Cow farts, crop rotation and the utopia of sustainable agriculture

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A quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed directly to agriculture.  (Chetan Jawale/Flickr, Creative Commons)

A quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed directly to agriculture. (Chetan Jawale/Flickr, Creative Commons)

“We’re going to vote in the Senate and see how many Democrats want to end air travel and cow farts.” 

That’s Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell mocking the Green New Deal. While his “cow farts” comment was meant to ridicule environmental activists, McConnell unintentionally shed light on an important, yet often ignored, climate issue: Food.  

A quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed directly to agriculture. Indirectly, a large part of our global transportation network — through planes, trains, boats and trucks — is devoted to delivering food. Our current system of industrial-scale agriculture and livestock is utterly unsustainable — and it has yet to solve food access issues for millions of people. Large-scale industrial farming produces only 30 percent of our food, but takes up 80 percent of arable farming land and over 70 percent of water and energy used in agriculture. 

Sustainable, local agriculture, on the other hand, produces far less emissions and conserves valuable resources while equaling or beating the yield of industrial farms. According to a 2008 report authored by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), “All case studies which focused on (sustainable farming practices) have shown increases in per hectare productivity of food crops.” In addition, sustainable farming promotes food security, social equality and community resilience.  

What exactly is sustainable agriculture (or agroecology, as it is often called)? It involves a number of processes — cover cropping, crop-livestock mixes and agroforestry, among others — designed to localize the food supply, emphasize resilience and tackle food insecurity. The ultimate goal is agriculture independent of outside inputs; in other words, self-sustaining agro-ecosystems.  

Smart management of livestock through policies like ecological leftover land use can eliminate soil and water pollution. In addition, crop rotation and crop diversity, two main tenets of agroecology, increase resilience to climate-related disasters. In Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria wiped out large single-crop farms. Smaller, more biodiverse farms which practiced agro-ecological techniques were able to weather the storm and provide food throughout the recovery process.  

Local farming also addresses food insecurity, a problem which, as mentioned earlier, has not been solved by large-scale industrial farming. According to the 2008 UNEP report: “Organic agricultural systems are making a significant contribution to the reduction of food insecurity and poverty,” despite a lack of “enabling policy and institutional support.” In turn, food security and sovereignty are important steps towards social, gender and wealth equity. Although it has yet to be implemented on a large-scale, agroecology has produced numerous small success stories, such as the carbon-neutral coffee cooperative in Costa Rica or the emissions free tea farms in Sri Lanka and India.  

But sustainable farming is just one piece of the puzzle. As currently constructed, the global web of food interchange is incompatible with long-term emissions goals. Go to a local Stop & Shop and you’ll find shrimp from China, bananas from Brazil, cashews from India and corn from Mexico. How can our world be sustainable when our food comes from thousands of miles away, through a network of polluting cars, boats and trucks? If we want to transition to a low-carbon world, cutting down on the extreme globalization of our food supply is an important step — a step which can be achieved by localizing our food supply through sustainable farming practices.   

This vision of decentralized, self-sufficient farming is consistent with a broader vision for tackling climate change. Decentralized mini-grids — composed of solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal heat pumps and uber-efficient buildings — are both more resilient to extreme weather events and significantly less harmful to the environment. Policies which encourage denser cities, mass transit and less long-distance travel also fit within this vision. 

It is, of course, crucial to mention the power of consumer behavior. With regards to livestock especially, policy architects must find ways to de-incentivize consumption. The practices outlined above are not an end all-be all solution. But, sustainable agriculture is still crucially important as a foundational building block of an equitable, resilient and environmentally friendly world.   

When advocating for a carbon-neutral future, we can’t afford to forget about agriculture. Cow farts and crop rotation aren’t as sexy as solar panels and electric cars, but they’re damn important. 


Harry Zehner is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at harry.zehner@uconn.edu.

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