Big Agriculture Casts Itself as Climate Champion Ahead of COP27

Critics say the US-led AIM4C coalition will sideline nature-friendly farming in favour of a polluting status quo.
Big Agriculture Casts Itself as Climate Champion Ahead of COP27
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Credit: Rosie Hunter

A US-led sustainable farming initiative, which aims to raise billions of dollars to tackle climate change, has been criticized for favouring big business and promoting uncertain techno-fixes ahead of U.N. climate talks in Egypt in November.

Launched at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow last year by the U.S. and United Arab Emirates governments, the AIM for Climate (AIM4C) coalition pledged to accelerate innovation in agriculture and food systems to support climate action.

Alongside 40 states, partners include major agribusinesses, such as Brazilian meat giant JBS, and agricultural trade groups such as CropLife International, as well as research centres such as the University of Edinburgh’s Climate Change Institute. Multi-billion-dollar nonprofits the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and The Nature Conservancy are also taking part.

Backers say the coalition aims to unlock new technologies that can help reduce the sector’s major contribution to climate change and make harvests more resilient. But food and farming groups have publicly criticized AIM4C, accusing it of championing industry-friendly and unproven climate “solutions” instead of spurring a transformative embrace of diverse, regenerative agriculture.

“When the voice of African farmers and communities is not brought to the negotiating table, we end up with flawed initiatives like AIM4C,” said Anne Maina, from the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya. “A focus on ag-tech is often hinged on profits for multinational corporations and not sustainable. Africa has workable alternatives right here at home, for resilient agriculture that works with nature.”

AIM4C’s participants skew heavily towards the Global North. Analysis by DeSmog found that more than two thirds of some 300 partners are located in the United States or Europe. Just seven percent are based in Africa, and not a single group representing Indigenous communities is listed among AIM4C’s “knowledge partners”.

African farmers face critical challenges. Farming on the continent is plagued by under investment and smallholders are already in the grip of the climate crisis, hit by floods, droughts and depleted soils. Hunger is rising, with Africa due to become home to the largest number of undernourished people by 2030. 

But according to Professor Molly Anderson from IPES-Food, an international panel of experts on sustainable food systems, the innovations pursued by AIM4C are not the kinds of technology that will benefit small-scale farmers in Africa. 

Anderson described as “inexcusable” the omission of both groups that support agroecology — a clean, green alternative to industrial farming — and those representing smallholders or Indigenous peoples. “It’s painfully clear AIM4C is going in the wrong direction,” she said. 

The Egypt climate conference, known as COP27, is shaping up to be a battleground for two visions of the future of farming — a movement for regenerative agriculture that aims to diversify what we eat and how we farm, versus a resource-intensive industrial system that pushes planetary boundaries beyond their limits. 

AIM4C will have a presence at the summit and is expected to hold a reception, run events in the U.S. pavilion, and attempt to attract more funds and support for its “technology-first vision.”

Jim Thomas, co-executive director of Canadian non-profit ETC Group said AIM4C is part of a makeover by the agriculture industry. “It’s a narrative push from agribusiness to retell its story, where it gets rebranded from being a major climate problem (which it is) to being seen as the solution or the saviour,” he said.

High-Tech Over Known Science

Meat and dairy production accounts for 14.5 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions — and more than half of agriculture’s total share of emissions. Planet-warming gases are emitted across the supply chain, from the carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by clearing forests for pastures and feed crops, and burning petrol and diesel to transport animals and meat, to the methane emitted from animals and their manure. 

Climate scientists say that unsustainable meat and dairy consumption poses one of the biggest threats to the world’s hopes of meeting the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement to avoid catastrophic climate change.

AIM4C argues that technology can increase productivity, help farmers adapt to the climate crisis, and cut emissions. The coalition aims to raise $8 billion in public and private finance for research and development, hinged around what it calls “climate-smart” solutions.

However, the term “climate-smart” has no widely agreed definition, and its use to promote contested practices including the use of pesticides and big data in farming have led to concerns that the concept could be used to “greenwash” polluting forms of agriculture. 

Campaigners said AIM4C’s focus on high-tech solutions is a diversion from established scientific findings, including by the UN’s leading climate science body, that the world must cut back the production and consumption of animal products.

“It’s very much been tiptoeing around the elephant in the room,” said Allison Molinaro from Compassion in World Farming, which has been a participant in AIM4C since early this year.  

“If we just say more research is needed, industrial animal agriculture keeps proliferating — and we’re not going to hit our 2030 targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions,” she said. 

‘Greener Cattle’

AIM4C is backing a Greener Cattle Initiative exploring ways to reduce methane emissions produced by grazing cattle, for example by changing their diet.  

The project is one of the coalition’s 12 “innovation sprints” by non-governmental partners towards a particular research goal. Participants must put forward funding and a proposal, and AIM4C organizers then choose successful sprints to champion to 2025. One sprint “AgMission” has raised $45 million; its participants include PepsiCo, McDonald’s, and biotech company Syngenta Foundation.

Another Sprint is linked to the largest global meat company, JBS — which has been described by campaign group Feedback Global and thinktank the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy as “the highest emitting meat and dairy company in the world.” JBS sits on the steering committee of the Greener Cattle Initiative via its U.S. subsidiary. JBS cites its involvement in the Greener Cattle Initiative on its webpage, with reference to its net zero target. 

The presence of some of the most polluting companies in the sector — as well as trade bodies who represent them — has caused concern among environmentalists and experts, who fear that AIM4C may help Big Agriculture appear green without making meaningful emissions cuts. 

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy has noted that JBS’ 2040 net zero pledge includes no plan to slow its rapid growth in meat production, stating that soon after its climate commitment the company announced a new $130 million investment to expand processing capacity (by 300,000 head of cattle per year total) at two of its U.S. beef processing plants.

Molinaro, of Compassion in World Farming, said the Green Cattle Initiative does not go nearly far enough. “It’s plugging one hole in a ship that has 50,” she said. “First of all, the science still isn’t there. We don’t know exactly how much [reduction] that would be.

“Second, it would only reduce methane emissions from the cattle. It doesn’t address the climate impacts of land use change, biodiversity loss, or deforestation associated with cattle production. And it doesn’t take into account the nutrient pollution from the pesticides you use to grow the rest of their feed, corn and soy.” A spokesperson from the Greener Cattle Initiative said the initiative funded “evidence-based research” that met “rigorous criteria for actionability and scalability.”

Jennifer Jacquet, an associate professor of environmental studies at New York University, likened the push for “green cattle” to past attempts to market “clean coal”.

“Beef is the coal of animal ag,” she said. “There’s no getting around that.” 

Other AIM4C participants representing the meat industry include the North American Meat Institute and the Animal Agriculture Alliance which — as well as pushing back against efforts to cut meat consumption — have links to climate science denial.

A JBS spokesperson said: “As a global food company, we understand and take seriously the challenges presented to farmers, communities and the food system to address climate change. Our net zero 2040 commitment is one example of our efforts, and we will be transparently reporting our progress along the way. Engaging in collaborative approaches like the Greener Cattle Initiative is essential to achieving these ambitious goals.” 

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is leading the AIM4C coalition said: “AIM for Climate recognizes the wide range of participants necessary to achieve the AIM for Climate goal. Each participant adds value, and AIM for Climate draws on all knowledge, experiences, and cultures, and embraces inclusive excellence.”

Chemical-Intensive

Another resource-heavy industry in AIM4C is agrochemicals, whose primary trade association CropLife International, which represents fertiliser and pesticide manufacturers, is leading another innovation sprint.

While CropLife says that it is training smallholders in the use of “new approaches”, to do “more with less” and references the use of “organic bio-pesticides”, Nick Mole from the UK chapter of Pesticides Action Network was sceptical.

“There’s hundreds of millions of dollars going towards this [AIM4C], which could actually be used to train farmers directly on the ground in things that already exist — in integrated pest management or in agroecological or organic approaches,” Mole said. “That’s where the money should be going. What we need is small, fair, just farming and support for farmers to move away from pesticides.”

A recent round of funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture — a champion of agribusiness and the powerhouse behind AIM4C — was not suggestive of a shift in gear. The first set of grants for a $2.8 billion programme to fund climate-smart agriculture announced in September was characterized by Jacquet as a “windfall to business as usual”.

Projects included an $85 million grant given to dairy trade group, the California Dairy Research Foundation, to lead a methane reduction project, and another to U.S. meat giant, Tyson Foods, which is developing “climate-smart” beef, along with partners such as Bayer.

A Narrow Vision of Agriculture

AIM4C has also drawn criticism for what groups see as the dominance of powerful U.S. interests — and a narrow vision of agriculture.

Maina, of the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya, believes the lack of African representation is to blame for AIM4C’s approach, which she says rests on a “green revolution” model dependent on the intense use of synthetic fertilizers and toxic pesticides that has been promoted in Africa by groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with “dismal” results. 

“Our leaders cannot keep doing something the same way and hope for different results,” Maina said. “We need to focus on agroecological solutions: Support resilient agriculture that works with nature, builds crop and diet diversity, and empowers marginalised farmers”.

“We really do need more investment in agriculture and agricultural research,” agreed Molly Anderson from IPES-Food. “But the kind of technology pursued by AIM4C is proprietary. It’s going into digitalization, it’s going into artificial intelligence. This technology is not available to low-income people. The technology being promoted are things that basically bolster the existing industrialised food system.”

AIM4C is gearing up to promote new innovation sprints at the COP27 conference in Egypt — as well as announce new funding. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who is spearheading the initiative, has argued that “farmers and ranchers, both small and large, must have a voice”.

Yet Anderson believes that even if civil society were better represented, in multi stakeholder initiatives like AIM4C, it is industry that dominates.

“The public goals of preserving ecological integrity and nourishing people, bolstering the role of women in agriculture…these things require investment but that’s not the kind of investment that these public private partnerships are interested in,” she said.

Big Agriculture Casts Itself as Climate Champion Ahead of COP27
Rachel is a freelance investigative researcher and reporter based in London.

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