Climate change action plans often call for less fossil fuel usage, reduced carbon dioxide emissions and a shift toward renewable energy sources. But one area that hasn’t received the broader attention it deserves is industrial farming.
The latest report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) determined that the turning over of more and more land to commercial agriculture has resulted in increasing net greenhouse gas emissions, the loss of natural ecosystems and declining biodiversity. And so, “sustainable land management can contribute to reducing the negative impacts of multiple stressors, including climate change,” the report finds.
This IPCC offering followed on the heels of the National Academies of Sciences study into negative emissions technologies and carbon sequestration, which also found that efforts to store more carbon in agricultural soils generally have “large positive side benefits,” including increased productivity, water holding capacity and yield stability.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), agriculture accounts for 9 percent of national greenhouse gas emissions, though others argue that number should be larger when taking into account the “food system” as a whole. But the broader role agriculture plays in driving climate change is complex. Soils can hold about three times more carbon than the atmosphere, for example, and intensive industrial farming has led to massive amounts of carbon loss from the world’s agricultural soils. How much untapped potential is there beneath our feet?
According to one recent study, aggressive adoption of regenerative farming practices — like more cover crops and conservation crop rotation — could cut the greenhouse gas footprint of the U.S. agricultural sector in half by mid-century. And in this regard, there’s good news. The use of cover crops increased by 50 percent nationwide between 2012 and 2017.
The pathway toward more sustainable farming practices, however, is one littered with all sorts of cultural, political and economic obstacles. On top of that, there’s one very powerful political force actively stymieing efforts toward that end, and that’s the agribusiness behemoth, which spends more on lobbying than even the defense sector.
Lara Bryant, deputy director of water and agriculture within the Nature Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Truthout the voices of those leading the regenerative farming movement are not being heard by lawmakers in Congress.
“And that includes lawmakers in all parties,” she said.
How the Farm Bureau Pushes Destruction Practices
At the vanguard of the agribusiness political armament is the American Farm Bureau Federation, the single largest farm lobby in the nation and the self-described “voice of agriculture.” The Farm Bureau makes clear its stance on climate change, opposing regulatory measures that corral mainstream public and political support — cap-and-trade provisions, for example, or laws requiring agricultural entities to report their greenhouse gas emissions.
The Farm Bureau uses its political clout to actively shape climate change policy, closely aligning itself with the fossil fuel industry, in which it has extensive investments. The Farm Bureau played a vital role in quashing a comprehensive energy and climate bill — one that would have capped climate emissions — early in President Obama’s tenure, for example, and vehemently opposed his Clean Power Plan.
In 2001, the U.S. pulled out of the Kyoto agreement, which attempted to set internationally binding emissions reductions targets. “The Farm Bureau was absolutely critical in derailing Kyoto,” Stuart Eizenstat, President Clinton’s chief U.S. negotiator on the Kyoto Protocol, told InsideClimate News.
The many-tentacled Farm Bureau also throws its weight behind the Department of Agriculture’s crop insurance program, a safety net for farmers during market fluctuations, and for those who have lost crops through things like drought and flooding. Critics argue that the program performs a necessary function but offers few incentives for farmers to abandon the intensive farming practices that are exacerbating global warming.
The crop insurance program, said Bryant, is “reliant on yield” and on having a “history on your land of growing a certain crop” so that only a small number of crops receive the bulk of the subsidies for crop production. This offers farmers little reason to invest in crop diversity, an integral component of sustainable farming, said Bryant. “Farmers might feel trapped on growing the same things over and over again like a factory,” she added.
Seth Watkins, a regenerative farmer in Iowa who raises livestock alongside hay and corn crops for feed, believes the program incentivizes farmers to cultivate land as intensively as possible, including wetlands and highly erodible lands unsuited for farming. Indeed, as much as one-third of Iowan farmland that is used for corn and soybean is unprofitable, a recent study finds. “We need to take a giant step back and ask ourselves, ‘why are we doing this?’” Watkins said. “Why are we trying to raise cops on these hills where the only profit comes from this federal crop revenue? Our grandparents wouldn’t have done it.”
More broadly, in its resistance to a regulatory approach to fighting climate change, the Farm Bureau is ideologically aligned with the current administration, which actively suppresses climate change science in a number of ways.
“A Movement With Growing Power on Its Own”
The movement toward more sustainable agriculture is a daunting proposition, further complicated by a farming landscape shaped by increasing land commodification, agribusiness mega-mergers, and flatlining public funding of agricultural research and development.
A recent Environmental Defense Fund analysis of family farm budgets from across the Midwest finds that conservation practices can drive economic value, but at the same time, farming margins remain relatively slim. Indeed, in his book, Eating Tomorrow, environmental writer Timothy Wise describes the situation in Iowa, where an increasing amount of land appears to be owned by non-farmers, including Wall Street investors. “I can’t say I get it,” he writes. “The farmland prices sure look and smell like a bubble waiting to burst, and the returns are terrible, and unlikely to be made better by smart-ass city managers.”
On top of that, mergers like that between Monsanto and Bayer “send a very loud message that we haven’t been able to figure out a way to have any new innovation that helps people,” said Watkins. “We haven’t figured out a way to really come up with something to revolutionize the industry, so instead, we just merge our two companies to keep a bigger share of the profit.”
Consolidation isn’t confined to crop production — rather, it has given rise to factory farming, and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. Just four companies accounted for 85 percent of the nation’s beef packing industry in 2015, for example. But as the Coller FAIRR Protein Producer Index has discovered, companies like these are largely failing in their responsibilities to tackle climate change.
The index ranks 60 of the world’s largest global meat, dairy and fish producers in terms of risk factors like use of antibiotics, deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. According to the index, only one in four meat, fish and dairy producers measures its greenhouse gas emissions, and none of the 50 meat and dairy companies examined have a deforestation policy. This, despite the livestock industry being the largest driver of habitat loss worldwide.
All of which explains why Bryant believes lawmakers need to hear a wider array of voices outside those of the politically powerful agribusiness sector. “When I go and listen to the farmer conferences, the farmers are getting word out to each other, and that’s happening independent of Washington and the USDA,” she told Truthout. “It’s a movement with growing power on its own.”
Internationally, initiatives like 4 per 1000 and Soil4Climiate are geared toward governments and a wide coalition of organizations in an effort to broaden the impact of restorative farming. In the U.S., what’s striking is the diversity of approaches undertaken. Brown’s Ranch in North Dakota, for example, employs a variety of “holistic” farming practices. Meanwhile, just over the state border in South Dakota, buffalo ranchers are tackling desertification of the Great Plains. Their efforts are having an impact.
At a press conference on Capitol Hill this week, a letter signed by thousands of farmers and ranchers was presented to lawmakers urging a massive rethink of industrial agriculture. As recently as June, there were at least 10 so-called “Healthy Soils” bills that were pending approval from or had already passed their state legislatures, according to a record maintained by members of Soil4Climate.
And yet, Bryant added, “If that movement had more help from USDA, from lawmakers in Congress; if more farmers were able to hear how these [other] farmers are making things work, and if more consumers knew… how to make better choices in the food that they purchase, I think we would see a much bigger change.”
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.