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Agribusiness: An Impediment to Net Zero?

Thomas Perrett explores how factory farming and agribusiness industries have successfully lobbied politicians, advocating against carbon taxes and biodiversity targets

Harvesting in Norfolk, UK. Photo: SJ Images/Alamy

AgribusinessAn Impediment to Net Zero?

Thomas Perrett explores how factory farming and agribusiness industries have successfully lobbied politicians, advocating against carbon taxes and biodiversity targets

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Britain’s agricultural sector remains a significant contributor to climate change, producing 11% of greenhouse gas emissions and an estimated 48% of methane emissions.

Despite the fact that, according to recent recommendations made by government advisory body the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the sector must become a net carbon-sink by 2030 to meet net zero targets, Government policy is falling significantly short of decarbonisation targets for agriculture and land use emissions.

According to the World Wildlife Forum, total projected emissions across the next 14 years fall short of the Net Zero Strategy’s projected emissions reductions figures by 58%. Farming targets are 38% short of the projected 2037 target, while the total emissions benefits accrued from reforestation are 85% lower than previous estimates.

Last year, the CCC published an extensive report detailing the progress made by various sectors in reaching the legally-binding 2050 net zero target. It found that, despite Government targets to reduce the sector’s emissions by 34% by 2035, they have declined by just 3% since 2008.

Emissions from the agricultural sector are also exacerbating air pollution. Researchers at UCL found that ammonia particles from animal waste and fertiliser can combine with traffic and industry pollution, damaging the health of those who live in cities. In 2019, British agriculture created a quarter of London’s particle pollution, a figure which stood at 38% for Leicester and 32% for Birmingham.

Derailing Sustainability 

The CCC’s report recommended increasing tree-planting and peat restoration, stating that reforestation rates needed to increase by 4,000 hectares to reach annual required targets of 30,000, and that the lack of Government progress “presents a significant risk due to the time profile of carbon sequestration in natural systems”.

Progress in the decarbonisation of the agricultural sector has stalled, in part, due to the political engagement of influential lobbyists representing agrochemical firms and the meat and dairy industries, which have opposed key biodiversity targets and fought against sustainable farming methods.

Trade association the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) attempted to convince Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey that a Government target to increase woodland cover by 3% by 2050 was “extremely ambitious, if not unachievable, particularly when compared against a backdrop of current planting rates”. This culminated in DEFRA slashing 2050 tree-planting targets by more than 100,000 hectares – which equates to leaving 1.9 million more tonnes of CO2 in the atmosphere by 2050, and 37 million more tonnes in 2100, than if the original target had been achieved. 

Lobbyists representing the factory farming industry, including the NFU, have also advocated against the implementation of carbon taxes.

In 2021, a Whitehall memo leaked to The Times requested government departments draw up plans for a cross-sector carbon pricing scheme. This prompted opposition from the National Beef Association, the spokesperson of which was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying that Britain’s meat industry is given a lot of unfair criticism over its environmental impact. The National Pig Association’s chairman Richard Lister was quoted in the same article as saying that “there has been a heavy bias against meat when it comes to climate change discussions”. 

The NFU has consistently opposed land-use change and agroforestry as methods for reducing emissions, having published a roadmap for the decarbonisation of British farming by 2040 which failed to include the reduction of meat consumption.

Advocating for the imposition of satellite technology and increased use of crops grown for energy purposes, the NFU’s plan was criticised by Friends of the Earth, with one of its campaigners, Guy Shrubsole, telling BBC News that “eating less but better meat would free up much more land for woodlands and agroforestry (in which trees are grown alongside crops)”.

“But it seems the NFU is still not prepared to contemplate significant land use change, despite the Committee on Climate Change recommending this as being vital,” he added.

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The Rise of the Techno-Fix 

Concerns have also arisen that the implementation of ‘climate smart agriculture’ – which encompasses technology-driven agricultural techniques such as precision farming, encouraging farmers to ‘optimise’ fertiliser and pesticide usage – may be cynically utilised by corporations with a vested interest in industrial agriculture to stave off more ecologically sound farming methods. 

A 2020 Friends of the Earth report warned that climate smart agriculture could be used to control and exploit agricultural labourers, claiming that “this new form of vertical integration allows corporations to extract data from farmers and then use this to direct their product choices, locking farmers into the company’s value chain and making them technologically dependent”.

Warning that farmers could become “data sharecroppers”, it stated that “while high skilled and technical job opportunities may increase, the consequences for the large numbers of unskilled agricultural workers, particularly migrant labourers, may be worse conditions, greater insecurity and poverty as their jobs are replaced or deskilled”.

Moreover, the EU’s ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy – a 2020 plan intended to minimise synthetic fertiliser and pesticide use in favour of organic farming methods – was undermined by powerful corporations representing industrial agriculture and factory farming. Since 2020, the world’s four-largest pesticide companies have spent €20 million on lobbying EU officials and the public to dilute the policy. 

The powerful lobbying groups representing the factory farming industry and monopolistic agribusiness firms – which now control 90% of grain production and 63% of seed production worldwide – have utilised the same policy engagement tactics employed by global fossil fuel companies to prolong their carbon-intensive investments in spite of decarbonisation targets.

As major oil and gas firms advocate for speculative carbon capture and offset schemes which are as yet unproven at scale, global corporations such as Tyson, which earlier this year launched its Brazen Beef product line, attempt to delay a broader shift towards sustainable farming.

Indeed, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a change in consumers’ diets involving replacing 75% of meat with alternatives could reduce CO2 emissions by approximately 50 billion tonnes per year by 2050. 

Agribusiness lobbying became more pronounced following the war in Ukraine, as organisations representing energy-intensive, industrialised food production claimed that the increased usage of pesticides and fertilisers could stave off price spikes caused by boycotts on Russian energy.

Think tank InfluenceMap, which published a report documenting major agribusiness firms’ policy engagement, said that “in many cases, this lobbying appears opportunistic given that industry associations are often advocating for long-standing policy asks and using the war as justification”.

COPA-COGECA – a trade association representing European farmers which claimed in last year that pesticide reduction “could be very detrimental for the continuity of farming activities in the EU” – used the outbreak of the war to attack the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy, stating that “everything must be done to prevent disruptions in supply chains, which will inevitably lead to shortages in certain parts of the world”. 

As the fossil fuel industry continues to prevent policy-makers from divesting from polluting fuels by promoting industry-funded climate solutions and advocating for ‘energy security,’ factory farming and agribusiness industries have also successfully lobbied politicians, advocating against carbon taxes and biodiversity targets.

Such organisations, by dismissing the large-scale changes required to reorient the agricultural sector in a sustainable direction, have stymied progress on decarbonisation both nationally and globally. 

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