Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Mind the Losses: Industrial Agriculture, Wars and Empire, and Global Warming

Dick Bennett

     Mind the Gap!  Have you experienced the London subway?   A recording reminds you every few minutes to be careful about the gap between the platform and the train.   Mind the Gap!  The warning returned to me when I began to think about industrial agriculture, wars and empire, and global warming.  
      I mean the word mind.   Be mindful.   Be mindful of the harms and losses caused by industrial agriculture, wars, and warming.   Mind the Losses! 

Indictment of Industrial Agriculture
     Jim Horne, President of the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Poteau, OK, learned a lesson from his father about topsoil.  “Blowing topsoil is like blowing dollar bills.”  His dad opposed the moldboard plow that dug deep into the earth, turning the topsoil over and under.   In the first place, such a plow requires a big tractor with lots of horsepower—the new high-energy, high fuel-consumption, and CO2 industrial agriculture epitomized.  In the second place, it makes a neat, clean field.  That is, it leaves no crop residue on the surface to hold the soil against the winds sweeping the plains of western Oklahoma.   Horne thought his father old-fashioned.   But no longer.
       For now he sees the harms of industrial agriculture, and has set forth his new vision in his book, The Next Green Revolution.  
       1.  First, industrial agriculture, by endangering soil, water, and life, jeopardize the productivity of agriculture.  The stress on soil, water, and quality of life directly results from the drive for profit.   These few more words about soil:  As I was just illustrating, erosion is one disaster, not only from wind but from water.  The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in 1996 estimated that erosion threatened the “productive capacity on nearly one of every three cropland acres.” (H 8).      Not only deep plowing, but many other causes explain soil degradation; for example, monoculture, growing the same crop in the same field year after year, increases soil erosion.  And water pollution through runoff from farm fields and feedlots is particularly felt downstream.  For example, industrial agriculture played a significant part in impairing half of the twenty rivers name by the EPA as the most endangered in 1998.
       Summary:    Because the U. S. population is expected to reach 335 million by 2025 and the global population nearly eight billion by 2020 (about 25 percent more than today), soil degradation, water depletion, and loss of plant and animal varieties, resulting largely from industrialized agriculture, significantly threaten our food supply.   Globally the natural resource base on which agriculture depends is threatened by the agri industry.     

       2.   We can blame industrial agriculture secondly for hooking farmers on fossil fuels and the fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and pesticides made from them.   Take ammonium nitrate fertilizer, derived from oil and supply nitrogen, a vital nutrient for agriculture:  During WWII the petrochemical industry swelled with the growth of munitions.  After the war, the industry converted to making ammonium nitrate fertilizer, pushed the product to farmers, and farming entered the chemical age.    By 1960 farmers used 2.7 million tons; by 1995 they were using 11.7 million tons.  Also by 1995, 97 percent of U.S. corn acres and 87 percent of wheat were fertilized with nitrogen.  Needless to say, old organic methods of enhancing soil fertility, such as planting legumes in rotation, had almost disappeared.  Herbicides and to a lesser extent pesticides have a similar history of expanded use, until today the US is the largest user of pesticides in the world, with agriculture using 75 percent.    This is only the beginning of the story of the domination of agriculture by fossil fuels.   Think of the myriad uses: powering machinery, running irrigation pumps, trucks to market, and trucks to farm, .  propane or natural gas for heating pig and broiler houses.   Now, for every unit of food energy eaten in the U.S., nearly ten units of energy are spent producing, processing, and shipping it.
        Huge dependence upon fossil fuels, then, puts agriculture, the nation’s most important industry, at risk in many ways, especially because we are running out of oil.  

3.     And third, we can fault the agri industry for desolating rural American by ignoring the well-being of rural communities, leaving them open to exploitation and bankruptcy.   Farms have become expensive to run.  Remember that at the end of WWII only 30 percent of farmers used tractors: 70 percent still relied on horses and human labor.   Then with fertilizers the push to boost production made machinery necessary.  Production resulted often in overproduction and low prices, bankruptcy, consolidation, and vanishing farms.  In 1940 farmers made up 18 percent of the labor force; by 1995 they were down to 2.7 percent.  If they were a bird, they would be eligible for the endangered species list

     Summary:    Horne’s conclusion is that these “crimes show a reckless disregard for the life and health of farmers, rural communities, and the natural world, jeopardizing our ability to feed an ever-growing population.   As a result, the food security of our nation, and our world, is threatened.” (Horne 33).  

Wars and Preparation for Wars
     But we are not done.  We cannot be done, for Horne does not mention US wars or the warming world.  In addition to the decline in number and diversity of natural resources (soil, water, plants, and animals) and farmers as the direct consequence of industrial agriculture, wars and warming intensify the deterioration.
     The U.S. has invaded or intervened in over 40 countries since the end of World War II—and all illegally, in violation of the UN Charter and other treaties and conventions.  And every time we invade and bomb a foreign nation, we are bombing their earth—their soil, water, creatures, farms, farmers.  Our wars are war on the Earth.  
      For example, the 2003 invasion of Iraq   According to the Air Force’s website (Barry Sanders’ The Environmental Costs of Militarism, p. 41), from March 19 to April 9 “the Air Force [flew] more than 30,000 sorties…and dropped more than 21,300 munitions.” One expert expected the US military to fire off 800 Tomahawk missiles, each weighing about 3000 pounds—one every four minutes, night and day during the first forty-eight hours, or 2,400,000 pounds of explosives.    What did that mean to all species in Iraq, not just humans?  Nobody is asking that.  Not even PETA.   What kinds of chemicals do humans and animals find themselves breathing?  What sort of poisoned water do they drink?  How much contaminated food must they eat? 
    But that’s only the destruction from air war.    Think of the vehicles sweeping across Iraq.   They don’t float across the country, across  the farms.  Think how the seventy-ton tank the M-1 Abrams damages the ecology of the desert, with its fragile soil surface, which when broken apart is easily further scattered by the wind.
    Specifically, the March 2003 invasion was barley and wheat harvesting time in the Tigris River valley and vegetable planting time in the south.  And the two invasions of Iraq, 1991 and 2003 bombed “cattle feed lots, poultry farms, fertilizer warehouses, pumping stations, irrigation systems, fuel depots and pesticide factories” (Sanders 44).
      I have not digressed from our subject, the United States.  US attacks on the earth and species—and farmers--around the world affects US farms and farming, in many ways.  For example, the military has 92 different kinds of aircraft for their invasions.  These vehicles and planes consume an estimated two million gallons of oil every day.   Think of the double-disaster here—of the massive, further depletion of our oil supply for farms by wars and the consequent rise in the cost of fuel.   You don’t hear much about it from national to local budget discussions, because it’s suppressed by our politicians and mainstream media, because the military, in our militaristic nation, is sacrosanct.   Eventually perhaps, farmers may find energy to be unaffordable.       

Global Warming
      From the realities of US imperialism to global warming is not even a next step; it’s already part of that reality.   The military on standby is bad enough, but in war the military’s use of fossil fuel and therefore its contribution to the creation of C02 and atmospheric warming increases immensely.      Unfortunately, the stresses on food production by warming are many in addition to the military.    And unfortunately, few studies have been made so far explaining the connections between warming and food production.   But that is changing. 
     Hertsgaard in Hot provides a chapter entitled “How Will  We Feed Ourselves?”   All of the ecological destructiveness of the industrial system we have glimpsed so far are already being exacerbated by warming.   To generalize: industrial agriculture is itself a major source of greenhouse gases and warming, and industrial agriculture is vulnerable to a warmer climate.
     The large amounts of fossil fuel used to produce fertilizer, run farm equipment, and transport food to market discharge more greenhouse gasses that coal-fired power plants and gas-guzzling vehicles, “roughly 31 percent” (p. 180).  Meat production alone may account 18 percent of the total.
     As to vulnerability, industrial agriculture has undermined the foundations of agriculture:    the application of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer has deadened soil, poisoned wildlife, and polluted waterways.  As the planet warms, water decreases as the result of industrial agri practices.   For example, it has sucked irrigation water from underground unsustainably until major aquifers are approaching exhaustion.

     A gloomy forecast, especially when rational efforts to reduce greenhouse gasses have been so thwarted by economic self-interest and fear of reality.   But reversing the rise of C02 is not the only way to cope with advancing warming:  mitigation and adaptation are major possible responses, receiving as yet little attention.  So let’s say again:  MIND THE LOSSES.  Jonathan Baime will talk about what we might do.

     In conclusion I want to draw upon Gandhi in an unusual way  Gandhi’s great struggle was to end the British occupation of India.   For this monumental task, he developed the concepts of Satyagraha and Ahimsa, as together a way of overcoming injustice and violence nonviolently.   If we think of the US government regardless of Party as engaged for many decades in three encompassing wars that subvert the foundations of agriculture--industrial agriculture exhausting the earth and species, wars for empire destroying earth and species and squandering money and resources, and denial or indifference to warming—then Gandhi has something to tell us.    Satya  means the search for truth and agraha means persistence.  Inseparable from Satyagraha is Ahimsa; that is, a-himsa (hims meaning desiring to kill), or not-killing: the effort to avoid killing until the desire to kill has been replaced by love for others and a passion for justice.   Gandhi tried to teach the Indian people how to make Satyagraha/Ahimsa a new way of life.
       We are also faced by an occupation—the destructive and in many ways criminal domination by industrial agriculture, wars, and warming.   Persistence in finding the truth and learning not to kill will strengthen us in resistance.

References to the Three Wars:

 Industrial Agriculture
--Hertsgaard, Mark.  Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.  Houghton Mifflin, 2011.  Chapter 8, “How Will We Feed Ourselves.”
--Horne, James E. and Maura McDermott.  The Next Green Revolution: Essential Steps to a Healthy, Sustainable Agriculture.   Food Products P/Haworth, 2001.
----McKibben, Bill.  Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.  Times Books, Holt, 2010.

Day, Lincoln and Alice.  Scarred Lands and Wounded Lives: The Environmental Footprint of War.   Film, 2011.  
Sanders, Barry.  The Green Zone: The Environmental Costs of Militarism.   AK P, 2009. 

Global Warming
--Archer, David.  The Long Thaw: How Humans Are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth’s Climate.  Princeton UP, 2009.
--Gore, Al.  Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis.  Melcher, Rodale, 2009.
--Hansen, James.  Storms of My Grandchildrren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity.  Bloomsbury, 2009.
--Lovelock, James.  The Vanishing Face of Gaia.  Basic Books, 2009.  
--Monbiot, George.  Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning.  South End, 2007.
--Paskal, Cleo.  Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic, and Political Crises Will Redraw the World Map.  Palgrave, 2010.
--Schweiger, Larry.  Last Chance: Preserving Life on Earth.  Fulcrum, 20098

All of these books not only define the problems but suggest remedies to the problems they discuss, some more than others.   Their power for good in our country depends upon the number of people who read them and take action.    The foundation of a democracy is   informed citizens.   

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Dick's Wars and Warming KPSQ Radio Editorials (#1-48)

Dick's Wars and Warming KPSQ Radio Editorials (#1-48)