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Why Agriculture is a Major Environmental Polluter

When people think about threats to their environment, what comes to their mind is industrial pollution and car emission, not the food they eat. The truth is that, our efforts in poverty reduction and finding solution to end hunger, are making agriculture a major ‘killer’ of the mother earth.

Agriculture is posing one of the biggest dangers to the planet with carbon dioxide emission – the main contributor to global warming. An analyses by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (UN FAO) estimated that between 14 and 18 percent of all man-made emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) are associated with the agricultural sector. Even the lowest estimate (14 percent) is still equal with WRI’s estimated emissions for the transportation sector (13.5 percent). This means that, agriculture is among the greatest contributors to global warming, emitting more greenhouse gases (GHG) than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined. The GHG in agricultural sector is largely from methane (CH4)  released by cattle and rice farms, nitrous oxide (N2O) from fertilized fields, and carbon dioxide from the cutting of rain forests to grow crops or raise livestock. So, are we being naïve to feed the rapidly growing global population, and threaten our own existence?

How Agriculture Pollutes Environment

Need to feed the world

As in most other sectors, agricultural carbon footprint is fast increasing, since farming is expanding to produce more food for a growing world population. In fact, food production will need to double from current levels if projections of more than 9 billion people in 2050 prove correct. So meeting the growing demand for food by using more land would have serious impacts on the environment and the climate. Remember that areas that are most suitable for agriculture in most countries are already cultivated to a large extent, making fertile agricultural land a limited resource across the world.

The fact is that massive unguided farming is never the solution to end poverty, because the more we engage in such activities, the more climate change continue to affect the quality and quantity of food we produce.

Spread of prosperity

The uplifted living standard and spread of prosperity across the world, especially in the world’s most populated countries – China and India, is driving an increased demand for balance diet such as meat, eggs, and dairy. This has added pressure to cultivate more foods and engage in more animal husbandry more livestock husbandry. Unfortunately, key resources such as land and water needed to produce these foods are scarce globally.

Animal husbandry

While the majority of global warming activities give off carbon dioxide – the main contributor to global warming, but it is not the only greenhouse gas to worry about,the next two most common GHG in the atmosphere are methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), primarily emitted by agricultural sector. Most of this methane are emitted by cows, which also are more damaging to the environment. For instance, ruminant animals (cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, and camels) produce methane as part of their normal digestion system – a process known as enteric fermentation. In fact, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the CH4 produced from “enteric fermentation” (cows farting) represents almost one-third of the emissions from the U.S. agricultural sector.

Also, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) report on ‘Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use Emissions by Sources and Removals by Sinks’ shows that, around 40% of agricultural emissions came from methane produced by livestock between 2001 and 2011, not including emissions from manure (25% of agricultural emissions). Together, these gases plus CO2 make up about 99 percent of all GHG in the atmosphere.

It is not just the actual farming that makes agriculture so detrimental to the environment. In almost every case, land use changes such as deforestation to clear space for agriculture, is also a contributor to carbon emissions and land degradation. Records indicate that 75% of global deforestation come from agriculture. So when we clear areas of grassland and forest for farms, we lose crucial habitats and make agriculture a major driver to the loss of biodiversity.

Similar to many other land-use changes, converting forest areas into agricultural land is not the right solution to end hunger. This process is a source of greenhouse-gas emissions and undermines nature’s ability to cope with climate change impacts, such as absorbing heavy rainfall, that threaten food security globally. For instance:

Palm oil production has been [polluting] Southeast Asia

Every year in Indonesia, fires are set to cheaply clear land and make it more suitable for palm oil plantations and other uses. In some cases, rainforests are burned down, destroying wildlife habitat. In other cases, the flames consume drained and dried peatlands, which when lit produce enormous amounts of toxic smoke, as they smolder deep in the soil and are fiendishly hard to extinguish. Either way, over time more and more land that was once wild (and full of wildlife) is giving way to neatly ordered rows of oil palms. Paper and palm oil companies have been widely blamed for this pollution levels that are hazardous to health.

Palm oil is a key export for the nation’s economy, and a crucial source of income and jobs. But the government often dismisses calls for more sustainable production methods, and Indonesia has become the world’s worst global warming offender by some calculations.

This pollution has affected neighbouring nations. For example, in Malaysia, schools have been closed in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, and several other areas, while Singaporeans are being advised to avoid strenuous activity outdoors.

Solution for Sustainable Agriculture

How can the rapid growing global population be fed with minimal environmental footprints? The answer lies in a sustainable agricultural system – a form of agricultural technique that provides foods and industrial inputs to serve the needs of the present generation without posing socio-environmental risks and compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs.

We can start to tackle food waste in economically rich countries where food waste occurs in homes, restaurants, or supermarkets, as well as in developing countries where food is often lost between the farmer and the market due to unreliable storage and transportation. A shift to increase yields on less productive farmlands, using high-tech or clean-tech, precision farming systems, and organic farming would also be effective ways to reducing agricultural footprints.

Retrospect

  1. Sustainable Innovation: A Solution to Africa’s Poverty II
  2. How Africa Can Eliminate Poverty with Market-Creating Innovation I
  3. Can Businesses Really Exist Without Causing Harm?
  4. Why Extractive-Based Nations Fail: Between Resource and Knowledge-Based Economies
  5. 2018: The Nigeria We Want
  6. Towards The Bleak Future of Crude Oil: What Nigeria Should Do Now
  7. Fiscal Sustainability: Between Nigeria’s Debt Plan and the 2018 Budget
  8. Mainstreaming Street Hawking in a Formal Economy: An Inclusive Approach to Development
  9. Nigeria’s Economic Growth in 2018 and the Hope of the ‘Common Man’.
  10. The Reality of Nigeria’s Recession Exit: Between GDP Growth and Sustainable Development
  11. Financial Inclusion: Are Nigerian Banks Getting it Right?

 

Reference
  1. Agriculture and climate change. European Environment Agency, 16 Dec 2016
  2. Feeding the World: A Five-Step Plan to Feed the World. National Geographic Magazine
  3. How Much Does Agriculture Contribute to Global Warming? Pierce Nahigyan
  4. Haze chokes Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. BBC News, 15 September 2015
  5. 6 ways agriculture impacts global warming. Collin Dunn, November 19, 2009



2 Comments

  • Vin

    This information is timely. Though it sounds doubtful, but I must belief the figures as they are referenced to UN and US organisations. Tank you CSR

  • Anonymous

    This is a wake up call on the need for us to go organic. Thumbs up for the good points raised.

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