Mapped: The Network of Powerful Agribusiness Groups Lobbying to Water Down the EU’s Sustainable Farming Targets

Agrochemical and pesticide giants like Bayer and BASF are pushing for weaker action on harmful chemicals and climate goals.
EU agribusiness lobbying
New analysis shows who the big players lobbying the EU on pesticides and fertilizers are. Credit: Peter Reynolds.

In February 2021, German agribusiness giant BASF hosted a virtual wine tasting, a seemingly cozy affair swirling glasses of Portugal’s finest in front of a webcam debating the future of EU agricultural policies. Invited to the event was a small group of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). 

The MEPs invited were spoiled for choice, as BASF generously delivered six small bottles of fine wines for their enjoyment. Like many corporations, the global COVID-19 pandemic and lack of usual in-person events meant they had to get creative about how to shape the political debate and find new allies to support their agendas.

BASF’s wine tasting is just one example of many such pandemic-style lobbying efforts by the European agriculture industry since the EU has attempted to pass sweeping new policies to combat climate change through measures included in its “Green Deal,” first presented in December 2019.

Since then, leading industry associations and agrochemical companies have used their lobbying might to push back against core European measures aiming to lead the transition to a more sustainable way of farming. These companies are connected through their various trade group memberships, and have deployed many tools — from networking events to lawsuits — in order to counter Europe’s push to phase-out pesticides and reduce fertilizer use.

Read more about the industry’s climate lobbying at DeSmog’s agribusiness database.

To identify the powerful actors most actively lobbying against these key EU regulations and policies, DeSmog analysed corporate reports, lobbying records, official position papers, responses to public EU consultations, media events, and meetings held with various EU bodies over the past two years. DeSmog also spoke to sources from within the EU and related civil society groups as part of our analysis.

The research identified 14 companies and trade bodies that had pushed back against EU environmental and agrochemicals policy in recent years. Industry representatives had hundreds of meetings across European Commission and European Parliament committees and commissions that work on agriculture, environment, food, and chemical safety between 2019 and October 2021. This includes 13 entities registered as official lobbyists via the EU’s Transparency Register. These groups spent at least a combined €45.9 million on lobbying in 2019 and 2020, according to the latest available data on their lobbying spending from official EU data.

DeSmog’s analysis considered lobbying to include any activities perceived as a means of gaining influence or access to political decision making processes, including but not exclusively limited to activities captured under the EU lobbying transparency register.

Environmentalists fear that this seemingly coordinated agribusiness lobbying may weaken regulations aimed at limiting the use of agrichemicals and potentially delay the ban of companies’ patented pesticides — which many experts say are harmful to the environment and human health — while they burnish their corporate reputations by hiding behind the narrative of supporting farmers. 

These companies, DeSmog found, are also pushing for lowering corporate and institutional transparency and accountability standards in order to keep their communications with European bodies and scientific centers a secret. 

Responding to DeSmog’s findings, Natacha Cingotti, senior health and chemicals policy officer at Brussels-based policy and advocacy group, Health and Environmental Alliance (HEAL), said: “[W]hen working on chemicals- and pesticides-related policies, the imbalance of stakeholders in favour of industry interests is striking.”

“Under the current regulatory system and the related stakeholder consultation processes,” Cingotti continued, “it is a fact that the dominating actors are those very companies that are set to profit from the sale of harmful chemicals, not those who stand for health and environment protection.”

Europe’s Green Deal

The European agriculture sector is responsible for over 10 percent of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions, mainly through the deployment of intensive farming practices supported by the use of pesticides and fertilizers. 

The use of these chemicals helps to maintain an industrial-scale system of agriculture that is responsible for much of the food produced around the world and much of the sector’s emissions. The use of these chemicals also damages the environment in other ways; much of the fertilizer used in the world today is the product of methane gas, a fossil fuel, while the wide-scale use of pesticides has been linked to the damage of ecosystems and vital populations of pollinators.

Due to the environmental harms associated with the use of these agrochemicals, the EU has made limiting their use a key plank among the measures included in its “Green Deal” — a historic package by the bloc to reduce its emissions in line with global climate targets.

Within the Green Deal, the EU’s “Farm to Fork” strategy includes a 50 percent reduction in pesticide use and a 20 percent reduction in fertilizer use, and a 25 percent increase in organic farming. Also included in the Green Deal is a new, strengthened version of the EU’s longstanding Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which has among its aims to prioritize small-scale, sustainable farming. The European Biodiversity strategy, which is another core plank of the Green Deal, includes similar goals. 

But the European Commission’s attempt to align these three policies — the CAP, Biodiversity Strategy, and Farm to Fork — and implement a concrete transition to sustainable farming is under intense pushback from the companies that manufacture and sell these petrochemical-based pesticides and fertilizer products, as well as from powerful trade groups which represent their interests.

Meet the Industry Trade Groups

The agrochemicals industry is estimated to be worth $234 billion worldwide, and pesticide and fertilizer producers constitute a powerful political lobbying force within the EU and around the world. 

DeSmog’s investigation found industry giants such as Bayer, BASF, and Corteva have made significant efforts to lobby the EU and its decision-makers in the wake of announcements about the Green Deal and other policies. Others that have been active in pushing for the EU to continue to allow the use of certain controversial chemicals, include CropLife Europe and The Glyphosate Renewal Group.

As DeSmog’s research has found, these companies have had input in the policy-making process through a wide range of means, including through their membership of expert and advisory groups that give input on new European policies, sponsorship of events attended by EU officials and other decision-makers, meetings with EU officials, and sponsorship of EU-focused media and events.

“The dominating actors are those very companies that are set to profit from the sale of harmful chemicals, not those who stand for health and environment protection.”

— Natacha Cingotti, senior health and chemicals policy officer at HEAL

The companies also have an influence on decision-making through their membership in and representation by powerful trade industry groups which lobby on their behalf. This includes influential trade bodies such as the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC), which represents agrochemicals and chemicals companies, the European farming union COPA-COGECA, and industry groups such as the Glyphosate Renewal Group and Fertilizers Europe

COPA-COGECA, for example, is a powerful trade group combining the interests of European farmers’ unions and European agri-cooperatives, which claims to represent the “voice of farmers and their cooperatives in the European Union.” 

The trade body, which has lobbied extensively on European climate and environmental regulations, including the Green Deal, has used its position with decision-makers to argue against the science underpinning the EU’s approach to agrochemicals, and to argue in favor of industry-backed alternatives. While it does not represent agrochemicals producers directly, the body has a history of aligning its positions with the sector, and has opposed greater regulation of pesticide use.

For example, in a presentation given to EU commission officials and representatives from academia, industry, and civil society groups regarding planned changes to the EU’s Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive in June 2021, COPA-COGECA argued that pesticide reduction targets place an unfair burden on farmers and hamper European competitiveness, claiming that there are no other “credible and realistic alternatives.”   

The arguments in the presentation contradict recent studies on the issue; in July 2021 the European Commission’s in-house science service published a report showing that the EU’s plans to introduce targets to cut the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, as included in the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategies, are achievable, and identified viable alternatives to the use of pesticides such as the technique of “crop rotation,” which has been identified as a means to avoid the emergence of pests without harming the environment.

COPA-COGECA, has however, criticized the EU’s July study. An investigation by Corporate Europe Observatory in October 2021 claimed that the farming lobby’s messaging against the study’s findings was based on flawed and partial science, with the result of creating uncertainties among policymakers. 

The documents leaked in the Corporate Europe Observatory investigation were “part of lobbying work that is done in all stakeholder groups. The documents supported our talks with our EU member organisations,” a spokesperson for COPA-COGECA told DeSmog.

Another trade association representing the agribusiness industry, CropLife Europe, has played a similar role in disputing scientific analyses produced by European bodies while promoting precision farming practices as the main tools to decarbonize the agricultural sector. 

Formerly known as European Crop Protection Association, CropLife Europe represents six major agrochemical companies producing pesticides and herbicides: BASF, Bayer, Corteva Agriscience, FMC, Syngenta, and UPL.

Responding to DeSmog’s investigation, Syngenta said: “Syngenta fully complies with EU regulations regarding activities safeguarding the interests of farmers and growers in the EU. We remain committed to delivering the very best solutions that mitigate impacts of climate change, protect the planet, and help feed populations.”

A spokesperson for Corteva said: “Corteva continues to comply with local product regulations. We remain committed to delivering innovative solutions that address pressing agriculture challenges for farmers, growers and society.”

Bayer confirmed it was a member of CropLife Europe and said that its membership in trade associations enabled it to enter into “dialogue with experts and stakeholders on European policy.”

CropLife Europe promotes digital and precision agriculture as the main solutions to achieve decarbonization of the European agriculture sector, while helping farmers to modernize their practices. In its list of 2030 commitments to support the European Green Deal, CropLife said that it will “invest 10 billion euros into innovation in precision and digital technologies by 2030.” Similarly, CropLife Europe is ready to spend “4 billion euros into innovation in biopesticides by 2030.” These investments, however, would be impacted should the EU’s pesticides reduction target be adopted.

CropLife has echoed COPA-COGECA’s arguments against pesticides reduction plans and the intensification of organic agriculture across Europe. The group joined others in criticizing the Farm to Fork strategy, claiming that the policy would negatively impact farmers’ livelihoods and trade. However, environmental groups and one of the authors of the EU report argued that the studies that COPA-COGECA and other critics based their response on were not comprehensive. 

A spokesperson for CropLife Europe said: “Our industry continues to innovate to provide an integrated toolbox of solutions for farmers. In order to reach EU Farm to Fork objectives, we believe it is essential that EU Regulations foster further all innovative solutions, be it biopesticides or pesticides, plant biotech including NGTs or digital and precision agriculture tools so that farmers have access to a full toolbox of effective solutions towards more sustainable farming.”

Aircrafts sometimes are used to spray pesticide and fertilizer products onto crops. Credit: Pixabay.

German multinational company Bayer, which is a member of CropLife Europe, stated that European policies should focus on reducing the risk and impact of pesticides usage on the environment rather than reducing their use, a conclusion that is heavily contested by environmentalists. Pesticides can linger in the environment for decades, posing a threat to entire ecosystems — reducing the use of pesticides is “one of the critical drivers” for preserving the environment, one Nature study notes, finding that it’s possible to limit pesticides use without significantly impacting agriculture profits. 

Another trade group that DeSmog found to be active in trying to influence European climate policy and sustainable agriculture targets is Fertilizers Europe, a trade association representing over 15 fertilizer companies and seven national associations across Europe, including Norwegian fertilizer company, Yara.

Fertilizers Europe has also worked together with the European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic), which represents fertilizer companies such as BASF and Yara, as well as oil and gas companies which provide the feedstock for the fertilizer industry. 

A spokesperson for Cefic said the group supported the European Green Deal and that the European chemical industry was “uniquely positioned at the heart of European manufacturing to contribute to realizing a climate neutral society.” They added that the “group represents the views of the chemical industry as a whole rather than the views of other sectors, such as fertilizers.”

As of 2016, the use of mineral fertilizers, which includes nitrogen-based fertilizers produced from natural gas, accounted for 39 percent of the agriculture sector’s emissions in Europe. The European Commission has said a fertilizer use reduction target of 20 percent by 2030 will play a major role in decreasing agriculture emissions. 

Jacob Hansen, director general of Fertilizers Europe, has claimed: “Without the efficient and strong fertilizer industry in Europe 52.4 million tonnes of additional CO2 will be emitted globally. That is almost equivalent of the total emissions of Sweden.” Commenting on Farm to Fork — which aims to reduce overall fertilizer use by 20 percent — Hansen claimed the “proposed level of ambition” of the policy was “clearly unrealistic in the given timeframe.” 

Responding to DeSmog’s findings, a spokesperson for Fertilizers Europe said: “The European fertilizer industry is committed to play its part in the EU Green Deal and identified technologies that can help decarbonise our production.” They added that “only by staying competitive, European producers will be able to invest in the low-carbon technologies and continue playing an important role in enhancing sustainable food systems in Europe.”

Norwegian fertilizer company, Yara , which is a member of FE, backs the trade union’s view over keeping fertilizers in use, claiming that about half of all food globally is produced using mineral fertilizers. The company’s global yearly turnover amounts to approximately €11 billion ($11.6 billion USD) with its major ammonia production sites in the Netherlands.

The main ingredient in fertilizers is ammonia, which is produced from natural gas. Recent soaring natural gas prices in Europe, however, have impacted the fertilizer market. And in at least one instance, Yara — the world’s largest trader of ammonia — is looking abroad to secure the essential ingredient. This includes importing the product from the United States, where much of the natural gas from which ammonia is derived comes from fracking.

At the same time, Yara claims to promote the deployment of “green ammonia”, which instead of fossil fuels would be produced with green hydrogen (hydrogen generated entirely by renewable energy). Yara has stated that a transition to green ammonia would only be possible in five to seven years, so in the meantime fertilizers companies will continue using fossil fuels.

The idea of ‘green fertilizers’ to market the company’s products as less polluting, however, is seen by some as corporate greenwashing. By calling for greater efficiency in the fertilizer production process and digitalization as the solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, these technologies won’t be able to limit the risks fertilizers pose on the environment. 

A spokesperson from Fertilizers Europe said “transition to green and low-carbon production cannot be done overnight and will take more than 5-7 years. It will require huge investments in [the] order of 30-35 billion euros and maturing of technologies as well as availability of clean energy to advance the transition.”

Henk Hobbelink, agronomist and coordinator of GRAIN, an international non-profit organisation that works to support small farmers and social movements, said: “The fertilizer companies’ boasting about green ammonia is painting an overly rosy picture of a technology that as of yet isn’t available … We cannot afford to further increase these emissions and we should urgently kick our addiction to synthetic [nitrogen]-fertilisers and transition to farming without fossil fuels and chemicals.”

All three groups — Fertilizers Europe, CropLife, and COPA-COGECA — are members of the AgriFoodChain Coalition (AFCC). While the AFCC is not itself registered within the EU’s transparency register, its members include powerful agrochemicals and agribusiness trade groups which themselves represent a powerful lobbying force at the EU, and the AFCC has organized a number of events engaging with EU decision-makers on Farm to Fork.

Corporate Lobbying and Lawsuits

As well as lobbying through industry groups, pesticide and fertilizer companies have also used their own means to target and influence policy-makers at the EU. This includes lobbying to water down regulations and the science policies are based on, along with initiating several lawsuits.

Tackling the problem of pollinator decline is a key element of both the CAP and the European Green Deal as a whole, as bees are vital for the preservation of ecological balance and biodiversity, and ultimately in tackling food insecurity. ​​In the past few decades, pollinators such as bees have dramatically declined in occurrence and diversity, especially in Europe and North America, with new scientific studies suggesting that exposure to agrochemicals could be among the key drivers. 

As Mark J. F. Brown, a professor in evolutionary ecology and conservation at Royal Holloway, University of London, said: “Intensive agriculture, including the use of agrochemicals, have been implicated in pollinator declines, and this has led to the ban of outside use of some agrochemicals in the EU. If you take away the homes and food of wild insect pollinators, it is inevitable that their populations will decline.”

Green MEPs protested in 2013 against pesticides that may harm vital pollinators. Credit: greensefa. CC BY 2.0

German-multinational chemicals company Bayer, which is one of the world’s largest producers of agrochemicals, has argued, however, against the EU’s proposed pesticides reduction targets, claiming in response to a public consultation that the EU should set targets to reduce the risk of pesticides, rather than limiting their overall use. Fellow agrochemical manufacturer BASF has opposed EU targets to increase organic farming, which also target decreased pesticide use, with a consultation response from the company stating a full shift to organic farming would increase emissions and risk food production. (It’s worth noting, however, that Green Deal targets aim for just a quarter of agricultural land to become organic.)

Bayer also has a long history of lobbying against European attempts to regulate the use of its products. This includes controversial neonicotinoids, which have been partially banned in the EU since 2013 due to substantial scientific evidence they harm bee populations. 

In May 2021, the European Court of Justice upheld earlier EU rulings introducing a partial ban on imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam, three neonicotinoids which have been restricted in the EU since 2013. Speaking about the ban, a spokesperson from Bayer claimed: “The verdict seems to allow the [European] Commission almost carte blanche to review existing approvals upon the slightest evidence.”

Bayer and other companies are also continuing to defend the use of the controversial chemical glyphosate, which has been linked to the development of cancer in people who have been exposed to high levels of the chemical, and which has also been linked to declines in populations of insects and fish. 

For instance, Bayer, along with fellow agrochemical company Syngenta, is a member of the Glyphosate Renewal Group (GRG), which has been publicly advocating for the continuation of the use of the chemical in the EU after 2022, when the EU authorization allowing for its use in pesticides runs out. At a GRG-hosted event in November 2021, a representative of Bayer claimed that a ban on glyphosate would require farmers to use a mix of other pesticides to substitute their product, which may create more harm to the environment than using glyphosate. 

A spokesperson for the GRG told DeSmog that “leading health regulators around the world, including the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), have repeatedly concluded that glyphosate-based products can be used safely when used in accordance with the label instructions.” They added that the use of glyphosate can help reduce emissions from farming, by reducing the need for plowing the soil, a technique which can cause the soil to release greenhouse gases.

A spokesperson for Bayer told DeSmog “all crop protection products, including those containing the active substance glyphosate, are subject to rigorous and exhaustive testing,” adding that “leading health regulators around the world have repeatedly concluded that glyphosate-based products can be used safely when used in accordance with the label instructions.”

Meanwhile, the Japanese agribusiness company Sumitomo is lobbying for the legal approval of the use of the weedkiller flumioxazin, also known as “the new glyphosate.” A ban on glyphosate from 2022 could ramp up the company’s profits if its weedkiller replaces glyphosate products. Currently,  Sumitomo’s weedkiller is used in vineyards and orchards in over 15 European Member States. However, Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Europe has named flumioxazin as one of its “Dirty Six,”  a list of what it calls the most dangerous endocrine-disrupting pesticides used in Europe, which also have negative environmental effects including biodiversity loss. 

Sources from within the EU parliament told DeSmog that representatives of Sumitomo had reached out to and held meetings with the European Parliament’s staff to request the renewal of the approval process of flumioxazin. In October 2021, the EU allowed the continued use of the chemical.

Sumitomo did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

Since 2013, Corteva Agriscience has lobbied for the EU to renew the approval of the chemical chlorpyrifos-methyl, pesticides predominantly used to combat emerging pests in citrus production. Scientists have said that there is no dose that is safe for human health and that the chemical’s poisonous effect on insects is “not disputed.”

A spokesperson for Corteva said: “Although Corteva no longer produces chlorpyrifos, the Company stands by the safety of the product and its value for the grower community.”

Tractor working on a farm. Credit: Pixnio. CC0.

Lawsuits are another way that companies are trying to delay regulations. 

In 2021, Portugal-based agrochemical company Ascenza and the Spanish agrochemicals company Industrias Afrasa, a fellow European Crop Care Association (ECCA) member, brought a legal action against the European Commission at the EU Court of Justice with the goal of reversing the Commission’s decision to ban the active-substance chlorpyrifos from the EU. 

Commenting on the ongoing court case, a spokesperson from Ascenza, which is the only organization included in DeSmog’s investigation not to be registered as a lobbyist under EU regulations, told DeSmog that judicial review was a “basic right offered under the EU Treaties” and said the company had proceed with the legal action due to their belief that “Chlorpyrifos-methyl use in crop protection does not pose a risk for consumers, operators nor for the environment”

While companies that have seen their chemical ingredients removed from the European list of safe products are fighting in the courts, those waiting for the approval or renewal of some chemicals continue to lobby MEPs and member states.

In 2015, major European agrochemicals supplier and ECCA member UPL Europe Ltd. funded the EU Mancozeb Task Force, together with ECCA’s member Dutch Indofil Industries, to lobby European bodies for the renewal and approval of the fungicide mancozeb. Mancozeb is used to protect plants against a range of dangerous fungal diseases, but was banned by the EU earlier this year over concerns about its impacts on human health and biodiversity. 

Political Connections 

Many of the organizations analyzed by DeSmog have tried to cozy up to MEPs through events they have co-organized with representatives and through events they have held for EU decision-makers.

BASF’s wine tasting was one of the many lobbying attempts to gather the European Parliament’s Agriculture Committee before major voting over measures addressing pesticides use.

Think tanks such as FarmEurope provide other forums for agribusiness and agricultural trade unions to express their positions to EU decision-makers. The think tank, whose supporters include Bayer and some of COPA-COGECA’s national members, organized the Global Food Forum — a two-day event on November 15-16, 2021 — where lobbying representatives of organizations including COPA-COGECA joined over a dozen MEPs, representatives of national governments, and the representatives of the European Commission.  

Concerns have also been raised over some MEPs’ having vested interests when it comes to evaluating policy proposals, due to their known side-business as farmers.

“Industry players that have commercial interests in regulatory processes will always have more resources to spend in order to attend and dominate the discussions.”

— Natacha Cingotti, senior health and chemicals policy officer at HEAL

Inviting MEP Irène Tolleret, from the European center party Renew Europe, to one of its events, COPA-COGECA listed the politician first and foremost as a “winegrower.” Over the past two years, the organization had over nine meetings with Tolleret to discuss rules within the new CAP and the wine sector. In some of the meetings, COPA-COGECA was accompanied by the French national farmers association, FNSEA. 

In 2019, Tolleret, who makes her own wine in the Languedoc region of France, warned that a new certification scheme encouraging organic farming and sustainable means of farming in the French wine industry were prohibitively expensive for small operations. Despite her involvement in the industry there is no suggestion Tolleret has broken EU lobbying or transparency rules.

Tolleret did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

Between 2020 and 2021, COPA-COGECA had 66 meetings with representatives of the European Commission for Agriculture, EU Commission for the EU Green Deal, EU Commission for Food Safety, and for Biodiversity, European Parliament’s Members of the Committee for Agriculture, European Parliament’s Members of the Committee for Environment. In the same period, COPA COGECA’s members had more than 50 meetings with the same bodies.  

A spokesperson for COPA-COGECA told DeSmog: “We meet EU institutional representatives in all agriculture, forestry, and aquaculture/fisheries issues across 45 Working Parties and hundreds of relevant EU policy areas. By no means, do we only discuss Farm to Fork or pesticides.”

They continued: “It is a normal part of the EU lobbying to suggest amendments or make recommendations to the MEPs in their Parliament work. All stakeholders can do this, in line with their opinions on the matter in the decision process.”

MEPs are obliged to publicly report all their meetings. Indeed, many MEP’s public profiles and activity records are updated with information about their meetings, as reported by the Spanish CIVIO Foundation. Meanwhile, the public profiles of nearly half of all MEPs remain blank.

Shadow Rapporteur to the Farm to Fork Strategy in the European Parliament Environment Committee, Hermann Tertsch, repeatedly advocated against a target to reduce the use of pesticides and fertilizers, and participated in agribusiness events defending the role of glyphosate. Tertsch is the vice-president of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR) and represents the Spanish right-wing party VOX, known for its climate denial positions. The calendar of meetings on his official European Parliament profile page is blank.

Tertsch did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

COPA-COGECA also has privileged access to the European Council of Agriculture Ministers of the European Union, who are in charge of taking final decisions on policy implementations.

As HEAL’s Cingotti said: “Industry players that have commercial interests in regulatory processes will always have more resources to spend in order to attend and dominate the discussions, be it through their own in-house lobbyists, through PR and lobby firms that they hire to represent them, or through representation in sectoral industry associations. Even well-resourced and organized NGOs cannot compete.” 

Alternative Solutions 

At the same time as trying to undermine strong environmental policies, companies are also promoting technological solutions which some question whether they will fully help avert biodiversity loss or help curb emissions. 

As the latest IPCC report warns, rising temperatures affect soil’s capacity to store carbon, while the increase in the number of natural disasters may also limit the possibility for soil to reliably remain an undisturbed carbon sink.

Two solutions being promoted by the industry to make farming less emitting are through so-called “precision-agriculture” — which uses data gathered through technologies such as sensors to enable farmers to use resources more efficiently — as well as through the so-called “carbon-farming,” which promotes the use of techniques to foster healthy soils to store carbon dioxide from the air. 

Carbon farming has been heavily promoted as a way to reward farmers for storing carbon within their land through practices that promote carbon sequestration and technologies that help track it and generate “soil carbon credits” to be sold to other stakeholders who aim to offset their emissions. The creation of a global carbon farming market does not imply the end of  intensive farming practices such as pesticides utilization and animal farming.

While soils are an important carbon sink, studies have found there is limited evidence that the methods used in the carbon farming approach provide a viable, wide-scale solution for emissions reductions. Environmentalists fear that reliance on these solutions will only serve to boost industry revenues, and argue that there is little scientific evidence to support the idea that they will lead to the emissions reductions needed to address climate change in line with global climate goals.   

Companies maintain, though, that these measures are enough to achieve the emissions reductions needed to address climate change while also allowing for the continued use of their products. 

Fertilizer giant Yara’s close involvement with the World Economic Forum (WEF) allowed it to market itself as a carbon farming champion. In June 2021, it set up its own carbon farming initiative called the Agoro Carbon Alliance (ACA), which was registered in October as a lobbying entity. According to ACA’s website, it is “taking action on a global scale to reverse the effects of climate change by decarbonizing farming and restoring carbon to the world’s soil.” In November 2021, Yara joined the First Movers Coalition, the United States’ new platform for “companies to harness their purchasing power and supply chains to create early markets for innovative clean energy technologies.”

Yara, Bayer, and BASF joined efforts with a number of institutions from across agribusiness, finance and academia through the European Carbon Farming Coalition launched in May 2021. 

In 2020, Bayer launched its Carbon Initiative in Europe with the goal of achieving “decarbonization of the food value chain” in a way that works “for farmers, the environment and consumers.” 

A Bayer spokesperson told DeSmog that the company that “carbon farming is a valuable way of sequestering carbon in the soil” and reducing emissions, adding that “Bayer’s industry-leading Carbon Initiative is the result of years of work validating a science-based approach and methodology to make this happen.”

With its digital farming company Granular launched in 2020, Corteva has also started investing in a carbon credits system to reward farmers with carbon dollars post-harvest. In its climate strategy published in 2020, Corteva Agriscience, said it will commit “to set science-based targets for its greenhouse gas emissions reductions” while claiming to develop advanced technologies with the aim to restore biodiversity.

But as Matteo Metta, CAP policy analyst at ARC2020, which brings together over 150 civil society networks and organizations in Europe, noted: “The outcomes of these investments or digitalization might favour the current system instead of moving towards agroecology, the protection of small family farms and revitalising rural areas.”

While soils are an important carbon sink, studies have found there is limited evidence that the methods used in the carbon farming approach provide a viable, wide-scale solution for emissions reductions. Credit: Asian Development Bank. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Another controversial solution being lobbied for by companies is the increased use of controversial gene-editing techniques and genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), which companies say can be used as an alternative to pesticides to make plants more resilient. 

The European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) warned that new GM technologies “can create unpredictable and unintended effects” and that their exclusion from GMO regulations would “place an unacceptable risk onto public health, the environment and trade.”

Other studies also suggest that, in response to these technologies, weeds can become more resistant and farmers might need to use additional chemicals, in larger quantities, to combat weeds and pests. Most studies conclude that there is still not enough data to assess the safety of such new genetically-modified crops, nor their environmental impact, in the long term.

Since 2018, companies heavily pushed for the deregulation of the European directive on GMOs, which currently bans the use of gene editing, the latest genetically modified technology to alter existing genes rather than adding genes from other species.

An investigation from 2018 from Corporate Europe Observatory shared internal documents from the International Seed Federation distributed among its members with detailed instructions and PR tweaks on how to communicate about new GM techniques including the use of positive language such as talking about “methods” and “tools” and positioning gene-editing as a continuation of natural plant breeding principles “farmers and plant scientists have used for thousands of years.”

“Companies have been recommended not to call GMOs ‘new’ or ‘technologies’, and instead to mention them in an emotional or personal way. They now call them ‘plant breeding’ or ‘precision farming’ and the European Commission is now calling them ‘new genomic techniques’,” said Mute Schimpft, food campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE).

Agribusinesses producing pesticides such as Syngenta, Bayer, and Corteva, are some of the key players in the seed industry and hope to further expand their businesses in this direction.  Bayer is investing over €2 billion in research and development estimating that gene editing for soybean and corn seeds would bring sales potential of around €16 billion. In 2018, Corteva already listed over 13 “breeding sites” for its new genomic technique testing. In 2020, Liam Condon, president of crop science at Bayer, said the company is lobbying “very actively” to change the EU’s GMO regulations to exempt gene editing. 

“If you want to cut agriculture emissions you need to change animal farming or how we use grassland, you don’t need techno fixes, which we do not know if they are safe and that may be available only in 10 years,” said Schimpft.

The Farm to Fork strategy promises a sustainable approach to the food system, and companies are presenting these plant breeding techniques as climate solutions able to contribute to sustainable food systems. Bayer states that gene editing hasthe potential to solve real challenges for farmers and the planet, like reducing the need for pesticides and the use of energy, land, and water.”

In its position paper from August 2021, CropLife claims that “the development of resilient plant varieties allows a more sustainable use of crop protection products as well as other inputs, and delivers more stable yields under climatic change.”

And in April 2021, the European Commission released a study on new genomic techniques — it looks at potential market applications and the ethical consideration of this technology, while also recognizing the lack of risk assessment for these new GMOs. The study, however, was found to echo the deregulation requests from industry — specifically, Bayer, Basf, Syngenta, and CropLife EU — according to analysis by FoEE.

Despite potentially changing the law in favor of new breeding techniques in 2022, the European Commission already planned a high-level event where it names these technologies as “the way forward for safe and sustainable innovation in the agri-food sector.”

“Clearly industry has been very smart at organizing confusion around both concepts of science and innovation for their own interests. From a societal point of view, the real important question to be asked is: for what purposes do we want to use science and innovation?” said Cingotti. “The moment you start approaching these concepts this way, then you allow bringing in the defining challenges of humanity – such as health and environment protection in a changing climate and eroding biodiversity – and you realise that precaution might actually be an important driver to tomorrow’s scientific approaches to innovation.”

DeSmog reached out to all companies and trade groups analyzed in this research for comment.

Additional research by Michaela Herrmann.

Daniela is Researcher and Reporter of DeSmog, joining the team from August 2021. 
Rachel is an investigative researcher and reporter based in Brussels. Her work has been covered by outlets including The Guardian, Vice News, The Financial Times and The Hill.

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