Big Ag Is Sabotaging Progress on Climate Change

But agribusiness, under the banner of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, lobbies governments to subsidize expanding fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and commercial seeds. In Malawi, for example, 40 to 60 percent of the government’s agricultural budget funds these subsidies for farmers to purchase commercial products they otherwise couldn’t afford. They don’t end up getting enough of a yield increase to pay for the inputs, and their land becomes more acidic, less fertile, with the repeated corn crops fed by these fertilizers. At best, this wastes scarce government resources. At worst, this perpetuates the kind of unsustainable, fossil-fuel-intensive agriculture the IPCC is warning us about.

But it’s good for Monsanto. The agrochemical giant sells 50 percent of Malawi’s commercial corn seeds, and their sales would plummet if the subsidies were eliminated or redirected to more productive uses. The company is actively trying to expand markets by preventing farmers from saving seeds from their last harvests, which the majority of farmers still do. I discovered that a former Monsanto executive had even drafted Malawi’s national seed policy, which threatened to outlaw farmers’ rights to save, exchange, and sell their seeds. Farm groups successfully removed some of the worst provisions, but the bill still threatens the sale of farm-saved seed.

Monsanto and fellow agro behemoths have also campaigned to open Mexico to the cultivation of genetically modified corn. An injunction has stalled the effort for almost six years. Citizens and farmers have complained that the release of such corn, which pollinates through the wind, would threaten the integrity of Mexico’s remarkable repository of some 23,000 varieties of native corn that have evolved over millennia. (Mexico is the only country whose cuisine is recognized by UNESCO as a “patrimony of humanity.”) Such crop diversity is globally critical for both commercial crop breeding and the kind of land management the IPCC is recommending. Yet the Gene Giants continue to use their considerable economic and political muscle to open this most sensitive of corn markets to their GMO seeds.

The United States is not immune to stubborn obstacles: We need look no further than Iowa. Iowa State University researcher Matt Liebman has shown on his demonstration farm that adding a third rotation of alfalfa or native grass to the predominant corn-soybean cropping system in the state could produce dramatic environmental benefits at no cost to farmers, including an 85 percent reduction in fertilizer use, a 97 percent drop in pesticide use, an elimination of soil erosion and water pollution from run-off, and a dramatic increase in carbon sequestration. A win-win solution that very few farmers have adopted. “I couldn’t have devised an innovation that offended more of Iowa’s powerful agribusinesses,” the researcher told me. He said there was no way state officials were going to promote the kinds of markets, such as grass-fed beef from that alfalfa, that could make such a shift profitable for farmers.

Do you think Koch Industries wants to see an 85 percent reduction in its fertilizer sales? Does Monsanto want a 97 percent drop in pesticide use? If the reduction in land planted to corn and soybeans raised prices above their punishingly low levels now, how would Smithfield, Tyson, and other industrial livestock producers like the higher feed costs for their animals? Archer Daniels Midland sure doesn’t want to pay more for the corn it refines into ethanol.

In 2017, Art Cullen, editor of northern Iowa’s Storm Lake Times, won a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering a secret agribusiness fund, bankrolled by Monsanto, Koch Fertilizer, and other companies, to defeat a lawsuit seeking to control water pollution from agricultural fields around Storm Lake and other districts along the Upper Raccoon River. The goal of the lawsuit, brought by the Des Moines Water Works, was to reduce water pollution by forcing local agricultural districts to regulate the kinds of chemical-intensive farming practices the IPCC says we need to change.

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