be kept in confined spaces, force-fed, given growth hormones and antibiotics, and live a horrendous life just for people to get meat from them.
As with industry (a post soon to come), there is an enormous amount of waste generated from a system that is treated as less than natural. Here are some of the effects of waste in agriculture that will paint a better picture. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is an area with low to know oxygen spanning nearly 7,000 square miles. The lack of oxygen is due to agricultural runoff from fertilizers and pesticides coming from the Mississippi River. The results of the dead zone has resulted in a loss of thousand of jobs for people in the fishing industry and a near irreversible event to strike the Gulf of Mexico aside from the BP oil spill.
Runoff is one problem in the cycle of agricultural waste. If we take a step back we can see a full-fledged cycle occurring from agricultural waste. Step 1: A large company comes into a small town and plants a single crop on much of the viable land. The seeds being planted are likely genetically modified and contain their own pesticides. Step 2: The fields are tilled by large machinery emitting excess carbon. The tilling of the soil makes it more prone to erosion and they will likely see all their topsoil disappear before they are done farming this land in 10 years. Step 3: The seeds are planted in rows by the machinery (more carbon) and irrigated by a less than efficient system which can waste up to 40% of water due to evaporation before it gets to the plants. Step 4: Larger weeds that mutate overtake a field and more pesticides are needed to irradiate the issue (more carbon, and more runoff). Step 5: The plants mature and are harvested (again by machinery) and sent to mills to be sorted by, take a guess….more machines. Step 6: The products go into production, are shipped to buyers, and arrive on shelves. This can be thousands of miles of traveling, tons of energy to convert potatoes into potato chips, or wasted before they even get to the shelves due to improper storage or imperfections.
Now this all sounds like a lot to get an apple, right? But this is what happens to the majority of our food as it is industrialized. A whopping 60% of the world is farmers, but less than 2% in the US and Canada are farmers. The difference? Industry. So what about the other 60%? They too are contributing to agriculture waste but at a lesser degree than industrialized farms. The UN stated that 45% of all food produced was for human consumption. This means the rest was for animal use, energy, or wasted. The 60% that farms the world involves diverse methods of farming that are good and bad in and of themselves.
In poor countries, subsistence farming is the main way people get their food. Many times people disregard environmental issues when the goal is to feed their family. This results in deforestation, slash and burn agriculture, and overusing the land. All of these are large contributors to global warming and environmental wasting as a whole. The main reason for deforestation in South America is for cattle ranching. Cows produce the most methane of any greenhouse gas emitter. Methane is a powerful green house which is roughly 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. A single pound of beef takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce, roughly 10 times as much as wheat. Western diets are a big contributor to the increase in animal farming worldwide and result in an increase in environmental waste.
As this has been a broad overview of agricultural waste, I encourage you to look at what can be done to reduce global agriculture waste. Education is needed for farmers and consumers. The cost of industrialized food does not reflect the true environmental costs of food production. Some ways to combat this is to support local agriculture, begin urban farming, expose industrial agriculture and advocate for polyculture forms of farming, and to shut down CAFOs and industrial agriculture. Farming has been around for thousands of years and there once was a respect for the land that was unquestioned. We need to question it now, advocate for ethical products, and fair pay to farmers.
To learn more, visit the following links:
The Omnivore’s Dilemma-Michael Pollan