U.S. Corporate Agribusiness Helps Scuttle Climate Justice in Copenhagen

By: John E. Peck, executive director, Family Farm Defenders, and member group of Via Campesina

As the old saying goes, with crisis comes opportunity, and that has certainly been the mentality of the corporate lobbyists that have descended in droves upon the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP15).  In fact, the largest non-governmental organization (NGO) at the negotiations in Copenhagen is the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) – a front goup representing 170 companies and hosting 66 different COP15 related events.  Sadly, many government officials and even some non-profit groups have fallen for this sleight of hand, mistaking an old style protection racket for new found corporate responsibility.  The phony accord which Pres. Obama left behind in Copenhagen is a disastrous step backward.  More business as usual in the North will only mean a deadlier nightmare for the South.  “We have no where 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, not hypothetical remediation, remains the best cure for global climate change was lost in the official debate in Copenhagen.  Instead, capitalist “free market” mechanisms for avoiding clean-up costs in the North and shifting offset burdens to the South are being touted as the latest “quick fix” remedy.  Under cap and trade, it pays to inflate greenhouse gas emissions to receive as many free “hot air” credits as possible and then to trade these fictitious commodities on derivative markets.  Dubbed “sub-prime carbon” by Friends of the Earth in a recent report, speculators now dominate this $126 billion offset market expected to exceed $3 trillion by 2020.  Like the “mark to market” scam that enabled Enron to count future potential earnings as current profits, carbon trading has proven extremely lucrative in terms of generating investor dividends even as it fails to provide tangible benefits.

Back in 2007 Peter Atherton of Citigroup admitted that the largest carbon trading market, the European Emissions Trading Scheme (EETS), had failed to actually curb greenhouse gas emissions.  Nonetheless, Citigroup cut a deal with Cargill forming Sindicatum Carbon Capital to develop theoretical “least cost options” for greenhouse gas reductions.  J.P. Morgan then moved to acquire EcoSecurities Group, another carbon credit speculator with which Cargill has a “strategic partnership.”  This summer former Goldman Sachs executive, Gary Gensler, was appointed by Pres. Obama to head the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), making him the de facto U.S. Carbon Trading Czar since the CFTC regulates the Board of Trade where the Chicago Climate Futures Exchange is based.  This move does not sit well with many family farmers, who point out that the CFTC has long been asleep at the wheel, and are demanding that the U.S. Dept. of Justice (DoJ) complete a pending investigation of price fixing in the dairy industry, conducted via block cheddar trading at the Board of Trade.  The DoJ is scheduled to hold national listening sessions on other anti-trust cases against corporate agribusiness early next year.
U.S. corporate agribusiness has been anxious to jump on the carbon trading bandwagon for over a decade now.  Monsanto was among the first to argue that chemical no-till – in particular, its patented Round-Up Ready version – could satisfy up to 30% of the U.S. target for greenhouse gas emission reductions.  Through its role in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Monsanto eventually convinced the Bush White House to include agricultural offsets as one of its preconditions for climate talks, a position ultimately rejected by the European Union and which contributed to the U.S. abandoning the Kyoto Protocol.  The Chicago Board of Trade remains the only carbon market that will now accept chemical no-till biotech crop offsets. Monsanto’s influential role in the Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS) has even led the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to endorse carbon credits for biotech soy.   Since Obama’s election, Monsanto has spent millions lobbying Congress on climate change legislation, and the proposed Waxman Markey bill includes offsets for “chemical no-till” once again.   In recognition of its latest bout of self interest, on Tues. Dec. 15th  Monsanto was presented the “Angry Mermaid” award in Copenhagen by Canadian author/activist, Naomi Klein, on behalf of Friends of the Earth.
Not up for debate in Copenhagen is the fact that industrial agriculture is one of the leading culprits behind the current climate crisis.  Agriculture accounts for an estimated 20% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and in 2005 alone U.S. farmers generated as much carbon dioxide as 140+ million cars.  Chemical intensive monocultures of genetically engineered corn and soybeans now dominate the Midwest landscape, requiring vast amounts of fossil fuels to synthesize the necessary fertilizers and pesticides, as well as to deliver the commodity crops to far-flung markets.  Food on average travels 1500 miles from farm to plate in the U.S.  And there are even more emissions to address – for instance, the hydrogen sulfide, methane, ammonia, and nitrous oxide emanating from millions of animals increasingly confined in factory farms.  Livestock now generate 130 times more sewage than people in the U.S.
However, as author/activist Michael Pollan notes, it is energy – not land – that is the true limiting factor in agriculture.  Yield per acre is hardly the best way to measure farming success, especially in an era of peak oil.  Using this criterion, 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 enough, 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 and even provide a new soil carbon sink.  Left unsaid, is that chemical-based biotech crops, industrial agrofuel plantations, and livestock factory farms do not exist in a vacuum and often violently displace those communities engaged in sustainable cropping, forestry, and grazing practices that are already doing the lion’s share of long term carbon sequestration.  Last year’s global food crisis largely triggered by the agrofuel boom is a case in point.
To be honest, U.S. industrial agriculture could not survive without access to taxpayer subsidized inputs and large government handouts in the form of commodity payments, insurance programs, promotion campaigns and the like.  The 25 x 25 Coalition, which includes the likes of Monsanto, Weyerhaeuser, National Corn Growers Association, and the Biotechnology Industry Organization, is quite explicit on this point.  Their goal is to derive 25% of U.S. energy needs from “farms, forests, and ranches” by 2025, informing their members that up to $100 billion in future carbon credit revenues could be leveraged for their bottom line.  Similarly, the International Agriculture and Food Trade Council, which includes Monsanto, Cargill, and Sygenta, is pushing to include agrofuel plantations within the Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Degradation (REDD), another carbon offset scheme.  Under the U.N.’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), all sorts of dubious agricultural projects are already receiving carbon credits.  For example, 90% of CDM credits in Malaysia are for palm oil plantations, while in Mexico 50% of CDM credits go to industrial hog operations.  One is left to wonder if carbon trading may be indirectly creating breeding grounds for new diseases like swine flu.
On Thurs. Dec. 10th USDA Sec. Vilsack participated in a FAO-hosted panel at COP15 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 and divorced from carbon credit subsidies is the fastest growing sector of U.S. agriculture – namely organics. The pattern is bipartisan and all too familar.  The USDA already provides subsidized crop insurance for biotech varieties under its expanded “risk management” program that is not available to organic growers.  Under the last Farm Bill, subsidies were also extended to new feedstock 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 – namely the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which actually does reduce greenhouse gas emissions by taking highly erodible land out of cultivation and putting it back into perennial vegetation.
To make matters worse, at a Dec. 15th  press conference in Copenhagen Sec. Vilsack announced a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the USDA and Dairy Management Inc. to promote methane digesters as yet another agricultural approach to reducing U.S. emissions.   Based upon the track record of the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which became a veritable pork barrel for subsidized factory farm expansion, this MOU 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 happen to 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 this solution is not found in speculating in carbon credits and catering to corporate agribusiness.  The answer lies instead with promoting smallscale sustainable organic agriculture, a position best articulated at COP15 by Via Campesina, the largest umbrella organization for peasants, pastoralists, 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.  This idea applies just as well to carbon as to food.  The North needs to take immediate 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 and death 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.