Agribusiness evades participation in climate/environmental solutions yet dominates federal subsidies
Climate change (e.g., drought and floods) is putting a spotlight on large corporate farming (agribusiness) that now dominates food production, processing, and distribution. Unfortunately, EPA and states lack sufficient legal oversight and political willingness to address agribusiness’s increasingly negative impact on water quality and greenhouse gases. Yet United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) funds overwhelmingly subsidize agribusiness, and EPA funding and oversight has not sufficiently prodded states to exercise their primary responsibility to regulate agribusiness. The upcoming five-year period 2023 Farm Bill and newly available 2022 funding provide an opportunity for Congress and executive agencies to transition toward a more climate-resilient agricultural sector that participates in domestic environmental and climate efforts.
Perhaps stemming from idyllic perceptions of early small family farms, the domestic agricultural sector remains largely exempt from federal environmental rules. J.B.Ruhl, Farms, Their Environmental Harms, and Environmental Law, Uni. of Cal. (2000). Because agriculture’s negative environmental impacts involve land use practices, most responsibility for mitigating this environmental damage rests with state authorities. Unfortunately, many rural states remain reluctant to fully exercise authorities on their farming constituents. See, e.g., Blind Eye to Big Chicken, Environmental Integrity Project (October 28, 2021).
The agricultural sector is now dominated by agribusiness whose farming methods result in significant greenhouse gases (GHGs), water pollution, soil carbon releases, and water resource depletion. Agribusiness emits around 11% of all global warming pollution in the United States, not including soil carbon releases from tilling and crop practices. See, https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions. Without agribusiness reducing its carbon footprint, it is unlikely the U.S. can achieve its economy-wide net-zero GHG goal by 2050.
Specific agribusiness environmental-related impacts include:
1. Methane source: Agriculture accounts for the nation’s largest share of methane and nitrous oxide emissions from human activity. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/overview-greenhouse-gases#methane. These GHGs are significantly more climate-potent in the near-term. Livestock alone accounts for more than a quarter of domestic total methane emissions. Agribusiness’s methane emissions are increasing due to large Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Between 1890 and 2017 methane emissions related to manure management rose 66%, largely from industrial livestock CAFO corporate ownership, such as Cargill, JPS, and Purdue. See, Corporate Crackdown Project- Climate, Revolving Door Project (September 2022).
2. Water pollution: Pollutants that run-off from land and groundwater into waterways (called nonpoint pollution) are now the majority contributor to domestic water quality degradation. Agribusiness is a significant source of water run-off pollution from nitrogen fertilizer usage, CAFO manure handling, and land use practices (e.g., converting wetlands, reducing waterway buffers, and failing to use cover crops). See, https://www.epa.gov/nps/nonpoint-source-agriculture
3. Farm acreage devoted to non-food production: Most industrial monocrop plantings (e.g., corn andsoybeans) does not produce food. Rather, these crops provide feed for livestock, ethanol production, and industrial products such as high fructose corn syrup.
4. Soil carbon releases: Early agricultural soils were rich in organic content that stored carbon. Highly mechanized farm tilling and crop practices have “mined” this organic material, releasing carbon, and increasing reliance on fertilizers. Sustainable farming techniques, such as no-till farming, cover crops, crop rotation, and regenerative grazing can rebuild healthy soils and sequester carbon while decreasing dependance on fertilizers. See, https://environment-review.yale.edu/changing-conversation-around-soil-carbon; https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-15798.
5. Carbon intensive operations: Industrial farming is a carbon intensive sector, contributing substantial upstream GHG emissions from nitrogen-based fertilizers, farm electricity use, fossil fuel combustion from farm equipment, and land conversion.
6. Drought: Lower organic soil composition negatively affects water retention and increases erosion potential. This makes agribusiness farms more vulnerable to climate-related extreme weather. Sustainable farming techniques such as no-till farming, cover crops, crop rotation, and regenerative grazing can decrease dependance on irrigation and preserve water resources. Steven Wallander, et al., Farmers Employ Strategies to Reduce Risk of Drought Damage, Amber Waves, USDA Economic Research Service (June 5, 2017).
Ironically, the agricultural sector finds itself subject to damaging climate change impacts: flooding, drought, depleted water resources, and loss of biodiversity for crop pollination. The juxtaposition of agribusiness’s environmental malfeasance and extreme weather impairments creates a conundrum for federal policies and programs. See, e.g., https://insideclimatenews.org/news/04112016/hurricane-matthew-north-carolina-photos-cafo-factory-farm-waste/. Fortunately, there are opportunities for Congress and executive agencies to transition agriculture to be more climate-resilient and a participant in domestic climate/environmental solutions.
One opportunity is the expected 2023 update of the expiring $428B five-year 2018 Farm Bill. Each five-year period provides an opportunity to adjust for changed circumstances. This year’s update is particularly significant because agriculture is on the front lines of a changing climate, including weather extremes (floods and drought), as well as agriculture’s significant contribution of GHGs. In addition, climate change and the pandemic highlight the need to reevaluate agribusiness’s long supply chains and market power impact on inflation. Farm Bill funding helps shapes agricultural policies through programs including conservation, disaster relief, crop insurance, healthy food production, and rural development.
The 2018 Farm Bill did not significantly slow negative agribusiness environmental trends. Most discretionary funding for crop insurance, commodity programs, and conservation programs went to corn, wheat, cotton, and soybeans rather than food production. See, 2018 Farm Bill: Summary and Side-by-Side Comparison, Congressional Research Service (2019). Updating the Farm Bill could do a better job of transitioning the agricultural system toward a more sustainable sector while combating global warming. Even the Farm Bill’s non-discretionary supplemental food program (SNAP) is an opportunity for the USDA to provide premiums to engage local food producers in providing nutritional foods. In addition, the USDA and EPA could take advantage of any opportunity for research into new climate-smart technology and practices that are underfunded relative to their climate mitigation potential. Blaustein-Rejto, et al., Assessing Federal R&D Funding for Agricultural Climate Mitigation, The Breakthrough Institute (2022).
There are other executive actions that can be taken under existing programs and recent legislation. These include:
- Shifting Commodities Credit Corporation funds toward climate-smart agriculture practices that expand local food production and alternative resilient farming practices.
- Strategically disseminating the unprecedented $19B contained in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) for voluntary conservation.
- Protecting working farmland, including aiding biodiversity and landscape- scale conservation strategies through the IRA’s $1.4B for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.
- Quantifying and permanently sequestrating carbon under the IRA’s $300M for the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
- Coordinating EPA and USDA programs to apply “carrots and sticks” for more state involvement in mitigating agriculture-related environmental pollution and participating in other climate-related solutions, e.g., agricultural practices that minimize flooding and water resource depletion .
Government’s willingness to aggressively support a sustainable agribusiness transition depends on political willingness. Agribusiness political clout presents headwinds. The balance of agriculture’s political power has shifted from small farms to agribusiness corporations. According to USDA definitions and data, over half of all farms are defined as “lifestyle” farms and paper farms created for tax benefits, which produce little commercial agricultural product. Another category remains the more traditional, and often marginally profitable small rural farms. Political and economic power now exists in the largest farms and concentrated ownership of production, processing, and distribution. According to recent USDA farm income data, the recent decade has been very profitable for agribusiness compared to the economic returns of all S&P 500 companies, not even including land appreciation, which has been positive since 1990. Peter H. Lehner, et al., The Stakeholders in Agricultural Policy, The Environmental Law Institute, Vol. 39 (July-August 2022).
To get a sense of agribusiness growth, consider that in 2017, 5% of farms produced 75% of total agricultural products. See, USDA 2017 Census table 41. In North America, economies of scale, vertical integration, and expensive chemical/mechanical technologies have resulted in near total control of the agricultural system by transnational corporations. See generally, McIntyre, Beverly, et al., International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, Technology for Development: Global and North America/Europe Reports (2009). For example, the Monsanto Company dominates the seed industry, including corn, soybean, and cotton, and is quickly consolidating control of vegetable, sugar, and wheat markets. Tyson and Smithfield control more than half of all US pork production. Lindsay Walton, et al., Regulating CAFOs for the Well-Being of Farm Animals, Consumers, and Environment, 50 ELR 10484, 10485 (2022).
Although large companies have more capacity to support research and conduct due diligence for operational efficiencies and risk control, they also have more capacity to compete for state and federal benefits. This competitive advantage is often achieved through substantial agribusiness lobbying resources that rival similar political clout from often-vilified big oil. This lobbying includes similar climate distraction and misinformation tactics. See the following video: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/01/opinion/climate-sustainability-agriculture-lobby.html. Bottom-line, agribusiness needs the least federal support, produces the greatest climate impacts, exerts market pricing power, and has the most political clout to compete for government benefits.
Federal inequitable funding distribution continues. Recently (September 2022), when the USDA announced $2.8B in funding for “climate-smart” agricultural practices, concerns were raised about the inequitable funding distribution to large corporations and lack of transparency. For example, the largest climate-smart grants targeted monocrop commodity plantings. See, As the USDA Invests in “Climate-Smart” Agriculture, It’s Hard to Follow the Money, Union of Concerned Scientists (December 8, 2022). Agribusiness politics continues to successfully channel funding into programs that increase operational efficiencies (e.g., search “precision farming”). A more significant financial subsidy is the current crop insurance program where more than 80% of the premium subsidies flow into the largest 20% of farms. Ironically, subsidizing large-scale animal feed crops indirectly subsidizes livestock CAFOs contributing significant methane emissions. https://insideclimatenews.org/news/31122018/crop-insurance-farm-bureau-taxpayer-subsidies-climate-change-risk-rising/. Perversely, these agribusiness subsidies perpetuate industrial-scale business models by insulating agribusiness from climate-related loses while increasing market concentration, impairing environmental goals, and increasing extreme weather vulnerability.
Nonetheless, opportunities are available to better align agriculture with domestic climate goals, as well as reducing business concentration (market power), increasing weather-related resiliency, supporting soil carbon restoration, increasing rural employment, and expanding alternative growing locations (e.g., urban farms, vertical farms, and local food systems). See, https://www.nal.usda.gov/farms-and-agricultural-production-systems/urban-agriculture. Federal and state funding, especially for startup capital, can grow the nation’s inventory of sustainable farms contributing solutions to multiple environmental challenges. See, e.g.,https://glpf.org/blog/agroforestry-takes-root-in-the-great-lakes-region/.
2023 Farm Bill, EPA revolving state loans, and new IRA funding provide Congress and executive agencies opportunities to align agriculture with national policies. The pastoral small farm myth, perpetuated by the American Farm Bureau Federation’s lobbying clout, belies the actual circumstances and data on agribusiness. Federal policy should leverage funding to encourage states to mitigate agribusiness environmental harms, while growing an alternative sustainable farm system compatible with today’s climate-challenged reality.