Global Policy Forum

Corporate Agribusiness Helps Scuttle Climate Justice

By John E. Peck

January 6, 2009

As the old saying goes, with crisis comes opportunity, and that certainly was the mentality of the corporate lobbyists that descended in droves on the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. In fact, the largest nongovernmental organization there was the International Emissions Trading Association, a front group representing 170 companies and hosting 66 events. Sadly, many government officials and even some nonprofit groups have fallen for this sleight of hand, mistaking an old-style protection racket for newfound corporate responsibility.

The phony accord which President Barack Obama left behind in Copenhagen is a disastrous step backward. More business as usual in the global north will only mean a deadlier nightmare for the south. "We have nowhere to run," warned Apisai Ielemia, prime minister of Tuvalu, one of the Pacific island nations at COP15 doomed to disappear with rising sea levels.

The simple fact that pollution prevention remains the best cure for global climate change was lost in the official debate in Copenhagen.

Not up for debate in Copenhagen was the fact that industrial agriculture is one of the leading culprits behind the climate crisis. Agriculture accounts for an estimated 20 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Genetically engineered corn and soybeans now dominate the Midwest landscape, requiring vast amounts of fossil fuels to synthesize fertilizers and pesticides as well as to deliver the crops to market. Food on average travels 1,500 miles from farm to plate in the U.S. And there are even more emissions to address, such as the hydrogen sulfide, methane, ammonia, and nitrous oxide emanating from millions of animals on factory farms. Livestock now generate 130 times more sewage than people in the U.S.

U.S. agriculture is among the least efficient in the world, since it requires 10 calories of fossil fuel-derived inputs to produce just one calorie of food output. Ironically, this myth of "productivity" is now being used by corporate agribusiness and the White House to try to shoehorn agriculture back into the Copenhagen negotiation. The argument goes that intensive production will reduce development pressure on marginal lands. Left unsaid is that chemical-based biotech crops, agrofuel plantations, and livestock factory farms often displace those communities engaged in sustainable agricultural practices that are already doing the lion's share of long-term carbon sequestration.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack participated in a COP 15 panel where he reiterated White House support for biotech crops and agrofuels as a "green" solution to climate change. Left out of the Obama administration's policies is the fastest growing sector of U.S. agriculture: organics. The pattern is bipartisan and all too familiar. The USDA already provides subsidized crop insurance for biotech varieties under its expanded "risk management" program, which is not available to organic growers. Under the last farm bill, subsidies were also extended to new crops for agrofuel production, such as Monsanto's Round-Up Ready sugar beets. Sustainable agriculture advocates are now worried that such carbon credits could compromise one of the most popular USDA funding programs that is available to organic producers: the Conservation Reserve Program, which actually does reduce greenhouse gas emissions by taking highly erodible land out of cultivation and putting it back into vegetation.

To make matters worse, Vilsack in Copenhagen announced a new Memorandum of Understanding between the USDA and Dairy Management Inc. to promote methane digesters as yet another approach to reducing U.S. emissions. This memo will most likely allow the largest operations to siphon off even more scarce taxpayer dollars. Once again, sustainable grazing operations, which don't have a manure "problem" worth digesting and account for a third of all dairy farms in a state like Wisconsin, will gain nothing for their environmental stewardship. The USDA's own COP15 press release noted that just 2 percent of U.S. dairy farmers "are candidates for a profitable digester."

Farmers can help fix the global climate crisis, but the solution is not found in catering to corporate agribusiness. The answer lies instead with promoting small-scale sustainable organic agriculture, a position best articulated at COP15 by Via Campesina, the largest umbrella organization for peasants, fishing folk, and indigenous people in the world. According to its principle of food sovereignty, farmers have the right to produce for their own communities without "forced trade" or subsidized dumping.

The global north needs to take responsibility for its own pollution reduction and not foist the burden onto other countries and future generations. U.N. negotiators can also no longer evade the issue of climate reparations for the damage now being faced by poorer marginal communities, mostly in the south. Without a binding commitment, dedicated funding, and a confirmed timeline for real greenhouse gas emission cuts from the north, the south is right to reject Copenhagen as just more empty rhetoric and false promises. And the reckless lobbying influence of U.S. corporate agribusiness within the Obama administration bears much of the blame for this failure.







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