Food for Thought: Could Your Dinner Plate Be More Harmful Than Fossil Fuels? 

Credit: The Independent

By Alexandra Isham, Alliance Intern from Ohio State University ‘25

Our food and agriculture system has disrupted the earth more than anything we have ever done, including burning fossil fuels, according to a provocative article by Project Drawdown Executive Director Dr. Jonathan Foley. “While we typically think of pipelines, smokestacks, and factories as the dominant drivers of environmental damage worldwide, agriculture is the biggest.” A sustainable future depends on acknowledging this truth and radically changing how we farm and eat.

Foley points to his Nature study documenting the shocking fact that 75% of agricultural land is dedicated to raising animals or growing animal feed, which includes the majority of the global production of corn and soybeans.” The main reason for the widespread use of land and the extensive geographical impact of agriculture is our high consumption of meat and dairy products. Foley highlights that agriculture has used more land and driven more species and ecosystems to extinction than any other human activity. Can you believe this?

Agriculture’s Harsh Influence on Global Waterways and Our Environment

Farming has impacted society and our relationship with the natural world more than timber, mining, urban expansion, or even climate change, according to Foley. He argues that no other human advancement has reshaped our world to the same extent. He also shows how agriculture significantly affects the planet’s water resources, exceeding all other human activities.

“The irrigation of farmland is responsible for 70% of the world’s freshwater use, draining groundwater, rivers, and lakes globally. Industrialized farming has also been a prominent source of pollution around the world, mainly due to chemical fertilizers,” says Foley. “Today, the use of fertilizers is so extensive that it has more than doubled the natural flow of nitrogen and phosphorus across the Earth’s surface.”

The Dark Side Of Fertilizer Use and Farming Practices

You know what doesn’t get enough attention? The overuse of fertilizers. It’s one of the biggest environmental issues out there, but you rarely hear about it. Foley stresses that fertilizers go beyond simply messing with land, biodiversity, and water. They cause widespread pollution and contribute to climate change. The worst effects of fertilizer use are felt not in the soil but in the waters of our planet,” Foley tells us.

This statement stunned me the most because it’s impacting more than just farmland; it’s now polluting our rivers, lakes, and groundwater for drinking, and contaminating the fish and seafood we eat. These waters then flow into the ocean and have created dead zones where the fertilizers have completely choked out all marine life, as in the Gulf of Mexico.

Foley explains, “Excess nitrogen and phosphorus have polluted waterways worldwide, choking them with plant and algae growth. Such influxes can also severely degrade lakes, whole watersheds, and even our coastal oceans.” It’s time for us to fundamentally change our farming practices.

Farming’s Impact on Deforestation and Climate

Sadly, the impact of agriculture and our food choices goes far beyond our water. Foley documents, “The biggest contributor of greenhouse gasses from agriculture and the global food system is deforestation, as vast areas of tropical forest are cleared for animal pasture, soybeans (primarily for animal feed), and oil palm across the Amazon, Africa, and Indonesia.”

He emphasizes, “Deforestation accounts for roughly 10-11% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, rivaling the emissions of the entire US economy.”  Most people don’t realize that “other agricultural practices, particularly raising cattle and, to a much smaller extent, growing rice, are a significant source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is many times more potent than carbon dioxide in the near term.” 

Additionally, he shows how the overuse of fertilizers and manure can release nitrous oxide, another potent greenhouse gas, from the world’s agricultural soils into the atmosphere. “In all, agricultural practices and associated land use directly release about 22% of the world’s climate pollution, making it one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gasses added to the atmosphere,” states Foley. 

But hold on – those are just the direct emissions from food, agriculture, and land use. “The entire food system, including transportation, packaging, refrigeration, cooking, and food waste releases even more.” He points to a recent study published in Nature Food showing that when those indirect emissions are included, our food systems emit roughly one-third of global emissions. If we’re looking to combat climate change, we can start with our food choices and support shifts in agriculture as a top priority.

Hats off to Foley for tackling some of the darkest aspects of our food and agriculture system, as many people are reluctant to face these facts. However, we can no longer ignore these pressing issues and hope for a different outcome. I believe it’s up to us to make a difference and create the change we want to see. It’s one thing to care, but it’s another to take action to solve these urgent crises that are ultimately harming the planet. Be the change.

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