Big Ag Is Sabotaging Progress on Climate Change
Grim as the UN’s latest climate report is, it doesn’t confront the dangerous, government-hijacking power of agribusiness.
(August 28, 2019) — Climate experts have sounded yet another dire alarm, this time aimed straight at our stomachs. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, on “Climate Change and Land,” warns that meeting the challenges of our climate crisis requires urgent changes in our food systems.
Days after, as if to illustrate the point, news broke that cattle ranchers and soybean farmers in Brazil were torching the Amazon rainforest, the “lungs of the world,” to clear land for more industrial-scale fields. Grim as it is, the report may be overly optimistic because it doesn’t sufficiently address the power of agribusinesses.
The IPCC identifies a range of impacts on land, water, and other natural resources, and offers a set of welcome if unsurprising recommendations to both reduce the contributions of our food systems to climate change and adapt to feed a global population expected to grow to nearly 10 billion by 2050. They include: Stop draining wetlands to grow biofuels; reduce demand for beef and strengthen regulations to prevent deforestation in critical areas like the Amazon; cut food waste, which now squanders one-third of consumable food; reduce excessive fertilizer use; and improve cropping systems to turn croplands from heavy greenhouse-gas emitters to carbon sinks.
As with most UN climate proposals, these seem like common sense, yet little seems to change. The reason is clear: the corporate interests threatened by such reforms are large and dominant, and they use their undue influence over governments to prevent progress.
In this case, it’s not fossil fuel companies that are most strongly implicated, it’s agribusinesses. As I repeatedly found in five years of research for my recent book, they are a powerful obstacle to change, they are only getting more powerful, and they have hijacked government policies all over the world to advance their interests.
In Southern Africa, many innovative farmers grow a mix of crops in their fields, which helps insure them against any one of them failing and provides their families a diverse and healthier diet. Using composted manure instead of synthetic fertilizer, they simultaneously prove the fertility of their soils and reduce their carbon footprints.
But agribusiness, under the banner of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, lobbies governments to subsidize expanding fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and commercial seeds. In Malawi, for example, 40 to 60 percent of the government’s agricultural budget funds these subsidies for farmers to purchase commercial products they otherwise couldn’t afford. They don’t end up getting enough of a yield increase to pay for the inputs, and their land becomes more acidic, less fertile, with the repeated corn crops fed by these fertilizers. At best, this wastes scarce government resources. At worst, this perpetuates the kind of unsustainable, fossil-fuel-intensive agriculture the IPCC is warning us about.
But it’s good for Monsanto. The agrochemical giant sells 50 percent of Malawi’s commercial corn seeds, and their sales would plummet if the subsidies were eliminated or redirected to more productive uses. The company is actively trying to expand markets by preventing farmers from saving seeds from their last harvests, which the majority of farmers still do. I discovered that a former Monsanto executive had even drafted Malawi’s national seed policy, which threatened to outlaw farmers’ rights to save, exchange, and sell their seeds. Farm groups successfully removed some of the worst provisions, but the bill still threatens the sale of farm-saved seed.
Monsanto and fellow agro behemoths have also campaigned to open Mexico to the cultivation of genetically modified corn. An injunction has stalled the effort for almost six years. Citizens and farmers have complained that the release of such corn, which pollinates through the wind, would threaten the integrity of Mexico’s remarkable repository of some 23,000 varieties of native corn that have evolved over millennia. (Mexico is the only country whose cuisine is recognized by UNESCO as a “patrimony of humanity.”) Such crop diversity is globally critical for both commercial crop breeding and the kind of land management the IPCC is recommending. Yet the Gene Giants continue to use their considerable economic and political muscle to open this most sensitive of corn markets to their GMO seeds.
The United States is not immune to stubborn obstacles: We need look no further than Iowa. Iowa State University researcher Matt Liebman has shown on his demonstration farm that adding a third rotation of alfalfa or native grass to the predominant corn-soybean cropping system in the state could produce dramatic environmental benefits at no cost to farmers, including an 85 percent reduction in fertilizer use, a 97 percent drop in pesticide use, an elimination of soil erosion and water pollution from run-off, and a dramatic increase in carbon sequestration.
A win-win solution that very few farmers have adopted. “I couldn’t have devised an innovation that offended more of Iowa’s powerful agribusinesses,” the researcher told me. He said there was no way state officials were going to promote the kinds of markets, such as grass-fed beef from that alfalfa, that could make such a shift profitable for farmers.
Do you think Koch Industries wants to see an 85 percent reduction in its fertilizer sales? Does Monsanto want a 97 percent drop in pesticide use? If the reduction in land planted to corn and soybeans raised prices above their punishingly low levels now, how would Smithfield, Tyson, and other industrial livestock producers like the higher feed costs for their animals? Archer Daniels Midland sure doesn’t want to pay more for the corn it refines into ethanol.
In 2017, Art Cullen, editor of northern Iowa’s Storm Lake Times, won a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering a secret agribusiness fund, bankrolled by Monsanto, Koch Fertilizer, and other companies, to defeat a lawsuit seeking to control water pollution from agricultural fields around Storm Lake and other districts along the Upper Raccoon River. The goal of the lawsuit, brought by the Des Moines Water Works, was to reduce water pollution by forcing local agricultural districts to regulate the kinds of chemical-intensive farming practices the IPCC says we need to change.
Recent studies show that as much as one-third of Iowa’s corn and soybean land is unprofitable to cultivate. Cullen argues that chasing competitive export markets won’t change that, even if President Trump somehow wins his trade war. The solution is to take that land out of corn and soybeans, put it in more sustainable grasslands that sequester carbon, and graze beef cattle both to diversify farmers’ incomes and restore ecological balance. But it will take government action to override corporate resistance. As Cullen recently told Civil Eats, “Monsanto, the Koch Brothers, the fertilizer industry, the seed and chemical industry were and are still calling the shots.”
The IPCC report is a necessary wake-up call, and many farmers, consumers, local governments, and a few companies are already practicing the solutions it recommends. “One of the important findings of our work is that there are a lot of actions that we can take now. They’re available to us,” said Cynthia Rosenzweig, a NASA senior research scientist and one of the lead authors of the report.
But if we want to have a meaningful impact on climate change we will have to confront agribusiness, which spends more on lobbying in the United States than even defense lobbyists. A good first step in the United States would be to break up agribusiness giants that have virtual monopolies in regional seed, chemical, and meat markets. Several Democratic Party presidential candidates have called for such anti-trust action, such as rolling back the recent takeover of Monsanto by Bayer. Internationally, we need governments to sanction the kind of arson going on in the Amazon with punitive measures commensurate with the global threat it poses to humanity.
If we are all going to be able to eat tomorrow we cannot let corporate interests continue to dictate our climate, food, and agriculture policies.
Timothy A. Wise is an agricultural development specialist and a senior researcher at the Small Planet Institute, where he directs the Land and Food Rights Program. He is the author of Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food (The New Press).Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.