Michael Pollan: It’s Time to Choose Climate-Friendly Food

2. We need to get serious about changing agriculture

Midsection of woman carrying crate with freshly harvested vegeta

To put it another way: if we are serious about changing the climate, we need to get serious about changing agriculture.

The climate impact of fossil fuel-based—and, not incidentally, extremely unhealthy—industrial agriculture and processed food is still far from common coin in climate discussions that focus mainly on coal plants, oil refineries and motor vehicles.

But while energy is indeed the top source of greenhouse gas emissions, the food system is #2. The best available estimates suggest that industrial agriculture and livestock account for as much as a third of the total emissions causing climate change. This situation has its roots in decades of unsustainable agriculture, particularly excessive meat consumption (more than a quarter of the Earth’s land is now used, directly or indirectly, to raise animals for human consumption), monoculture farming and the overuse of nitrogen fertilizers. As I’ve noted elsewhere,

“Approximately one-third of the carbon [now] in the atmosphere had formerly been sequestered in soils in the form of organic matter, but since we began plowing and deforesting, we'[ve] been releasing huge quantities of this carbon into the atmosphere … the food system as a whole—that includes agriculture, food processing and food transportation—contribute[s] somewhere between 20-30 percent of the greenhouse gases produced by civilization—more than any other sector except energy.”