We are faced with two crises on a planetary scale—climate change and species extinction. Our current modes of production and consumption, which started during the Industrial Revolution and grew worse with the advent of industrial agriculture, have contributed to both. If no action is taken to reduce greenhouse gases, we could experience a catastrophic temperature increase of four degrees Celsius by the end of the century. But climate change is not just about global warming. It’s also about the intensification of droughts, floods, cyclones, and other extreme weather events. Climate extremes are already costing lives, as we witnessed in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, where more than 200 people lost their lives due to flooding in 2014, and in the nearby state of Uttarakhand, where floods in 2013 took nearly 6,000 lives.
The Effects of Industrial Agriculture
Over the course of human history, levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere never exceeded 280 parts per million until the Industrial Revolution, but they have risen sharply in recent decades: current carbon dioxide levels are at 395 parts per million. Levels of nitrous oxide and methane—which are also greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, only more potent—have also increased dramatically due to industrial agriculture because nitrous oxide is emitted through the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, and methane is emitted from factory farms. According to a report from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, nitrous oxide has roughly 300 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide,while methane is roughly twenty times stronger.
The spread of monocultures and the increasing use of chemical fertilizer in agriculture, combined with the destruction of habitats, have also contributed to the loss of biodiversity. Paradoxically, this biodiversity would have helped sequester greenhouse gases. Four years after the United Nations Earth Summit held in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, the UN International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources in Leipzig assessed that 75 percent of the world’s biodiversity had disappeared in agriculture because of the Green Revolution—the widespread turn toward agrochemicals and high-yield cereal grains—and industrial farming. Industrial agriculture has also eroded biodiversity by killing off pollinators (such as honeybees) and beneficial soil organisms.
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