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A Trillion-Ton Iceberg Broke Off Antarctica and All I Can Think About Is Food

On July 12, an iceberg the size of Delaware broke loose from Antarctica and floated into the sea. Researchers, who had been anticipating the breakup since 2014, say that it cannot be attributed to climate change. At least not yet.

As I continued scrolling through my morning news feed, I skimmed other headlines: Donald Trump Jr., the perfect summer cocktail, net neutrality. Over the past year, I developed a habit of pausing before clicking, especially on upsetting content, because when you have a baby in the same year Donald Trump is elected president, you have little energy left to mine toxic tweets. Sometimes that self-preservation would turn into mild indifference, however, and stories with important yet triggering keywords would get ignored, flicked upward and out of sight.

But my thumb stopped on the iceberg headline. A tremulous sense of fear eventually made me click.

It didn’t matter that no scientist was ready to make a call on what caused the break. The reality is that climate change is getting worse every week, and policymakers are ignoring one of the biggest factors. The role food and agriculture plays has been almost entirely absent from written commitments in local or worldwide negotiations, according to the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University.

This is a problem. Two days before the Antarctic iceberg broke loose, a study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that, in a nutshell, confirmed some of our worst fears: Earth’s sixth mass extinction is already underway, threatening the planet’s animal populations and ecosystems. To use the authors’ words, we’re looking at a “biological annihilation” that’s largely human-caused.

Unlike the researchers assessing the iceberg, the authors of this study clearly point to climate change: “In the last few decades, habitat loss, overexploitation, invasive organisms, pollution, toxification, and more recently climate disruption, as well as the interactions among these factors, have led to the catastrophic declines in both the numbers and sizes of populations. …”

Recently, a colleague and I have been collaborating on a project measuring the environmental impacts of residential lawns and the industrial food system. Our research uncovered some surprising facts, and the data, compiled in one convenient place, have been sobering.

For instance, the food and agriculture sector is the second-largest contributor to emissions, at 24 percent, barely less than the energy sector. Global meat and dairy production together account for about 15 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.

Why are meat and dairy emissions so high? Last year, in the United States alone, an estimated 90.9 million acres of corn and 89.5 million acres of soybeans were planted, and most of it went to feed livestock. (Feed crop production accounts for 24 percent of the sector’s emissions, while deforestation for feed crops and pasture accounts for 9 percent.)

One problem is the way those crops are grown, usually at an industrial scale requiring intense use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Overuse of chemical fertilizers releases high levels of nitrous oxide, “a greenhouse gas with 300 times as much heat-trapping power as carbon dioxide,” reported Science News. Intensive monoculture farming depletes soil, pollutes rivers, and destroys habitats.

Unlike the cause of the iceberg, there’s no debate there.

Meanwhile, the stomach-churning joke is that all those greenhouse gas-emitting resources—land, travel, energy, labor, livestock, and so on—produce food that we don’t even eat: The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that one-third of the food produced in the world is wasted, approximately 1.3 billion metric tons.

Our food is clearly contributing to climate chaos. But why aren’t governments targeting it in their climate agreements? A problem that huge, involving that much land and production, needs to be tackled on an equally huge scale. There’s only so much local communities can do, especially with the clock ticking.

Once the shock of a (cause-yet-to-be-determined) trillion-ton iceberg has worn off, maybe we can get serious about addressing our food.   

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