Imagine that the first presidential primary was in North Dakota. More than a year before a single vote was cast, candidates descended upon the state, participating in hundreds of conversations and dozens of town halls with oil rig workers and fossil fuel operators. During the formative period when campaigns were developing their strategies and platforms, they were obliged by tradition to visit the North Dakota State Fair, where they held speeches and posed for photos among sculptures and carnival games resembling drill rigs and extraction pumps. This is what happens in the U.S., except the state is Iowa and the industry is agribusiness.
At the Iowa State Fair, there is a life-sized cow made of butter. There is a presidential vote cast in corn kernels. There is an expectation that each candidate will eat a corn dog on camera. Voters may see this as a quirk of electoral tradition, but corporations like JBS, Smithfield, and Bayer see it as a critical advertising and lobbying opportunity. It doesn’t stop at the fair, either. There’s the Polk County steak fry, the progress Iowa corn feed, the Democratic wing ding dinner, and more. In fact, this lobbying campaign endures year-round, at every level of governance, through elections, and into seats of power. The incredible influence of the agriculture industry distorts political priorities, manipulates regulatory framework, and obfuscates scientific discourse on its environmental and socioeconomic consequences.
This might help to explain why, at a time in the U.S. when the public is starting to object to these consequences, and ecosystems around the globe have been driven to the brink by agricultural encroachment, that Democratic candidates’ climate proposals include planks to grant more subsidies, build more slaughterhouses, and give more regulatory power to lenient state governments.
The techniques agribusinesses use to influence U.S. policy mirror those of fossil fuel in many ways. Both industries lobby heavily for federal subsidies to keep them afloat. Both work through organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council to criminalize protests and write their own regulations. Both employ private security corporations and cooperate with the FBI to surveil and infiltrate grassroots opponents. And of course, both have extensive media and public relations strategies to finance and elevate industry-friendly science in order to influence politicians and public opinions.
About a decade ago, the U.S. was finally beginning to reckon with the relationship between fossil fuel and the climate crisis. Oil production had peaked and, with Obama at the helm, it appeared a transition to renewable energy was finally on the horizon. Then, the fossil fuel industry convinced the government and the public that renewable technology wasn’t ready and that hydrocarbon gas extracted by hydraulic fracturing was a “bridge fuel” between dirtier fossils and renewables. Advertisements proliferated. Subsidies kept flowing. Gas extraction exploded, enveloping neighborhoods and public lands. The U.S. became the biggest oil producer on Earth. The claim that gas is green is now widely regarded as false industry marketing, because it ignores the impact of fugitive methane emitting from leaks throughout the supply chain and, of course, it’s still a fossil fuel.
A similar public relations campaign is now underway, this time spearheaded by the livestock industry. Growing interest in regenerative agriculture — farming techniques that rebuild natural carbon reservoirs—has given the climate movement and farming community an important common interest around which to build alliances aimed at drawing down atmospheric carbon dioxide. It has also given agribusiness a brand new way to green-wash its image.
While there are strong sequestration data behind regenerative techniques such as non-tilling, crop rotation, and agroecology, the livestock sector is using its influence to convince politicians and voters that sustainable agriculture means more ranching. Farming cattle already occupies nearly 60 percent of global agricultural land, despite providing less than 2 percent of calories. It is the primary driver of global deforestation, a major cause of both greenhouse gas emissions and species extinction. However, industry-funded PR groups, NGOs, and research consulting firms are claiming that if we just manage them right, that converting even more ecosystems to ranches will reverse climate change by stimulating root growth of grasses and sequestering atmospheric carbon. While myriad studies and research institutions have disputed these claims, they’re not pursuing the attention of the U.S. climate movement. The ranching industry is.
Climate activists and organizations have been eager to offer an olive branch to agricultural communities ever since a prematurely published congressional fact sheet on the Green New Deal mentioned reducing emissions from “farting cows”—the main source of ruminant methane is actually regurgitation—and gave the media their best tool yet to sour public opinion on the Green New Deal. Ever since, outlets like Fox have consistently reinforced the idea that “Democrats want to take your hamburgers”, publishing more segments on the Green New Deal than CNN and MSNBC combined. Presidential campaigns hear this sentiment so consistently in Iowa that four candidates felt compelled to clarify that they enjoyed eating cheeseburgers in a CNN climate town hall.
In March 2019, livestock industry advocate and University of California Davis animal sciences professor Frank Mitloehner reportedly discussed regenerative grazing with political NGO New Consensus, although he made headlines by claiming on an agricultural podcast that he was contacted by the office of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Green New Deal’s lead sponsor. While Mitloehner is considered by some as an expert on agricultural emissions, others have questioned conflicts of interest related to industry funding surrounding his work. The next month, Larry Kopald of agricultural NGO The Carbon Underground sought to lobby Senator Ed Markey in support of regenerative agriculture incentives after Markey sponsored the Green New Deal in the Senate. While the extent and content of their exchange are unclear, Kopald’s organization focuses on collaborating with corporate clientele, including Pepsi and McDonald’s.
More recently, the Sunrise Movement youth climate action group conducted a press release in DC with a newly-formed organization called “Farmers and Ranchers for a Green New Deal,” claiming to represent over 10,000 individual farmers and farming advocates. The event, timed to coincide with the September 2019 Global Climate Strike, didn’t draw the support of major farming lobbies such as the National Farmers Union and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, but it did feature a collaboration with NGO Regeneration International.
“Just transitioning 10 percent of agricultural production to best-practice regenerative systems will sequester enough CO2 to reverse climate change and restore the global climate,” reads a February 2019 Green New Deal statement from Regeneration International. To be clear, this would mean that as little as 10 percent of Earth’s agricultural soil could not only sequester a quantity of carbon equivalent to what we’ve lost from 100 percent of the world’s soils, but also everything emitted by fossil fuels, deforestation, landfills, and every other source of greenhouse gases on Earth in all of human history.
The grazing component of this calculation is extrapolated from a study involving trials on three farms for three years. It was conducted in a region of extensive soil degradation and did not weigh observed sequestration against emissions generated by the farms. Its lead author is a Colorado State University professor of animal sciences, a department with deep ties to the livestock industry, including an on-campus slaughterhouse built with private funding from JBS, the world’s largest meat-packing corporation. Assuming these sequestration rates to remain constant (in nature, they decrease asymptotically over time), Regeneration International estimates that modifying grazing practices alone can sequester 98.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year if implemented globally. For context, the IPCC estimates all soil carbon sequestration techniques in all agricultural sectors to have the potential to draw down between 2.3 and 5.3 gigatons annually.
Also in attendance at the press release were a small group of high-profile ranchers, including Will Harris of White Oak Pastures. “I am too old, too white, too rural, too agrarian, and too Southern” to be considered part of “the squad,” he said to the press, but expressed that he endorses the agricultural policies he’s seen in recent Green New Deal proposals. His farm is a high-volume supplier to major grocery chains and is considered by many to be a model for carbon-negative (and cash-flow positive) animal agriculture.
However, when Harris points to the research behind his farm’s negative emissions, he’s not referencing peer-reviewed publications, but rather a report that he paid for from a for-profit “sustainability analytics” corporation called Quantis International, who once wrote a report for Nestle on the green advantages of bottled water. According to Quantis, White Oak Pastures sequesters 3.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent for every kilogram of meat it produces. The report does not detail the methodology of its measurements.
We can contrast these findings with those of other researchers, such as the Oxford-based Food Climate Research Network, who conducted a metastudy involving eleven authors from four countries with over 300 references and concluded, “The potential contribution of grazing ruminants to soil carbon sequestration is small, time-limited, reversible and substantially outweighed by the greenhouse gas emissions they generate.” What’s more is that there is no evidence that a ranching system can ever sequester as much carbon as the ecosystem it once was — a concept called “carbon opportunity cost”, which is changing the way science considers the impact of land use by weighing its benefits against those of carbon sequestration by rewilding.
While there is a strategic argument for building coalitions in the election season and debating policy details if a climate candidate wins, the framework for the Green New Deal is already being penciled out. For example, neither the submitted congressional drafts nor any campaign proposals by major Democratic candidates mention restructuring agricultural subsidies to reflect recommendations published by research subsidiaries of the UN and other international research agencies, as they do for fossil fuel. Some have focused on the deconsolidation of agribusiness, but there is a general consensus to continue business-as-usual in terms of the industries and technologies used to feed the country. Some Green New Deal planks even resemble policy objectives long-advocated by livestock lobbyists, such as increasing federal funding to build more slaughterhouses and allowing state governments to conduct their own slaughterhouse inspections. Nearly all major Democratic contenders have proposed compensating ranchers for using scientifically tenuous regenerative grazing practices.
Today, in the forty-eight contiguous U.S. states, 41 percent of all land is used to farm and feed livestock, yet millions of people are starving. The environmental impacts of this reality are vast — transcending emissions to land, water, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, antibiotics, and more. A just transition toward a plant and cell-based food system would drastically reduce all of these impacts. It would allow us to regenerate millions of acres of not only soil carbon reservoirs but entire ecosystems and the endangered wildlife that belong to them. If our Green New Deal is to confront the ecological crises we face, a transformation of our energy system alone will not be enough. The question is — in a political arena where the public turns a blind eye — will industry prevail or will science?
Spencer is a musician, ecologist, and rooftop solar engineer from Colorado. His work recently appeared in Jacobin.