Industrial agriculture—“it’s been a bad month”, By Erick Haakenson

Reprinted with permission from April 22, 2012 Jubilee Farm Newsletter

The season is so hard upon us that I don’t have time to share everything in this update I’d like too. So I’m going to have to abridge what I’d like to say here. But I just can’t fail to note that the assault on the earth and its ecosystems by the use of synthetic fertilizers along with herbicides and pesticides—a theme that often comes up in these updates—seems to be reaching a period of scientific unmasking that is unprecedented.

We sometimes talk about “scientific breakthroughs.” Those happen from time-to-time, but the reality with science is that it advances at a very slow pace. Unlike technology, which is driven by a profit motive, science is driven by a desire to understand. Understanding comes through the adjudication of arguments, supported by reason and demonstration. This is a slow process.

It seems fair to say that intuition suggests that putting poisons on plants could have a detrimental impact on the plants and on everything that eats those plants, or that even comes in contact with those plants. It also seems intuitive to suspect that synthetic fertilizers, that provide nutrients to plants in a form that deviates from the kind of nutrition those plants have evolved to receive, may also have some kind of long-term, deleterious impacts. And although probably less intuitive, it at least seems plausible that emissions of poisons and new kinds of agricultural nutrition could impact our environment in ways that we had not anticipated.

But to move from intuition or even common sense to scientific verification is an enormous step. In our country we spent thirty years advancing from the sense that smoking isn’t good for people to conclusive scientific evidence that it causes cancer. Forty years ago I first heard a knowledgeable scientist say we were making a mistake promoting hatchery salmon at the expense of wild salmon; it is only recently that it has become freely admitted that some salmon hatcheries which have operated for decades have done more harm than good.

Over the past several weeks there have been a number of scientific findings that provide substantiation of our sense that the chemicals and synthetics that fuel the food supply of our nation (and now much of the world) are killing us. One of these is from a study conducted through UC Berkeley that has found a way to “fingerprint” sources of nitrous oxide in our atmosphere.

The presence of nitrous oxide in the atmosphere has risen by about 20 percent since the Industrial Revolution—a great deal of that percentage having occurred in the last 50 years. Nitrous oxide is about 300 times more “potent” a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

And to what does the “fingerprint” of nitrous oxide in our atmosphere belong? It is the synthetic nitrogen that is the mainstay of the agricultural practices of 98% of the US farm output. We’ve known for a long time that nitrous oxide runoff poisons drinking water, and creates dead zones in the ocean. We now know that nitrous oxide gas emitted by synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is a major contributor to greenhouse gases, and hence is a significant component of climate change.

Is it not amazing to discover that one of the “externalized costs” of the inexpensive food that we Americans seem to believe to be our birthright is the dramatic alteration of our climate? It’s a bit inconvenient for us, and for the rest of the world (that does not benefit from our inexpensive food), that those costs, previously externalized, nevertheless need to be paid. And that we will be the ones paying for them.

I’m reminded of an adage from early Christian tradition: “Don’t be deceived, whatever you sow you will also reap.”
Just last week another scientific finding was released that concerns the “mysterious” inability of oysters to reproduce. The research took place in our own state, and the conclusion is that the cause of the long-known and well-documented phenomenon of the death of an enormous percentage of baby oysters in Washington and Oregon is acidification of the ocean due to increased carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.

It had been predicted that climate change would lead to acidification of the oceans. But here, as with many other predicted impacts of climate change, the change has come in decades rather than centuries as was first thought.
Are the baby oysters of our state the “minor’s canaries” of our planet? Can we or our ecosystems survive the rapid acidification of our oceans? Are the long-term risks worth the short-term benefits? Will we come to our senses and refuse to compromise the future of our planet for sake of less expensive food?

Recognizing the current political realities, it seems unlikely that any governing body will demonstrate the leadership (or gain the consensus) to take the actions necessary to reverse our present collision course with catastrophe; and this even though the hand-writing is not only on the wall, but in our scientific journals. It is needful for us to try to influence the political wind (if it can be influenced). But we must also be aware of the many opportunities we have to vote with our dollars. It’s hard to walk by a product that seems like a great “deal.” But if it carries an externalized cost that could contribute to the end of life on earth as we know it, we need to learn to say “NO!”

Posted in Agra Watch Blog Posts, Food Justice Blog Posts.

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