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When we think of our planet’s top polluters, most of us think of the fossil fuel industry. And we are not wrong. But did you know that conventional agriculture is number three on the list of the most polluting industries? (It falls just behind energy and transportation.) A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that conventional agriculture is responsible for 12 percent of air pollution-related deaths each year. It is also the single largest contributor to health and economic damages from ground level emissions of ammonia, emitted from synthetic fertilizer used on conventional farms across America and manure produced on CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations).1 Speaking of CAFOs, these industrialized feeding operations are directly responsible for more than seven percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from manure alone.2 Overall, conventional agriculture is responsible for 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, with the majority of emissions coming from the cultivation of crops like corn, soy, rice, and wheat.3
The way we produce our food is not sustainable. In a quest for greater productivity, we have come to rely on large-scale, high-intensity monocultures, in which huge areas of land are dedicated to producing a single crop or livestock species, requiring massive amounts of synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Each year, the U.S. uses more than one billion pounds of pesticides and tens of millions of pounds of synthetic fertilizers, with commodity crops like corn, cotton, soybeans, and wheat accounting for most of their use.4 5 Animals raised in CAFOs produce between 2,800 tons and 1.6 million tons of manure a year, depending on the type and number of animals. It has been estimated that each year, livestock animals in CAFOs create between 3 and 20 times more manure than all of the people in the U.S.—with no sewage treatment required.6 This way of producing food is polluting our water, air, and soil and ultimately, our health.
More than 90 percent of the U.S. population has detectable levels of pesticides in their bodies and most of the exposure comes from food and drinking water. Cumulative and chronic pesticide exposure has been linked to numerous health problems, including developmental disorders, cancer, reproductive and endocrine problems, neurodegenerative disorders, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory conditions.7 8 9 10 11
Water quality is also highly affected by agricultural runoff of water from farm fields. Runoff from fields washes pesticides and fertilizers into lakes, rivers, and streams, impacting drinking water for nearby residents. The University of California at Davis Center for Watershed Sciences studied the link between agriculture and groundwater and found that “agricultural fertilizers and animal wastes are by far the largest regional sources of nitrate in groundwater, contributing 96 percent of the nitrate loading to groundwater in these agricultural regions.”12
Dead zones and algae blooms resulting from agricultural runoff are an ever-growing problem as well. An algae overgrowth can choke out aquatic life and make water unsafe for swimming and drinking. Further, algae blooms emit large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, which scientists say can accelerate global methane emissions up to 90 percent over the next century.13
Conventional agriculture also takes a major toll on the soil. Monocrops of corn, soy, wheat, oats, etc. that require heavy tilling, multiple harvests each year, and the heavy use of chemicals deplete valuable soil nutrients and microbes, requiring farmers to use ever increasing amounts of chemical fertilizers to stimulate plant growth. The heavy use of pesticides further depletes important soil microorganisms.14 A recent United Nations study found that one-third of the Earth’s fertile soil is being “acutely degraded.” The biggest factor? Conventional agriculture. Soil degradation leads to erosion and eventually desertification, threatening food production. Degraded soil also releases carbon into the atmosphere, making it a major contributor to climate change.15 16
Conventional agriculture is responsible for 12% of air pollution-related deaths each year
We still have time to re-imagine our future—soil can be regenerated, water quality can be restored, air can be cleared of pollution, and we can all live healthier lives on a healthier planet. We know that there’s a better way, a more ecologically sound way, to produce our food. The answer lies in regenerative and organic agriculture. In simple terms, regenerative agriculture is a system of farming that focuses on the interconnection of farming systems and environmental health. Some of its practices include rebuilding and protecting soil health by using low- to no-till methods, the use of cover crops, and planting a variety of plant species; crop rotation to reduce the need for pest control and fertilizer; and integrating farm animals as much as possible, using rotational grazing practices, which help create healthy soils that are able to capture large amounts of carbon and hold water. The benefits of using organic and regenerative farming practices include: building and improving soil health; increasing biodiversity; increasing productivity; increasing the soil’s ability to hold and retain water; and overall decreasing the amount of pollution caused by agriculture.
One of the most effective ways we can make a difference—both individually and collectively—is with our dollars. When you make purchases that support organic and regenerative farms and ranches, you are also building a more resilient system of food production. One that prioritizes the environment, soil health, biodiversity, water quality, clean air, and human health.
Conversations centering social justice and environmental justice often happen as two separate dialogues, but these issues are intricately connected. Those who are most affected by exposure to environmental pollution are frequently the very same people who experience social and racial injustice. Researchers are beginning to explore the relationship between the disparate exposure to pollution as a major factor in health inequities among minorities and those of low economic status.17 For example, farmworkers—often undocumented immigrants—are on the frontlines working with harmful pesticides, often with very little training or understanding of how the exposure can affect their health. Studies have shown that pesticides brought into the home on parents’ clothing and skin also put farmworkers’ children at risk.18 One long-term study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that the children of farmworkers and children who lived near fields where organophosphate pesticides are sprayed had higher rates of neurodevelopmental problems, including autism, hyperactivity, and reduced IQs.19 20 Early life exposure to environmental toxins has also been associated with increased levels of inflammation in adulthood, increasing the risk for inflammation-related health problems. Socially disadvantaged children are more likely to live in areas with higher exposure to pollution, which increases inflammation and oxidative damage.21
A 2019 analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and low-income communities in California are exposed to “substantially more” air pollution compared to other demographic groups, with African Americans and Latinos exposed to 43 percent and 39 percent more fine particulate matter compared to white Californians. Fine particulate air pollution poses a serious risk to human health and has been linked with higher rates of cardiovascular and lung diseases, asthma, low birth weight and preterm births, and premature death.22 23 Research has also found that concentrated animal feeding operations are more frequently located in minority and low-income communities, with residents experiencing higher rates of infant mortality, kidney disease, asthma, and high blood pressure.24 25 A large body of research has come to the same conclusion: Race and socioeconomic class are both significant determinants of levels of exposure to pollution, including proximity to hazardous waste sites and exposure to air and water pollution. “…the poor and especially the nonwhite poor bear a disproportionate burden of exposure to suboptimal, unhealthy environmental conditions in the United States.”26
As we move forward to create solutions in the fight for environmental justice, we must also confront the racial and social injustices bound up in the fight, for there is no social justice without environmental justice.