PSYC 123: The Psychology, Biology and Politics of Food

Lecture 10

 - Sustainability I: The Impact of Modern Agriculture on the Environment and Energy Use


Professor Brownell reviews the energy costs of modern food tastes. Specifically, he discusses how agribusiness and what people choose to eat has consequences on the depletion of water, land, and fossil fuels, and contributes to global warming. In addition, he considers whether food production and the earth’s resources can keep pace with the demands of global population growth, and whether we can enhance sustainability in our food environment.

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The Psychology, Biology and Politics of Food

PSYC 123 - Lecture 10 - Sustainability I: The Impact of Modern Agriculture on the Environment and Energy Use

Chapter 1. The Changing Character of Modern Farming [00:00:00]

Professor Kelly Brownell: I’m sorry I have to start off by apologizing; I have a cold, so you may get more coughing then usual today. If I cough and pass out you can leave class if I’m not recovered within about twelve minutes or so. Usually it’s the audience that passes out but this time it might be me.

Today and on Wednesday we’re going to talk about sustainability, a remarkably interesting issue. Most people — some people are beginning to realize the impact the food environment has on — our food culture has on the environment. It has many different facets and very few people know about all of them, so I’m hoping to give you guys some new information so you get a sense of what the modern food environment does.

I’ll start off with a little bit of background in just a minute, but before I do that I want to remind you — and this is a reinforcement of what you were sent in an email — but the teaching fellows will hold two review sessions, one on Friday and one next Monday and you see the times and the places listed here. So hopefully each of you that wants to make one of the review sessions and go to at least one of these. As I mentioned before, the teaching fellows will not be there to just review the information; it’s not being prompted by questions, so please come with questions if you want them answered, and the teaching fellows will respond to those in as much detail as they can.

Okay, so the modern food environment, think about what it’s provided us. Americans spend less money per capita on food than people anywhere else in the world. We go to a supermarket, the typical large supermarket with 30,000 food items. We have fast food available to us twenty-four hours a day, we have vending machines everywhere, we have an enormous range of choices in the food we want to eat. Just from within a little walking distance of here there are dozens of food choices, all sorts of different foods, ethic foods; most of its available at low costs.

We talked about the green revolution and how it’s helped address the world hunger problem, so certainly modern agriculture has an upside. To the extent that people can be fed for less money, more hungry people are fed than was true earlier in history. We have foods now where people are concerned about the nutrient value of the foods and the like. A lot of things have changed, but there can be downsides to modern agriculture and we’re going to talk about some of those now.

The key question really is that we have unimaginable success in providing an abundance, a wide of array of foods, but there is a potential downside. We want to ask this class and next, what is the impact of the modern food environment on these things? We’ll talk about each of these. Biodiversity is especially interesting issue; we’ll talk about that the next class. I’ll use oranges in Florida as one example, and wheat in the Midwest as another. We’ll talk about animal welfare, and today I’d like to talk about the environment and energy use in particular.

What we’re hoping is that when you take the up and the down side of modern agriculture, whether these two things can be reconciled in a way that still provides access to healthy food at a low a cost as possible for the world’s hungry, but in doing that, minimize the negative health impacts of the process of producing the food. Can we distribute food differently and solve the hunger problem? Can production keep pace with population growth? I’ll show you some statistics on that. Can we do this with a tolerable cost to energy and to the environment, and overall can we enhance sustainability? These are all important questions.

Let’s talk about what modern farming is like. You’ll see a video clip in a short time that talks about how — how the view of our modern farming comes about and how we’ve been shaped by that. A lot of us grow up with these short of childhood storybook images of farms, and we think of farms as these beautiful, bucolic settings like these, where animals have plenty of room to roam free. We see pictures like this, we see cute pictures like this, and it all seems like its pretty nice and wholesome. There is some farming like this but it’s losing way to different sorts of things. Here would be an example of a tulip farm in the Netherlands, here’s a cranberry bog in Massachusetts. So we have these kind of nice pictures of what farming is like and we think of cattle being raised in this kind of way.

But this is more typical of what modern farming is like. You see here, instead of a wide prairie with maybe hundreds of heads of cattle, you might have as many as 100,000 crammed into a relatively small space, in what people call an industrial farm. This has all sorts of implications. Not to mention the welfare of the animals themselves, but of course, the environment.

A lot of the way our food comes to us is done courtesy of agribusiness — big agribusiness companies. When most people think of the food industry you think of companies whose names appear on products that you buy, or places you go to buy them. You think of McDonald’s, you think of Kraft, you think of Coca-Cola, you think of PepsiCo, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Kellogg’s, General Mills — those are the names that come to mind.

In fact, those are only a portion of the players in the food business. The food business is actually comprised of those players, but some massive players as well that end up controlling a lot of the food chain. An example would be ADM, Archer Daniels Midland. They are a major agribusiness company, $44 billion dollars of revenue. Another example would be Cargill where grain, livestock, feed, processed foods, etc., $120 billion dollar business. Another company that very few people have heard of: a very large company headquartered in suburban New York is called Bunge. They’re the leading exporter of soybeans in the United States. There are a variety of other companies involved as well, and you see them here.

These are companies that may do the genetic modification of seeds; they may sell fertilizers, pesticides, etc. One of the companies, not as big as the other agribusiness companies, but in the news a lot because of how controversial they are, is Monsanto. Now, Monsanto has raised the ire of a lot of people concerned about the environment because of things they make, particularly an herbicide that I’ll come back and mention later, but also the genetic modification of foods, the GMOs that we’ve talked about a little bit. We’ll talk about more in the next class. This slide shows some of the people protesting against Monsanto, and you see this increasingly around the world.

In fact, a small number of very large companies control a lot of the food chain. The goals of these companies, as they state, is to control the food chain from the seed to the table, from the field to the fork, and they’ve managed to do this in some cases. Here would be an example looking at plants and animals, and the vertical integration of the industry, which means that a single company might own a lot of the supply chain.

If you look at plants and the plants that we eat, it begins with seeds, it involves the ownership of the land, and then these things that you see listed here; and a small number of companies might be involved with all of these things. With animals you have a similar situation.

A lot of the food chain — so it works out like this, that a lot of the crops are consolidated and 80% of the acreage in the United States is comprised of these four crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, and hay. We talked about the subsidies that go to the corn and soybean farmers and we’ll talk about more of that later in a later class as well when we discuss economics.

Agriculture in the modern world is different then our bucolic picture. Very highly mechanized, highly efficient, controlled to a large part by large agribusiness companies, considerable political influence by these companies, and this leads, in our country at least, to food surpluses.

The American farm has changed a good bit. If we look from 1950 to 2000, there’s been a 62% reduction in the number of farms, but of course we’re growing a lot more food. A 70% reduction in the number of farm workers. This is made possible by technology. A 21% reduction in total farm acres, but despite that, large average increase in the average farm size and of course the amount grown per acre has gone up, and up, and up. The small family farm has given way to very large acreages owned by large companies — not totally, but to some extent.

This has changed the character of modern farming in the United States and has some upsides in terms of productivity, but some downsides as well, and has changed the relationship of the person who owns the fields to what’s grown in the fields. The idea that the farmer at one point was closely connected, almost in a spiritual way. With the land, and appreciated the importance of the land and the importance of keeping the land so that it would have a long life and could be passed down in the family has changed; in some cases to a different kind of method of farming — a different model of farming — where the focus is on exploiting the land as much possible, getting as much from it as you can in the short term. This has long-term implications.

Chapter 2. Modern Agriculture and Resource Depletion [00:12:05]

One of the great concerns here is the impact of modern agriculture on resource depletion. I’d like to talk about depletion of water, land, and fossil fuels. The results here are really pretty impressive when you stop to look at them — impressive in a negative way.

First, let’s talk about water. Now in the previous class, we talked about the importance of water to the green revolution and how important irrigation was to increasing productivity in farm fields, especially in certain parts of the world. The water has an upside but the question is, is there enough of it around to continue to use in the way we’ve been using it?

Here would be an example of a graph that shows how much it takes to produce corn that’s either irrigated or not. The amount of oil that it takes to produce, in this case, corn in Nebraska if it’s fed by rain, or irrigated is much different; so the irrigation is using oil resource and not only using up the water but the oil resources as well to irrigate the corn because of the machinery involved, the pumping water long distances, etc.

Of course the yield is greater for the irrigation, the irrigated corn, but the cost is greater in terms of the environment. And where one comes down on whether it makes sense to irrigate the corn depends on what you care about; whether you care about the productivity or whether you care about the impact on the environment.

A lot of water gets used for irrigation around the world. If we look at how water is — the water use is partitioned around the world, here’s the picture we have: that 70% of water use around the world goes to agriculture. One wouldn’t have thought it would have been that high. Only 23% goes to industry, 7% for municipal and personal use.

If so much of the world’s water is being used for agricultural purposes, let’s look at what that means in terms of the water supply. Here’s how much water it takes to produce different crops. This graph that you’ll show, shows the number of gallons of irrigated water to produce one kilogram, a little more then two pounds of four things, and I’m about to show you what those four things are. As you can see, the top bar, 370 gallons, is required to produce one kilogram of something that I’ll show you in a minute; and then it goes up to 1,651 gallons of water to produce a kilogram of something else. So vast differences in the water usage to produce things that we might eat. The 370 is a kilogram of corn; 502 is a kilogram of sugar beets; the 1,242 is a kilogram of rice; and the 1,651 is a kilogram of beef.

Now, think about the production of corn and what humans choose to eat. Now you have choice, as a human, to eat the corn, or you can have the corn fed to the cow and then eat the cow. So those are all choices we make. The energy cost of that choice, whether you eat the raw product or you eat the product of the raw product, namely the beef from the cow, has big differences in cost. There are two costs here. There’s depletion of water resources and there’s the energy used to produce the water, bring the water to market in the second place.

This is a big controversy around the world. In India, for example, there have been protests against the soft drink companies, particularly in this area of India that you see down there in the area of Kerala, in the state of Kerala. There is concern there because of extraction of water for the production of soft drinks, and how the water resources are limited in those areas. People are considering this exploitation of the land by American companies, and because of the dangerous groundwater shortage you see things like this where people are protesting against Coca-Cola, especially. Here would be another example of that.

Now, the water depletion is becoming a major issue around the world. One particular close-to-home example of this is an aquifer that covers eight different states in the Midwestern part of the United States called the Ogallala aquifer. It’s a vast water supply, and used to a great extent to fuel the agriculture industry in this part of the country. It’s a major agricultural resource but it’s considered to be — it’s projected to be unusable in a period of twenty years.

What does that mean? Well it means that the local water resource is depleted, so to the extent that these farmers can get water that’s relatively local — although nothing is local, it’s not like each farmer has a well that goes into this aquifer and water is pumped there, it’s still transported some distance — but it means water will have to come in from some other place. Well where is that other place, and is there water around to do this kind of a thing? This is a pretty alarming statistic.

We can talk about the depletion of water resources around the world. Let’s talk about energy and what kind of energy goes into food production. When people are eating these kinds of foods, they’re generally not thinking about where the foods come from, but if you trace it back, one could make the argument that these foods come from a place like this, or a place like this, or a place like this. Then we have global warming as an issue and a lot of other things.

This has been pointed out by authors in recent years, and one particularly interesting story on this came out in 2004, called The Oil We Eat. In this case there was geopolitical implications of the work in this particular story about how the food chain went back to oil coming from Iraq, but also they talked about the energy cost of modern food tastes and what people are choosing to eat, and what impact that has on the environment and on energy depletion. Now, when people talk about oil being related to food, they generally will think about this kind of thing: it has to be shipped some distances and there’s cost in that to be sure and those would be examples of that as well. In fact, there is a lot more to it.

Now let’s look first at how much energy Americans use in general. This is the per capita energy consumption in different parts of the world, and we’re going to compare in this graph less developed countries to a little bit more developed countries to the USA, and how much energy the countries are consuming per capita. You can see an enormous difference. Now why is this? Why are Americans using so much more energy than the rest of the world? Well we can speculate about what that might be. Is it industry that’s heavy energy use? Well, that’s part of the picture potentially. Is it Americans’ fascination with the automobile, poor mass transit, people reliant on getting around one by one, by one in cars, etc.? That’s a part of it too. Energy guzzling vehicles, that’s a part of it, all these things play a role; but the way we deal with agriculture is a player here as well. Americans are certainly using more then their share.

Now the Michael Pollan, that we all know, wrote an article in 2002 in The New York Times and what he wanted to do was to take a farm animal and find out how much energy it required — was required to raise this farm animal from a tiny animal to the point it got brought to market. What he did was he went and bought a cow, this is the particular cow. He found a place that — where — a farm where he could go and theoretically invest in this single animal, and then he followed this animal through the various places in its lifecycle, and tried to figure out how much energy was required to raise it.

First, there was the shipping of the calf to the feed lot, so the calf is born in one place and then it’s shipped to a different place, to a feed lot, so there’s oil required for that. The feed to feed that animal isn’t grown locally and the calf isn’t grazing, but it’s feed that’s shipped in, and a feed lot might be an example of that picture that you saw before of California and the 100,000 cows. There are fertilizers, petroleum-based fertilizers that are used for the feed that gets shipped to the cow — pesticides fall into that category too — and then this cow was given hormones to maximize its growth. Petroleum products are used to generate that. Now, some people are concerned about the health impacts of hormones, but aside from that, there are energy costs. And then of course the cow gets shipped to market.

He figured that by the time you add all that up 283 gallons of oil would be required to raise that cow, and there are probably things that he didn’t calculate in, like the costs of irrigating the crops that feed the cow. Now, if we talk about the energy balance in the environment the cow gives energy back, people eat the cow and they get calories from it, so there are calories coming out of this process.

How does that compare with the calories going in? Well it’s not even close. If you add up the amount of energy available in 283 gallons of oil, compared it and put a calorie number to that, and then figure how many calories are coming from the cow back into the food supply, it’s really not a close contest at all.

This is a losing proposition in terms of sustainability. Some people have estimated that if you live in the United States the single best thing you can do to improve the environment and increase sustainability, is to drive less. The second most powerful thing you can do is to eat less beef. Why would it be? Well, you see the numbers here. Now again, you could eat the corn that feeds the beef and the energy transaction is much more sustainable then what you see here. You see other examples of this, so for example, if you take Diet Coke and how many calories of energy it takes to produce the Diet Coke you might get no energy back from it — or just say one calorie from something like this — but it would take this many calories to produce it. This kind of a product which is made to — basically to provide pleasure. There’s no nutrient value there, so it’s totally a product of pleasure that — where people want to get from it, but a lot of calories are being subtracted by the environment to produce it and not — nothing’s really coming back.

Here’s another example of this. If we look at how many kilograms of grain it takes to produce a kilogram of chicken, a kilogram of pork, or a kilogram of beef, it’s really much different. So even within the animals that humans consume, there are big differences in what it costs to produce them, so the graph looks like this. You have a difference of two when you go from chicken to pork, but then a difference of more then three when you go from chicken to beef. The energy calculus here of how much it takes to produce a pound — or whatever unit you want to express it in, in this case kilograms — of different kinds of foods varies a lot depending on the food even if you’re eating animal products. Beef comes up time and time, and time again in this equation as being the most energy inefficient. The world’s desire for beef is increasing. It seems like every time people start eating less beef, the beef industry comes out with another round of food marketing to try to encourage people to eat more beef — which is of course what they’re in business to do.

Chapter 3. Conceptualizing Food Miles [00:25:39]

Now one way that people have expressed this energy use, and this is a relatively new concept, is something called food miles and I think I’ve eluded to this earlier in the class. The concept was developed by a professor in City University London named Tim Lang, who’s very long been a very vocal and effective proponent of sustainability issues. What he wanted to do was to come up with a way that would provide numbers for how much it cost to deal with a certain part of the food chain, and to put this in terms that people could understand. The food miles is the concept he came up, and you can guess from the term what it means.

What it — he basically is talking about how much it costs to get food from the place its raised or grown to the consumer, and how much energy is involved in that transaction. He talked about energy use to the point the food is produced, how many gallons of oil it takes to raise this food or that food, how much water it takes and what’s the oil cost of that, the amount of grain it takes to feed different animals, and you can see how all that works. In this case, we’re talking about what it takes to get it from the farm or the field to the market, and that’s what food miles is all about.

It’s actually a pretty interesting and complicated topic, but it has to do partly with the number of miles the food goes, the mode of transportation is important in that, and then of course you have to calculate in how much it costs, how much energy is used for consumers to go buy the food, and that becomes interesting as well. Food is shipped in different ways. How much is — which particular mode is the primary method of shipping will determine the cost and the food miles. For example, shipping something by ship is less demanding — less energy demanding — than shipping something by train; and then the truck is the least efficient of these different methods. Some things are shipped primarily by one of these and others by the other methods, so that’s part of the food mile calculation.

Now it becomes a kind of complex issue. By the way, this is concept that I think is here to stay, and there’s some movement in the UK to have food miles listed on packages, so somebody could actually look and see how much energy expressed as food miles is used to bring that particular food to market. But people are still working out the equations for calculating something like this and here’s where it gets interesting and complicated.

Let’s say, for example, a farmer raises a ton of some food and that particular ton of food has to get to a market a hundred miles away. Well that seems to be a pretty easy thing to calculate because you could just say, well it’s a hundred miles, it’s a hundred food miles for that part of the transaction. But in fact, whether one trip is made, or whether a number of trips are made, depending on the size of the truck the farmer uses, will affect the food miles. So if the farmer makes one trip in a large truck less energy will be used than if he has to make ten trips in smaller truck. This has to get figured in somehow. Not easy to do. Whether a food is frozen or refrigerated as its moving from Point A to Point B becomes a very important part of the picture because of course the energy costs for that goes up.

Another interesting twist on this is how consumers get the food. The people that are really paying attention to the food miles concept are trying to calculate in whether consumers have to drive to buy the food, how many trips that might take to get the food, how far they have to go to get it, or whether the food is brought to someplace near them. For example, if a farmer brings stuff in to a distribution center and then the product goes from the distribution center to a store, and then consumers make a trip to the store to buy it, there’s a lot of energy involved in that; but if the farmer brings things right to a local area — say in a farmer’s market — and people perhaps can even walk there to get it, then the energy transaction is much smaller. So you get to see how complicated the issue can become.

Then here’s why it’s partly important, so Wal-Mart for example to its credit, is paying a lot of attention to the issue of sustainability. They made a commitment to trying to buy sustainable products as much as possible. Well, given the massive size of Wal-Mart and their buying power, and how much of the food chain they can affect, this is a big thing. What happens if the sustainable food they buy comes from China, and it has to be shipped halfway around the world in order to get it to the United States? Is that better than buying — better or worse — than buying food that’s grown unsustainably, but it’s closer by so you shrink the food miles?

You can start to see how this picture, if one really wants to know, how much energy is involved in the foods we buy, it depends on a lot of things. Where it’s grown, how it’s grown, how much water is used, how much oil went into getting the water out of the ground, what food is used to feed the food, whether they’re oil based products, fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, herbicides all used in this transaction. Then of course how far it has to go and how far we have to go to buy it are all issues that enter into this.

It would be very nice if this could somehow be collapsed into an index or a number that people could understand. Let’s just say you had an energy impact number that went from zero to a hundred or something and you’d like to have your energy impact as low as possible. Of course this — there would be tremendous debate about what would go into the energy impact equation, but people are working on this concept. Hopefully at some time something like this will come about so that consumers who care about the issue will have some way of knowing, because otherwise we just don’t know. I mean you just don’t know.

Let’s just say you’re agnostic about Coke versus Pepsi, and you like them both the same but you want to have them on some kind of a basis, maybe a lot, maybe a little. Maybe it would matter to you which came from a further distance away, and wouldn’t energy index like that make sense? Perhaps — I’m just saying this hypothetically, just say that Coca-Cola happens to be bottled 20 miles away but the Pepsi Cola is 120 miles away. Would that matter? Well, it’s starting to matter to people, so it would be nice to get a sense of this, but we don’t have the index yet, but right now people are at least thinking about it and thinking of the criteria that would go into it.

Chapter 4. From Seed to Market: Just the Corn [00:33:04]

When we ask about current farm practices and whether they’re sustainable, part of it depends on population demands on the food supply. The increasing population is expected to put real strain on the land resources because we’re losing farmland to things like erosion, monoculture, and other factors that are affecting its use, water and the fossil fuels, as I mentioned before. Here’s the expected time in several countries for the population to double: 70 years in the U.S.; 37 in India; Mexico 37 years; 23 in Ethiopia; and if you look at the world average, it’s 50 years. That means we’ll need double the food in 50 years that we’ll need now.

Will we be able to produce this and at what point do the lines cross? Right now we have a surplus. That doesn’t mean that, as I’ve said before several times, that doesn’t mean that everybody has food because the political and distribution problems are significant; but at least the world has enough food.

At some point the population demands will outstrip our ability to produce more food, because there’s only so much land in the world where food can be grown. The productivity has gone up, and up, and up and is starting to plateau in certain parts of the world, so at what point does this really become a crisis? Some estimates are that in the next forty years the world population will reach a number like this; this will require triple the current food production, and this requires a ten-fold increase in energy because of the expected declines in crop yield from loss of land and pests.

When you put this altogether do we have ten times the energy that we have now to apply to the food supply? Agriculture consumes a fair amount of the world’s energy. This is discussed in a number of different places, including The Atlas of Food, and a book by Cornell researchers, Pimentel & Pimentel, and these are very interesting. The book on the left, The Atlas of Food — I’m sorry I don’t have a more crisp picture of this — but this is authored — one of the authors is Tim Lang, the person I mentioned who developed the concept of food miles, so these are good resources if you care to read more about this. The book on the left is much more accessible, the book on the right is very heavy in statistics.

If we just take a common food and think about the energy cost, and let’s just take this bag of Doritos as an example, what’s involved in this? Well if you just think about the corn that’s the primary ingredient in Doritos, what’s involved in that? Well there is of course the getting it from different place — from place to place so it has to get from the farm to a processing plant, that produces the products that will go on a tractor trailer to some distribution center; and then there all the little local deliveries that go to get the Doritos into the little markets that are scattered all around the country, so this is a lot of transport that goes on.

Again, we’re talking about the just corn part of this. If I showed you the ingredient list from a bag of Doritos — I don’t know how many things are in it, but it’s probably thirty ingredients or something like that — each of these ingredients will have an energy cost, but since corn is the predominant we can talk about that. We can think about the oil that’s necessary to create this transaction of just buying something simple like a bag of Doritos.

Well, there’s oil involved in the genetic modification of the corn and bringing those seeds to the farmer. There’s the seed transport from the place that genetically modified seeds are made to the distributor, the seeds then have to go to the farm; there’s shipping involved in all this. Then there’s of course the planting of the seeds, and then all the things that you see under the growing and harvesting we’ve talked about before, and are pretty self-evident; so there’s a lot of oil used in something like this. Then there’s the transport and processing. The corn gets harvested, it gets sent to a storage place, it then gets sent to the processing center. Then the processing itself is energy intensive, and then of course it has to get to the market and the consumer has to go the market to buy it. You add all this up, and you’ve got quite a lot of energy gets involved in developing a product like this.

Chapter 5. Modern Agriculture’s Environmental Impacts [00:37:52]

Let’s move from the energy cost to the impact on the environment. As an example we’ll use corn and King Corn I used intentionally because it’s the name of movie that’s out on this topic, but also it’s the king of the American agriculture system, partly because of the heavy subsidies. The film that I mentioned some of you may have heard of called, King Corn: You Are What You Eat, has come out just recently. Two young men, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, looked to see how corn is actually raised in the United States and developed a very engaging movie about it, so if you haven’t seen it I urge you to, because they talk about what goes into making corn, but also what corn makes and the number of products it’s in. They also talk in the movie about how much of our bodies are made up of corn in one way or an other, because if you add up all the different foods that corn goes into, how much of that ends up in our body is really quite impressive.

Modern agriculture raises serious concerns about safety, pollution, and biodiversity. We’ll talk about some of this in class on Wednesday. A lot of chemicals go into producing modern agriculture. Now, the chemicals work in terms of production, so if you look at the yield, the bushels per acre, from 1900 and to today you see vast increases. Scientists have tried to separate out what are the factors contributing most to this, and what they’ve hypothesized is this: that genetic advances, genetic modification and breeding has led to a lot of the increased yield, fertilizers are a part of it, and then they don’t quite know yet what the pesticides are playing in terms of the contribution to the increased yields.

So these things work, but at what cost? Well the first the pesticides. There’s a lot of concern that once you start using artificial pesticides, that you have to use more artificial pesticides because here’s what happens. The pesticides get applied to crops and they work; except they don’t kill everything, and insects evolve to resist a particular pesticide. These particular pests that are resistant to that pesticide will prosper in very large numbers, especially in areas where monoculture is the reign of the day.

By monoculture we mean raising one crop in vast acreages, so I’ll talk about biodiversity in the next class and we’ll talk about the state of Iowa as an example and how much of Iowa is occupied by either corn or soybeans, and a small number of variety have corn or soybeans, so this is monoculture. The pest that survived the pesticide application thrives under these circumstances which usually leads to the application of even more pesticide or the development of new pesticides and then of course each time that happens it has environmental implications.

Here would be an example; this is an advertisement in France for a particular pesticide made by Monsanto to get rid of a spider that eats corn. Now we talked about — we’ll move from pesticides to herbicides and talk about weed killers for the moment. I may have mentioned before that Monsanto — and I talked about herbicide as being one of their major products — they make a weed killer called Round Up. A lot of you have probably used this around the house, where you spray it on plants and kills the weeds. Round Up is sold to consumers like us, but its biggest application is used in farms. You can imagine how weeds growing around plants interfere — compete for resources with the plants, and therefore farmers have to worry a lot about these. If you have some agent that you can spray on the weeds that kills them, then that’s good in the eyes of the farmer and it can increase productivity.

One of the fundamental problems though is that something that kills weeds might very well kill the crop that it’s designed to protect, because if it gets on that kind of thing then it becomes a problem. The Monsanto Company and the farmers had this basic problem. The farmers, because they didn’t want the weed killer to kill the corn or the soybeans, and Monsanto wants to sell as much as Round Up as possible, so they created an ingenious solution to this, Monsanto did, by genetically engineering corn and soybeans for a product they call Round Up Ready Corn or soybeans to resist their own herbicide. They genetically modified the structure of corn and soybeans so that Round Up applied to the weeds around these — these corn and soybeans that are growing won’t kill the corn and soybeans.

The farmer’s happy because it doesn’t — then the herbicide application doesn’t threaten the crop, Monsanto’s happy because they’re making money from the seeds and more Round Up can get applied in the process. So Monsanto wins in two ways. The concern about this is the heavy pesticide use, the herbicide use in this case, and what it means to the groundwater, to air pollution, and the like and what can be done about this. More application of these things are not what environmentally concerned groups would like to see.

Here are a few numbers just to show you how much stuff is applied to what. The percent of corn that’s grown in monoculture or rotated with soybeans in the United States, 82% vast acreages; fertilizer is applied to 98% of corn; insecticides are applied in 97% of corn acreages; of all the herbicides 55% go to corn and of all insecticides 44% are used for corn. The corn production in this country is very chemical intensive and there are energy costs for this, but concerned about the environment and we’ll talk more about that later. It’s very interesting to think about how corn gets raised.

Let’s talk about climate change for just a moment, which is a big issue. A lot of people are more concerned about climate change than they. Agriculture is contributing to climate change but it also is being affected by climate change and I’ll show you a map in a few moments that is — I find completely startling that addresses that issue.

Chapter 6. Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Livestock [00:45:18]

There was a really terrific report written for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, published in Rome called, Livestock’s Long Shadow. In this case this report talked about the environmental issues of livestock production around the world and what it means to our environment and to health and well-being. The global warming potential is really considerable. They talked about carbon dioxide as a contributor to global warming, and most of us think a lot about this, because these are the units that were taught to think about global warming in. They also talked about the impact of methane and nitrous oxide as contributing to the global warming. To put the relative contribution in context, what they did is they said well let’s take global warming, let’s take carbon dioxide and consider that one unit of contributor to global warming, then what would methane and nitrous oxide be in relationship to that number one?

You can see the methane has 23 times the potential to contribute to global warming and the nitrous oxides are multiples of that, so the extent that agriculture is producing these things, then we’ve got something to worry about, so I’d like to put some of this in context. Certainly we’ve talked about the energy costs of producing foods in terms of oil use and that would of course contribute to the carbon dioxide and the emissions. Well let’s talk about the other as well.

Now this report, by the way, concludes after adding all this up, the global greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture exceed emissions from transportation. That’s really pretty striking, and this is just from animal agriculture, we’re not talking about plant agriculture as well.

Here’s where it comes from. The carbon dioxide emissions are the things that we’ve talked about already, but the methane emissions come from rumen in animals, I’ll describe a little bit about what that means, and then the release of methane from animal manure, and the amount of this out there is really remarkable. The nitrous oxide come from release from urine and manure from animals, vast amounts of these sorts of things.

Just take a cow, for example, and think about how big a cow is and how much urine and manure comes from something like that. I mean my — we were — my kids and I and my wife were in Scotland and Ireland this summer driving around, and we saw lots of farm animals as we were driving around, and one time we went past a cow that was urinating and my kids were just amazed by how much was coming out of that cow. They said, oh my God it’s like a fire hydrant, I’ve never seen anything — they were just absolutely amazed and they’re grown kids. This is really pretty — pretty impressive how much can come, and you think about that one farm in California with 100,000 animals, and the amount of manure that might get produced there, it’s really quite impressive. These things are issues.

Now the way the rumination works in cows because of the world’s desire for beef and the vast number of cows being raised, the cows eat the grass or feed, or whatever it happens to be, and it goes into their digestive system. If you look to the left you see the rumen, the number one on this list. The food enters this area of the cow’s body but then gets regurgitated, and the cow eats it again. It gets regurgitated back into the mouth, that’s what rumination is in an animal, and then finally it gets digested, it gets swallowed and then digested and gets metabolized. Now in this process, methane gas is released, large amounts of methane gas are released from the cow, and this enters the atmosphere and becomes part of the emission picture. The animal is a digestive machine: it consumes energy, it gives energy, and in the process creates byproducts, one of which is methane, and that is affecting the environment.

This report from the Food and Agriculture Organization calculated the percent of total global emissions for carbon dioxide that come from just animal agriculture, now again not the other plant part of the picture but just the animals, and they calculated of the carbon dioxide emissions in the world, 9% come just from animal agriculture. The methane emissions, it’s 37% and the nitrous oxide emissions it’s this. Remember the relative capacity of methane and nitrous oxide to contribute to the global warming picture over carbon dioxide.

These numbers are very high and of great concern to the food environment. The question is what can be done about it. So the fact that environmental activists are saying eat less beef, you can see why. If concern about the environment is high on your list of priorities that makes sense. It makes sense in a lot of ways. Eat less meat in general makes sense, but eat less beef in particular makes perfect sense for all sorts of reasons when you add it up. You can also see how many energy inputs there are into the whole picture of food production.

Now this is the map that’s really pretty startling. This was a map that was produced that tried to model what climate change will do to where in the world particular foods can be grown, looking at now and the year 2050. This is a little bit blurry, but what it says is that the areas that are the cross-hatched bars are regions where wheat can grow and the yellow bars are where wheat can grow now. You can see large areas of the United States are viable for growing wheat at the present time and that area expands up into Canada. By the year 2050, with a projected climate change, the blue bars are where wheat will grow. You can see that there’s almost none left in the United States.

These are really very profound changes. Now what does this mean? Does this mean we’re going to be growing bananas in the United States? Does it mean we’re going to growing pineapple in Iowa? What does it really mean? Well, who knows how it’s all going to sort out but it — no matter what’s going to grow where and whether this is good or bad for the economy overall, you certainly can’t argue with how startling a phenomenon this is. The agriculture is driven by climate change — you can see that here — but it’s also of course a big contributor to climate change. For those people interested in sustainability and energy use, one thing they have to think about is food.

[end of transcript]

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