02/21/2014 02:27 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2014

Is Your Food Cooking The Planet?

This blog is part of a series that explores the themes and issues raised in Farmed and Dangerous, a 4-part satirical web series exploring issues related to the food system and industrial agriculture. If you're interested in joining the conversation, please contact us at

Global warming. Climate change. You'd rather not think about it, right? It's too big. You're just one person. A person who has to heat your house after all. And probably drive your car to work. What can you do?

Overwhelmed by the scope and complexity of climate change, many of us choose to live our daily lives in denial. Hoping that some yet-to-be-discovered technology will come to the rescue. Before it's too late.

But what if the solution lies in old technology, in time-tested traditional practices? And what if we could help bring these traditional practices back? Simply by making different food choices?

We can. Because as it turns out, the worst offender when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. isn't all those SUVs on the road. It isn't all those factories spewing smoke. It isn't even Big Oil and Big Gas.

The single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in this country is Big Food. Our modern energy-, chemical- and GMO-intensive industrial food and farming systems are the major cause of man-made global warming.

That means the fastest route to averting a climate disaster is to reform our current food production methods. How do we do that? By changing the way we eat.

Scientists concluded that industrial farming is the biggest contributor to global warming by analyzing the statistics from several different perspectives. First, by taking a more inclusive look at the scientific data on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions -- not just carbon dioxide (CO2), but also methane and nitrous oxide. Next, by doing a full accounting of the fossil fuel consumption and emissions of the entire industrial food and farming cycle, including inputs (chemical fertilizers), equipment, production, processing, distribution, heating, cooling and waste. And finally, by factoring in the indirect impacts of contemporary agriculture, which include deforestation and wetlands destruction.

When you add it all up, the picture is clear: Contemporary agriculture is burning up our planet. And factory farms, or in industry parlance, Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are at the heart of today's food and farming system.

CAFOs contribute directly to global warming by releasing vast amounts of GHG into the atmosphere--more than the entire global transportation industry. According to a 2006 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of all human-induced GHG, including 37 percent of methane emissions and 65 percent of nitrous oxide emissions. The Worldwatch Institute says livestock emissions account for 51 percent of GHG.

Either way, the methane releases from billions of imprisoned animals on factory farms are 70 times more damaging per ton to the earth's atmosphere than CO2. The air at some factory farm test sites in the U.S. is dirtier than in America's most polluted cities, according to the Environmental Integrity Project.

CAFOs have a direct impact on global warming and the climate. Ripping out forests and draining wetlands, to create grazing areas, or vast GMO soybean plantations, contributes to climate disruption. And the use of tons of chemical fertilizers to grow genetically engineered corn and soy, fed to animals in CAFOs, contributes to dangerous levels of nitrous oxide emissions. Nitrous oxide pollution is even worse than methane -- 200 times more damaging per ton than CO2.

The bottom line is this: No strategy for reducing excess greenhouse gases back to the "safe" level of 350 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere can be successful without drastically reducing emissions from industrial agriculture and sequestering billions of tons of greenhouse gases in the soil through organic and sustainable farming and ranching practices.

That may sound like a big a challenge. But it's easier than you think.

The answer lies at the end of your fork.

Consumers have tremendous power, when they act together. What we need now is a critical mass of consumers to reject products -- meat, dairy and eggs -- that come from factory farms. And choose, instead, organic, sustainably grown, climate-friendly food.

Opponents and skeptics will ask, "What about feeding the world?" But factory farming is not a cheap, efficient solution to world hunger. Feeding huge numbers of confined animals uses more food, in the form of grains that could feed humans, than it produces. For every 100 food calories of edible crops fed to livestock, we get back just 30 calories in the form of meat and dairy. That's a 70-percent loss.

With the earth's population predicted to reach nine billion by mid-century, the planet can no longer afford a reckless, environmentally disastrous farming system.

Should we install those solar panels, and ditch our cars for bicycles whenever we get the chance? Absolutely. But if we're serious about climate change, we need to start looking at what's on our plates.

Farmed and Dangerous was produced by Chipotle and production company Piro. Chipotle is the sponsor for the Food For Thought initiative.