U.S. Embrace of ‘Climate-Smart’ Agriculture at COP27 Faces Scrutiny

Campaigners see scant evidence that the Department of Agriculture is ready to break with its long history of promoting agribusiness at the expense of the environment.
Credit: Rosie Hunter

When climate talks in Egypt turn to the future of food on Saturday, the U.S. government will be on hand to champion a new coalition of feed, livestock and agrochemical companies as the vanguard of transformational change. 

We can expect to hear a lot about how the Agricultural Innovation Mission for Climate, or AIM4C, will be harnessing new technology – from big data to precision fertilizer – to slow ballooning emissions from agribusiness, and fight worsening global hunger.  

But there are other topics that Big Ag may be less eager to discuss: Growing concern among campaigners that the U.S. government’s embrace of “climate-smart” agriculture at COP27 will serve primarily to add a green veneer to plans to double down on polluting business as usual. 

With food systems producing a third of global greenhouse emissions, any chance of preserving a stable climate hinges on a wholesale rethink, scientists say

But the U.S. government’s long history of aggressively backing industrial agriculture; close ties between industry and senior officials, and its opposition to the European Union’s Farm To Fork policy for nature-friendlier farming, have left experts questioning its commitment to even modest reform. 

Karen Hansen-Kuhn, programme director at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy nonprofit, said the AIM4C coalition was effectively an extension of the U.S. government’s long-standing drive to open up new agricultural markets at the expense of environmental protection and small-scale farmers.

“Given the moment we’ve been in since the Ukraine war started, with input prices going up so much, it seems so foolish to be promoting more fertilizers and agrochemicals, and not looking at solutions on the ground,” Hansen-Kuhn told DeSmog.

Protecting the Industrial Agriculture Status Quo

With agriculture higher up the agenda than at any previous round of climate talks, the COP27 taking place from Nov. 6-18 in the resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh is shaping up to be a battleground between rival visions of farming. 

The US will be promoting its vision through AIM4C with a high-level and high-profile Ministerial meeting on Saturday, hosted by the Egyptian government.

The US-led coalition AIM4C has already come under criticism for the strong representation of multinational corporations among its 300 partners, which also include 40 states, research institutes and philanthropic organizations.  

Corporate partners include Brazil’s JBS, the world’s largest meatpacker, McDonald’s, PepsiCo, agrochemicals lobby groups such as CropLife International, and powerful US farm associations such as the North American Meat Institute and the Animal Agriculture Alliance, which have links to climate science denial.

These companies represent the pillars of an industrial, intensive food and farming system — an approach the U.S. has championed as the best way to feed the world’s growing population efficiently that is heavily reliant on chemical inputs to produce food. 

Industrial agriculture is carbon-intensive – and polluting. It’s overwhelmingly responsible for farming’s emissions – by some estimates the top five animal agriculture companies alone emit more greenhouse gases than ExxonMobil, Shell, or BP. 

Overall, the agriculture sector accounts for up to one third of greenhouse gasses – and is also a primary driver of biodiversity loss. Powerful companies within the sector have also come under scrutiny for lobbying against climate action and disputing climate science.

Experts say that to bring down agricultural emissions and conserve nature, we must pivot away from industrial farming.

But the United States has pushed back against this approach, focusing instead on finding greater efficiencies within the current, industrial farming system.

One notable example of this pushback is the United States’s vocal opposition to Farm to Fork. A key plank of the EU’s Green Deal, the strategy aims to transform farming and align the sector with the bloc’s climate and biodiversity targets. Its measures include slashing the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers and boosting more organic, nature-friendly farming.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack — a former CEO of a major dairy industry lobbying firm — has emphasized that the United States and EU agree on the needs to meet climate goals – but have different ideas on how to get there.

Vilsack told the Agricultural Business Council of Kansas City in September 2021 that the US “can’t let our European friends dominate this conversation”, before going on to articulate the United States’ administration’s belief in a route to zero emissions agriculture via “a market-oriented, incentive-based, voluntary system”.

In his remarks – where he also announced the formation of AIM4C – Vilsack spoke of his efforts to build a “coalition of nations” aligned to an approach that would not pose barriers to trade. 

U.S. Fears Trade Impacts of Environmental Policies

While AIM4C puts climate and food concerns front and center, the initiative appears to be inextricably linked to the U.S. government’s broader agenda to dismantle potential obstacles to its farm exports. 

The United States is the largest agricultural exporter in the world. The sector contributed over $1 trillion to US GDP in 2020 — and accounts for 11 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions.

More stringent nature-friendly requirements for food production — such as rules to use fewer agrochemicals to grow food — could create obstacles for U.S. exporters. 

Under Farm to Fork targets, for example, demand for agrochemicals would decrease from the EU, taking a large market out of the game for U.S. agribusinesses that currently sell their chemical products in member states.

Vilsack wasn’t the first high-ranking official to recognize this risk. His predecessor as agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, called Farm to Fork a “protectionist” policy which could prove “extremely problematic” for trade.

When Perdue was leading the USDA, the Department published an “impact study” that concluded Farm To Fork could have devastating consequences for food security. (Campaigners pointed to major methodological flaws in the study, which they characterized as part of a series of attempts by the United States and industry to “derail” the EU’s green strategy.)

“Reducing pesticides dramatically, that’s a very commendable part of Farm to Fork. And that’s something that the U.S. found to be immensely threatening,” says Molly Anderson of IPES-Food.

Ricardo Salvador, an agronomist at the Union of Concerned Scientists says the US is actively opposed to alternative models of agriculture. “If Farm to Fork is successful,” he explains, “then that means claims by the U.S. agribusiness sector do not hold up — that, in fact, it is possible to have a completely different system than we have right now.” 

Close Ties to Industry

The U.S. government’s credibility as a champion of climate-friendly farming has been further undermined by the revolving-door relationship between agribusiness and officialdom.

US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack – who is spearheading AIM4C — came into his post after a four year spell at the helm of the U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC).

A key focus of Vilsack’s role was opening new markets for trade of U.S. dairy products for USDEC members, which include major producers such as Dairy Farmers of America, Inc, and subsidiaries of dairy giants Lactalis and Saputo.

While his appointment by President Joe Biden was praised by industry groups, Vilsack faced opposition, including from small farmers who criticized his record on failing to address market concentration by big business. Greenpeace characterized his selection as “choosing a wolf to guard the hen house”.

Vilsack oversaw a number of policy shifts that favoured industry interests during his previous term in office under President Barack Obama. He approved the unrestricted commercial cultivation of genetically engineered alfalfa – developed by Monsanto and Forage Genetics – in the face of stiff opposition. 

His term also loosened the regulation of meat packing plants. Under his tenure the USDA upped the maximum processing speed for poultry and weakened inspection regimes, despite data suggesting that worker safety could be compromised.

Sustainable food advocates say Vilsack’s move from industry to government is indicative of a wider revolving door culture at the USDA, described as “extraordinary” by IPES-Food’s Molly Anderson. “It’s not just ties to industry, it’s very close ties,” she says.

Al Avanza, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Administrator who greenlit Vilsack’s reforms later went on to work for the Brazilian meat giant JBS.

Vilsack’s predecessor, Sonny Perdue, has faced questions about conflicts of interest over his multimillion dollar agricultural business holdings. A spokesperson at the time said Secretary Perdue had complied with all ethics agreements, and had followed the advice of USDA ethics advisers to restructure his business.

A total of 634 agricultural lobbyists have previously worked in U.S. departments or agencies according to 2022 data from OpenSecrets, a Washington D.C.- based nonprofit that tracks data on campaign finance and lobbying. It calculates the industry has spent more than $3 billion lobbying Washington decision-makers since 1998.

“Corporations have the ear of and influence over elected lawmakers and the Administration’s agency directors, when they should instead be listening to the constituents they serve,” says Simone Adler of Pesticides Action Network North America (PANNA). “And that is why corporate-driven initiatives and policies take precedence over proactive regulation.”

“Here you have a former CEO of one of the largest lobbying groups in the dairy industry, and he’s now, for a second term, the USDA Secretary – a very high position,” says Diana Ruiz from Greenpeace USA. “It not only sets the agenda for the United States; the United States sets the agenda globally. That is very clear. And that is what’s so dangerous about what’s happening here.”

The USDA was contacted for comment.

Business as Usual

AIM4C “innovation sprints” released so far appear to show a bias towards industry-friendly climate initiatives.

The coalition aims to raise up to $8 billion for the initiatives, which are aimed at finding ways to cut emissions produced by food systems while boosting production.

The twelve programmes published on AIM4C to date have majored on technological solutions. They include precision farming (e.g. tractors hooked up with big data and artificial intelligence), the disputed notion of carbon farming (investing in the soil’s ability to store carbon) and elaborate schemes to lower the methane quotient of cow burps.

Notably absent is any talk of cutting production of emissions-intensive meat and dairy – which account for 14 percent of global emissions.

Events hosted by Vilsack and other officials at COP27 this week included an event on “Pathways to dairy net zero,” with the industry bodies the Global Dairy Platform and International Dairy Federation, and an event on innovations in plant science, with panelists from three of the world’s largest pesticides manufacturers (Bayer, Corteva and BASF) and the industry’s leading lobby group, CropLife.

Advocates of a growing “agroecology” movement are calling for investment in different agricultural models at COP27. They want to move away from input-heavy, intensive production towards more sustainable farming techniques pioneered by Indigenous communities and small-holders that favour crop diversity, natural fertilizers and shorter food chains.

“Focusing on technology can make big profits for multinational companies but it doesn’t serve small-holder farmers,” said Anne Maina, of the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya, a Nairobi-based network of civil society groups working in environment, health, farming and animal welfare. “Africa has workable, sustainable alternatives right here at home.”

A spokesperson for AIM4C said by email: “The goal of AIM for Climate is to increase and accelerate agriculture and food systems innovation in support of climate action. To achieve the goal, AIM for Climate participants intend to catalyze greater investment in, and/or other support for, agricultural innovation to help to raise global ambition and underpin more rapid and transformative action.”

But Greenpeace campaigner Diana Ruiz doubts AIM4C will provide real solutions. “Industrial agriculture and livestock farming has massive impacts on the climate,” Ruiz told DeSmog. “Programmes like AIM for Climate are just proposing to continue that same model of production. It’s not about truly addressing the climate crisis.”

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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