Climate change and the agri-business footprint

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Cargill beef-processing plant in Schuyler, Nebraska. Image: Ammodramus/Wikimedia Commons

With the federal election behind us and a minority government in place, there may be an opportunity to push for expanding the climate change debate to include the impact that industrial agriculture is having on our environment.

It is going to take a firm understanding of the importance of supporting local food sources, small-scale agriculture, and how our knowledge of land use and food production can help mitigate climate change.

Will the NDP and Greens be able to push the climate change debate forward by working for policies that protect our food system and move away from agri-business?

After all, carbon emissions from agriculture contribute almost as much as fossil fuels to climate change. So what are we going to do about that?

We in Canada, in many cases, have had the luxury of choice, particularly when it comes to our trips to the grocery store. Even the poorest in our country have more choice than most people in this world. Don't get me wrong -- I think there are plenty of people in Canada who need a hand, better services, and quality food. The fact that we still have food banks in this country shows that we have many fundamental issues to deal with.

But that's the crux -- food banks, for example. People who are searching for food, trying to buy it or grow it, and who have a daily struggle to eat, do not have the choice of reflecting on how best to mitigate or adapt to climate change. Theirs is a daily struggle to find the food that will allow their families to survive. Some 795 million people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy, active life.

If we do not tackle agricultural emissions, who farms, and how we produce food, those stats will only get worse and fewer of us will have choices.

We need to act now and apply solutions that will support a more sustainable and fairer food production system. It's a huge task -- but now that we know what we should be doing about fossil fuels, we need to turn our thinking to food production here in Canada and globally. Our current model of food production -- agri-business -- is as much a contributor to climate change as is the fossil fuel industry.

In a recent rabble column, I outlined the findings of several recent reports on climate change and agricultural production and distribution. While emissions from agricultural production are difficult to estimate because of under-reporting by global corporations and also because of differences in production and consumption patterns globally, conservative estimates by researchers range between 30 and 40 per cent of carbon emissions being attributed to global agriculture. This graphic is a visual reminder of the carbon-emitting tentacles of food production.

In an article for Wired magazine, Timothy A. Wise, the author of Eating Tomorrow, notes that if we are committed to reducing emissions created by agri-business not only will we need to change how we farm and who farms, but also directly challenge the corporate lobbyists protecting corporations such as Monsanto, Bayer, Cargill, and Nestlé and fertilizer giants such as Yara, among others. The article notes that the conglomerates that control seed and artificial fertilizers are working hard to expand their control and ensure their profits, and in so doing expand their carbon emissions. Wise emphasizes that in order to curtail this carbon footprint, governments will need to roll back corporations' economic hold on food production and break up their holdings, legally mandating their dissolution through more stringent government regulations.

In other cases, agricultural corporations, taking a page from the nuclear industry's playbook, have wanted to be seen to be "cleaner" and on the side of climate change activists -- strategically identifying opportunities to re-brand their corporate footprint by appearing to be working to safeguard the planet. Several "front groups" have been created over the last decade, and despite using the euphemism "climate smart agriculture," many of them actually represent fertilizer and seed companies that are huge emitters of carbon emissions. The agro-fertilizer industry, like pharmaceuticals, is huge business. With the increasing knowledge that artificial fertilizers are not necessary to feed the world if sustainable practices are adopted, corporations such as Syngenta and Yara are working hard to confuse the issues to try to control the debate on agriculture and climate change.

As noted in a recent article published by GRAIN and Common Dreams, agri-business' commitment to growth cannot be reconciled with the policies needed to heal the planet:

"The industrial food system only exists today because of the support it gets from governments which march in lockstep with corporate lobbyists. Public subsidies, trade deals, tax breaks and corporate-friendly regulations are all designed to prop up the big food and agri-business companies -- and facilitate the growing criminalization of affected communities, land defenders and seed savers resisting these corporations on the ground."

Land grabbing

The model of agriculture we follow includes more than pesticides, fertilizers, genetically modified seeds, organisms and the emissions these entail. It also extends to the land -- who farms it, and importantly, who owns it and who makes the production decisions.

Since 2008, the term land grabbing has become increasingly common around the globe. And since then a number of groups have been monitoring how corporations and private investors are acquiring land around the globe -- and in many cases, working to create new colonial relationships with existing communities. Some of these acquisitions are steeped in violence, while others are undertaken more traditionally and more quietly. But in the end, the land passes from small farmers and their communities to private investors and corporations.

More on land grabbing and climate change next month.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer, and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Image: Ammodramus/Wikimedia Commons

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