Plant, Baby, Plant


On March 31, President Obama reversed a campaign pledge by calling for renewed oil drilling off US shores. Unfortunately, this was no April Fool’s joke. Domestic drilling, the president argued, was needed to pump up the US economy by reducing oil imports. But if the president hopes to foster a real “Growth Economy,” he needs to draw inspiration from the First Lady’s organic garden. Instead of soiling the seas, we need to be healing our soils.

One of the reasons the United States needs so much oil is the way we grow our food: Oil is used to make fertilizers and pesticides; it is burned to transport produce an average of 1,500 miles from farm to fork. Fossil-fueled agriculture also produces a harvest of three major greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane. The industrial food system is believed to contribute anywhere from 13.5 percent to 60 percent of global greenhouse gases. While GM, Toyota, Chevron, and ExxonMobil take most of the heat for fouling the atmosphere, when it comes to roasting the globe, Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill, Dean Foods, Tyson, and Monsanto are just as guilty as the automakers and oil drillers. The problem isn’t just one of cars and smokestacks; it’s also a problem of cows and cornstalks.

photo of a person walking between rows of cropsGwen Harlow

Green Revolution advocates point out that between 1970 and 1990 world food production rose 11 percent while hunger fell 16 percent. But during this period, hunger actually rose in most of the world, as population growth outstripped production gains. This failure to deliver was obscured by the fact that in China the number of hungry fell from 406 million to 189 million. That impressive accomplishment was not the result of chemicals and “miracle seeds” but occurred because of a massive reallocation of land to the poor. As Food First Executive Director Eric Holt-Giménez notes, this raises the question: “Which has been more effective at reducing hunger – the Green Revolution or the Chinese Revolution, where broad-based changes in access to land paved the way for rising living standards?”

Agribusiness has done an effective job of convincing people that only large-scale farming can feed the planet’s growing population. But decades of work by the Rodale Institute demonstrate that organic farms can produce equal or greater yields. The UN Conference on Trade and Development also hails organic agriculture as “more conducive to food security than most conventional systems.” And there’s more good news: Organic farming offers the cheapest and quickest path to addressing global warming because CO2 emissions from organic farms can be 48 to 60 percent lower than emissions from industrial farms. Where industrial agriculture releases greenhouse gases into the air, organic farming pulls carbon out of the sky and puts it back in the ground to nourish the next harvest.

Earth’s soils store an estimated 1.74 trillion tons of carbon – two to three times as much as floats in the atmosphere. Since composted manure and crop rotations can sequester up to 2,000 pounds of carbon per-acre-per-year, Rodale estimates that converting all 434 million acres of US cropland to organic farming would capture nearly 1.6 billion tons of CO2 per year – almost one-fourth of total US fossil fuel emissions.

There is another bonus: Millions of unemployed Americans – including thousands of soldiers left adrift in a sinking economy – could return to the workforce by returning to the land. The Farmer-Veteran Coalition has been saving family farms and the broken lives of combat vets by putting shovels and hoes in hands that once held rifles; the Department of Veterans Affairs should get on board. Also needed: federal pressure to break Corporate America’s hammerlock on the homestead. We need to apply antitrust laws to the land and demand a further separation of mega-corporations from crops.

More than 32.2 million hectares of certified organic crops are under cultivation worldwide, with more than 1.2 million organic farmers in 141 countries producing $50 billion worth of nutritious, chemical-free food. As Anna Lappé notes in her new book, Diet for a Hot Planet: “If we are really concerned about addressing climate change and ending hunger… we need to be supporting sustainable and local food production.” Or, as the kids in Michelle Obama’s garden put it as they started their spring planting: “Grow, broccoli, grow!”

For more information, read “Agribusiness and Climate Change,” at

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