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Can Biden Face Down the Agribusiness Industry which Drives Climate Change?

Unless the US President’s ‘Green New Deal’ deals with the stranglehold that big business has on food production, his climate emission targets aren’t going to be met

Mature corn stalks on a farm in northern Illinois. Photo: Bruce Leighty/Alamy

Can Biden Face Down the Agribusiness Industry Driving Climate Change?

Unless the US President’s ‘Green New Deal’ deals with the stranglehold that big business has on food production, his climate emission targets aren’t going to be met

Soon after rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, US President Joe Biden set an ambitious target: America would cut its greenhouse gas pollution by 50% from 2005 levels by 2030. To meet this ambitious target, the country must double its historic pace of carbon reduction.

Biden’s most important plans for emissions reductions are the Clean Electricity Payment Programme, which involves utilities receiving payments for using zero carbon electricity; alongside tax rebates for zero-emissions vehicles; and a fee on methane leaks from the oil and gas sectors.

The electrification of the transport sector and the roll-out of clean energy sources are undoubtedly central to decarbonising the economy. But any proposal to reduce net emissions to zero is incomplete without a strategy for taking on one of the most powerful emitters – the agribusiness industry.

Despite commitments from the Biden administration to conserving 30% of the nation’s land in an attempt to protect biodiversity, the corporations behind the industrialisation of agriculture remain a powerful and influential pressure group. The production of harmful cash crops and the deployment of intensive, chemical methods of farming is responsible for more than 10% of America’s total emissions, and the agricultural sector currently puts more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than 150 million cars.

Biden’s conservation plans, which are still unclear, but include providing $350 million a year to keep grasslands intact, have faced strong opposition. Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert described the initiative as a “government land grab” and attempts to end subsidies to large farms will likely incur the anger of the agribusiness lobby looking to continue the expansion of commodity crops.

Impeding Progress on Climate Change

In the US alone, agribusiness monopolies continue to exert a considerable influence over food production.

Nearly 67% of food sales come from large farms, despite the fact that they only comprise approximately 4% of farms across the country. Despite making up 90% of farms in the America, family farms only account for 26% of production, due in no small part to the immense subsidies received by larger operations. Between 1995 and 2014, the biggest farms received 77% of government subsidies, whereas 62% of American farms received none at all.

Pesticide and agribusiness giants have used their considerable market share and vast political influence to lobby against biodiversity strategies which would curtail their power.

The Corporate Europe Observatory, a research and campaign group aiming to “expose any effects of corporate lobbying on EU policy-making” has found that an “unholy alliance” of monopolistic firms from the pesticide and food industries, alongside farmers’ association COPA-COGECA had lobbied against an EU biodiversity initiative.

The Corporate Europe’s Observatory’s research showed that COPA-COGECA had attempted to delay the introduction of the ‘Farm to Fork’ programme, which mandated a 50% reduction in pesticide use over 10 years, a 50% reduction in the use of harmful antibiotics, and a 20% reduction in fertiliser use.

Indeed, according to a 2019 New York Times article, “before meetings of European farm ministers, for example, the council president grants a private audience to COPA–COGECA. That lets farm lobbyists – and only farm lobbyists – make their views heard before key decisions are made”.

In 2017, Art Cullen, of the Storm Lake Times, won the Pulitzer Prize after revealing that pesticide giant Monsanto – alongside the Koch brothers and major agribusiness firms – had colluded to defeat a lawsuit in the US state of Iowa, aimed at controlling water pollution in fields. The fund raised by these corporate interests was eventually shut down by the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.

Cullen has advocated for removing land from cash crops and facilitating the development of sustainable grasslands that effective sequester carbon, having told magazine Civil Eats that “we would put a huge carbon trap in the soil, that’ll be a net benefit to the environment, and we’ll create local jobs in small community-based processing facilities”.

Accelerating Ecological Breakdown

In the 21st Century alone, industrial agriculture has been responsible for between 25 and 33% of greenhouse gas emissions. The modern agribusiness system aggravates the impact of climate change in a myriad of ways; the degradation of healthy soil by pesticides and fertilisers greatly diminishes the ability of soil to sequester carbon. A 2015 report from the UN found that between 25 billion and 40 billion tonnes of topsoil are lost annually to ploughing and intensive cropping techniques.

Moreover, industrial agriculture is hugely energy intensive, requiring up to 15 calories of energy for each calorie of food produced, in comparison to approximately three calories of energy for corn, wheat and rice produced using agro-ecological methods.

Recently, the multinational corporations which drive agribusiness have only become less efficient, as the impacts of climate change have demonstrated that monocultural, commercial farms dominated by cash crops are far less likely to withstand the tumultuous conditions that result from climate-induced extreme weather. A peer-reviewed study from 2015 found that a warming climate and the increased specialisation and concentration of crops “increases the vulnerability of the US food system.”

An Alternative in Agroecology

Curtailing the power of agribusiness monopolies by democratising land usage and placing a moratorium on extractive land grabs is a necessity in any attempt to counteract the damaging effects of industrial agriculture.

While defenders of the agribusiness system argue that the use of synthetic inputs is the only way to raise yields enough to feed a growing global population, it has been shown that smaller farms can be more productive. If the crop yields achieved by Central America’s small farmers were matched by larger operations, the region’s food production would triple. If this happened in Russia, food production would increase by a factor of six.

An ecological approach to agriculture, focussing on crop rotation and diversified cropping systems, may improve the resilience of farms in an era of environmentally stressful conditions. Surveys conducted in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, which hit Central America in 1998, concluded that, across 360 communities in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua, diversified plots had between 20 and 40% more topsoil in the aftermath of the crisis, as well as less erosion and fewer economic losses than their counterparts.

However, the stranglehold that agribusiness maintains over global food production remains considerable. Over the past half a century, approximately 140 million hectares of land have been taken over by soya beans, rapeseed, sugar cane and palm oil, as nearly half of the world’s most productive soil has disappeared in the past 150 years.

While it is often assumed that decarbonising the global economy will merely entail an energy transition – the replacement of fossil fuels by renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power – the contribution of industrial agriculture to greenhouse gas emissions demonstrates that mere technological fixes alone will be insufficient in reaching net zero.

Any Green New Deal or environmentalist manifesto seeking to alleviate ecological collapse should recognise the value of resilient, sustainable agriculture in a landscape dominated by corporate behemoths.

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