For decades, the Farm Bureau has derailed climate action, deploying its political apparatus and 6 million members in a forceful alliance with conservative groups and the fossil fuel industry. It calls itself the “voice” of American agriculture, but the Farm Bureau has left its own members ill-prepared to cope with intensifying droughts, rain, heat and storms that threaten their livelihoods. The group’s agenda has blocked farmers’ opportunity to benefit from the agricultural transformation the climate crisis demands.
In this series of articles, InsideClimate News explores how the farm lobby has wielded its influence to undermine climate treaties and regulations. In tandem with fossil fuel allies, it sowed uncertainty and denial about the causes of global warming and the urgency to bring it under control. Embracing taxpayer-funded subsidies to insure farmers against the mounting risks, it has nurtured an unsustainable consolidation of agriculture that discourages climate-friendly farming. That agenda has left farmers ill-prepared to cope with effects of climate change—droughts, heat and storms—while neglecting a key climate solution. The damages to agriculture from climate change are already happening and getting worse; and the latest science suggests they will be much more costly than previously thought. One study found that uncontrolled warming could cut the United States corn crop nearly in half. A landmark United Nations report issued in October included agriculture in its urgent call for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”
By Georgina Gustin, Neela Banerjee, John H. Cushman Jr.OCT 24, 2018
The first in a series on agriculture, climate change and the American Farm Bureau’s influence.
Donald J. Trump’s inaugural crowd may not have been the biggest ever, but his parade drew lots of tractors that rumbled past the presidential reviewing stand in a farm lobby phalanx.
Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, wearing the trademark red Trump campaign cap, drove one of them down Pennsylvania Avenue, just across the mall from his organization’s headquarters.
“The farmers and ranchers and the people in the Rust Belt came out and paved the road for President-elect Trump to make it to the White House,” he told a reporter from RFD-TV, the network that organized the cavalcade. “We are here reinforcing that strength that we showed in rural America when we went to the polls and helped send him here.”
The Farm Bureau is among the most potent political forces in Washington, skillfully parlaying the American farmer into an enduring influence machine. Its agenda encompasses taxes and trade, health insurance and school lunches. The group’s lobbying also touches many environmental issues: water pollution, fracking, biofuels and biodiversity. Conservative to the core, it mirrors the Trump administration’s ideology almost perfectly.
Nowhere do their agendas align more completely—and with more profound consequences—than on the challenge of climate change.
Both oppose any binding international, federal or local action that would regulate the emissions of greenhouse gases, or impose a market price or tax on them. Both refuse to embrace the core tenets of climate science.
And on those points, the Farm Bureau rarely compromises.
“They’re like the NRA,” said Andrew Holland, who worked for former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. Like the gun lobby, the Farm Bureau derives its clout from member activism. “They get their members ginned up about something and then they call the Hill.”
For decades, the Farm Bureau has derailed climate action, deploying its political apparatus and 6 million members in a forceful alliance with conservative groups and the fossil fuel industry. It calls itself the “voice” of American agriculture, but the Farm Bureau has left its own members ill-prepared to cope with intensifying droughts, rain, heat and storms that threaten their livelihoods. The group’s agenda has blocked farmers’ opportunity to benefit from the agricultural transformation the climate crisis demands. In this series of articles, InsideClimate News explores how the farm lobby has wielded its influence to undermine climate treaties and regulations. In tandem with fossil fuel allies, it sowed uncertainty and denial about the causes of global warming and the urgency to bring it under control. Embracing taxpayer-funded subsidies to insure farmers against the mounting risks, it has nurtured an unsustainable consolidation of agriculture that discourages climate-friendly farming.
The damages to agriculture from climate change are already happening and getting worse; and the latest science suggests they will be much more costly than previously thought. One study found that uncontrolled warming could cut the United States corn crop nearly in half. A landmark United Nations report issued in October included agriculture in its urgent call for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”
Even if carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels declines radically, the scientists who wrote the UN report said, nations also must find a way to achieve “negative emissions” that remove carbon dioxide from the air and store it in the ground.
And in a striking message to the world’s farmers, they said there is no cheaper and more effective approach than through climate-friendly farming practices that can increase farm profits while stashing billions of tons of carbon in the soil every year.
With an all-out campaign to restore soil health, studies have found, U.S. land could absorb half of American agriculture’s carbon footprint. Modest annual improvements to arable soils, if adopted worldwide, could halt the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from all human activities.
“This should be an urgent, societal mission. A Manhattan project,” said Keith Paustian, a scientist who has written extensively on soil carbon.
The Farm Bureau Agenda: Big Subsidies, Less Regulation
Despite the existential threat that climate change poses to farming and food security, the Farm Bureau has never included climate action in its list of priorities. The group doesn’t concede the extent of human influence over the climate, promoting a mindset that has taken root among many farmers.
The Farm Bureau “is not a scientific organization, nor do we have climate scientists on staff,” wrote a spokesman in an emailed response to questions from InsideClimate News. “Our policy positions focus on the regulatory costs-and-benefits of policies in reaction to climate change.”
Those who favor urgent climate action have proposed international and domestic pollution trading rules that would reward enterprises — including farms — that are able to cut emissions most cheaply. Emissions trading, like carbon taxes, puts a price on pollution, as is broadly recommended by economists.
For more than 20 years, the Farm Bureau has said a price on carbon would only raise fuel prices, destroy American farms and do little to curb warming.
The Farm Bureau says it would tolerate market-based emissions trading — a way to reward farmers with carbon credits they could cash in — but only if it is voluntary and doesn’t shift costs to other farmers.
The Farm Bureau prefers direct government compensation for farmers who agree to plant in ways that keep carbon in the soil.
Mainly, the farm lobby has supported a rapidly expanding system of federally subsidized insurance: a safety net to protect farmers from financial losses, including from drought, flood and other climate impacts.
These subsidies flow mostly to large producers of major commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans, fostering an environmentally damaging system of large-scale, monoculture farming.
Millions of acres of American farm country are under the stewardship of farmers who doubt that man-made climate change is real, don’t buy into climate-friendly farming or are financially locked into the status quo.
So even as the United States as a whole began to rein in greenhouse gases from fossil fuels in the past 10 years, global warming pollution from its farms has crept upward. Worldwide, the food system remains the source of roughly a quarter of greenhouse gases. A new study in the scientific journalNature predicted these emissions could nearly double worldwide by 2050.
“The Farm Bureau is saying we’ll go out of business if we have to address climate change,” said Laurie Ristino, a former Department of Agriculture lawyer. “But this is dire. We can’t avert the real, tragic consequences of global warming without agriculture, so how can we come together and create a new system?”
Kindred Spirits: Why Ag Joined Forces with Fossil Fuels
Over the past two decades, the Farm Bureau teamed up with fossil fuel interests in all of the most important fights over climate policy.
“The Farm Bureau was absolutely critical in derailing Kyoto,” said Stuart Eizenstat, President Bill Clinton’s chief U.S. negotiator on the Kyoto Protocol, a landmark treaty that was the first to set emissions targets country by country. The United States ultimately backed out.
After Barack Obama came into office, the Farm Bureau helped defeat comprehensive cap-and-trade climate legislation that passed the House. “We must aggressively respond to extremists who want to drag agriculture back to the day of 40 acres and a mule,” former Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman declared at the time. “The days of their elitist power grabs are over.” The bill expired in the Senate.
The Farm Bureau contested the science-based endangerment finding that cemented the role of the Environmental Protection Agency in regulating greenhouse gases, convincing farmers that this would extend to agricultural emissions — what it called a “cow tax.” It opposed the Obama-era Clean Power Plan and the tightening of automobile fuel efficiency and emission standards.
“Our opposition to the ‘Clean Power Plan’ is a good example of our approach to advocacy. We opposed that rule because closing power plants prematurely would bring significantly higher utility rates to rural residents who depend on those plants,” Farm Bureau spokesman Will Rodger said about collaboration with fossil fuel interests. “That policy perspective has, on occasion, aligned AFBF with other energy-based associations such as API,” he wrote in an e-mailed response to questions, referring to the American Petroleum Institute.
Some intersecting interests of farming and fossil fuels are obvious. Diesel propels trucks and tractors. Natural gas is used to make fertilizer. Propane and natural gas dry grain and run heating and ventilation of livestock barns. Despite the notable spread of wind and solar energy in major farm states, rural electric coops burn mostly fossil fuels to light up the countryside — and are backing off coal slower than other utilities.
The Farm Bureau has focused on this deep reliance on fossil fuels to argue that policies to cut greenhouse gases would lead to skyrocketing costs and threaten the survival of American agriculture.
But the alliance goes deeper. State Farm Bureaus are the building blocks of the American Farm Bureau Federation, and over the years, they organized local farmers’ cooperatives that run refineries and directly sell billions of dollars of fuel, alongside seeds and supplies. Less visibly, but more significantly, some state Farm Bureaus hold stakes in insurance companies whose for-profit investment funds hold millions of dollars of securities. The Iowa Farm Bureau’s insurance business, through its fund, held investments last year of about $462 million in fossil fuel corporations, according to financial statements.
For decades, these links fostered a powerful alliance between the Farm Bureau and the fossil fuel lobby. Agriculture was historically a conservative force, the more so after the first local Farm Bureaus were set up a century ago as a counterweight to the progressive populism sweeping the Great Plains. Resistance to regulation, like the need for cheap fuel and fertilizer, fed the Farm Bureau’s reliable support for drilling in offshore waters and in the Arctic wilderness.
The emergence of climate change as a pressing international issue in the 1990’s bound the two industries together more tightly than ever.
“They’re concerned about new burdensome regulations,” then-Farm Bureau President Dean Kleckner said of his members during a 1999 Senate hearing on the Kyoto Protocol. “They’re concerned about the higher costs.”
Sowing Confusion: ‘So Many Unknowns’
Kleckner’s testimony also signaled a deep distrust of the emerging climate science in step with the campaign of misinformation being mounted by the fossil fuel industry.
“The controversial nature of the science makes farmers more concerned for the cure being prescribed for them than the threat of global warming,” Kleckner said.
He conceded that “some farmers” had heard “some scientists” describe the climate risks from agriculture’s pollution.
“Boy, have we heard that this morning,” he said scoffingly. “But there is still a legitimate debate, despite what we have heard, about the magnitude of those changes, their significance and the relative contribution of natural versus human causes including agricultural production.”
The group lent the power of its 6 million members to the cause of the Global Climate Coalition, a pan-industry group founded by the oil lobby to oppose the Kyoto Protocol.
“The Farm Bureau has a grassroots network that was immensely valuable,” recalled Frank Maisano, a former spokesman for the coalition.
The Farm Bureau also dispatched two of its staff economists to work as fellows at the conservative Heartland Institute, honing a message that meeting Kyoto’s goals would cut farm incomes sharply, and that carbon trading, which treaty supporters said presented a golden opportunity for farmers, would not work.
One paper, published in 2003, was prepared by the Farm Bureau’s economists along with others from Heartland and the Hudson Institute, another policy center that disputes the mainstream consensus on climate science. It called state or federal regulation of greenhouse gases “unnecessary, enormously expensive, and particularly injurious to the agricultural community.”
Other government and private economists called the Farm Bureau’s economic analysis flawed. They produced evidence that carbon trading, by rewarding climate-friendly farming practices, would offset much of the costs to agriculture.
But like the fossil fuel industry, the Farm Bureau emphasized uncertainties.
“There are so many unknowns and assumptions and estimates,” Stallman said in 2009 Senate testimony about cap-and-trade legislation. “No one can look you in the face and tell you with certainty what is going to happen.”
Pollsters and academics have described farmers as a fertile audience for the denial message.
Many farmers say they are unsure whether the changes they are witnessing are just natural variability, are not convinced that industrial and agricultural emissions are the main cause, and think they will be able to adapt to anything coming their way.
In polls and focus groups, researchers found that farmers’ climate views are broadly out of step with the mainstream scientific consensus. Some noted the Farm Bureau’s influence. On such a fraught topic, peer pressure may be more compelling than peer review.
“When it comes to making decisions, we don’t think about climate by itself,” one farmer told researchers. “We just, we learn from where we’ve been, and we change and modify to take some of those risks away.”
False Sense of Security: The Problem with Crop Insurance
“Farmers believe they will be saved by technology and crop insurance,” said Joe Glauber, formerly the chief economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The most costly piece of the government’s support for farming, the Department of Agriculture’s crop insurance program, pays out billions of dollars a year when crop prices drop or weather damages harvests. Taxpayers subsidize more than 60 percent of the premiums, cover the administrative costs of the program and reinsure the private insurance industry’s losses. The program has cost the government an average of $9 billion annually over the past five years.
Farmers and their lobbyists often say that without it, many farms would go out of business. But the program also powerfully influences how they run their farms.
Insurance doesn’t just insulate farmers from the direct risks of droughts, floods and other weather extremes. The safety net also discourages farmers from adopting the very methods that would contribute to bringing climate change under control over the long term. So this subsidized insurance program actually increases their exposure to climate-driven risk.
Crop insurance stimulates farmers to plant on marginal land — land that’s more prone to erosion, more environmentally sensitive and less productive — because they know they can recoup their losses even if yields are lower.
“We’ve created this monster with crop insurance,” said Seth Watkins, a farmer from southwest Iowa. “You can farm land that shouldn’t be farmed.”
Climate change turns this subsidy of risky behavior into a vicious circle. It brings more extreme weather, which destroys more crops. But unlike car insurance, which goes up after accidents, crop failures don’t drive insurance premiums.
“You’re not getting the full view of what the risk is,” said Claire O’Connor, who researches crop insurance for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The question becomes: Is that really the best use of the farm safety net? Or should we be encouraging farmers to think about how they can adapt their production systems to the realities of a changing climate?”
During the last cycle of negotiations over the Farm Bill, in 2014, lawmakers tucked a conservation trade-off into the legislation: In exchange for subsidized insurance, farmers had to implement conservation plans that limit erosion on wetlands and highly erodible soils.
The Farm Bureau opposed even that modest agreement. Its inclusion was a rare defeat, but critics say it was substantially watered down. (Congress is now bogged down in negotiations over a new Farm Bill.)
“I wouldn’t begrudge some kind of safety net,” said Ristino, the former Agriculture Department lawyer. “But with this ritual of American policy, it’s become an expectation.”
Locked In: Focusing Heavily on Today Creates Problems for the Future
Crop insurance policies also favor larger farms, the kind that tend to grow just one or two crops per season.
That’s because it’s easier to get insurance at better rates for the big four crops — corn, soy, wheat and cotton. Those account for more than 70 percent of the acreage covered by crop insurance. They also take the lion’s share of the insurance subsidies.
These crops now define the American midsection, a vast monotonous sweep of corn, soy and livestock raised in factory-like barns and feedlots. It’s a landscape created by the relentless pursuit of a simplified, consolidated form of agriculture that focuses on producing just a few commodities.
Climate-friendly agriculture is rare in this corn-soy-livestock paradigm, because larger farms operate on thin margins and soil-building practices can put a dent in short-term profits.
“Farmers are absolutely financial in their behaviors, and for the most part, a lot of these practices, with regard to carbon and the climate, are costs to them,” explained Mark Rasmussen, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. “The cost is now, and the payback is in the future. And for any farmer, the future doesn’t matter if you go bankrupt today.”
This doesn’t have to be the outcome.
In a new financial analysis commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund, auditors inspected the books of several farms that had embraced climate-friendly farming and found that these practices could lower costs and boost yields. “Crop insurers, lenders, landowners and others largely ignore the financial value of conservation,” it found.
“There are courageous independent spirits who can do something outside the structure, outside the Farm Bureau,” said Bobby King, a director at the Minneapolis-based Land Stewardship Project. “But we need to change the structure.”
Tom Driscoll, the conservation policy director of the National Farmers Union, said the answer lies partly in encouraging smaller, more diverse farms. The union, not nearly as big as the Farm Bureau, has many of these farmers as members and has long been more supportive of climate action.
“We need different size farms, doing different things,” he said.
Instead, the size of American farms has ballooned, and production has become concentrated in the hands of fewer, wealthier farmers. In 2015, more than half of the dollar value of all agricultural output came from farms with over $1 million in sales.
This consolidation has boosted the profits of the big equipment, seed and fertilizer industries. But it has effectively turned American soil into a government-supported money-making machine, mined for profit and neglected as a climate resource.
“Consolidation doesn’t allow farmers to make the best ecological choices,” said Mary Hendrickson, a professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri, who has studied consolidation in agriculture. “They’re forced into corn and soy.”
Increasingly, many farmers view themselves as victims of an industry that gives them few choices over what to grow and how.
“Everyone’s in cahoots to produce corn and beans,” said John Wepking, a farmer in Wisconsin who grows a variety of grains. “It’s tunnel vision, and there’s so much money in it, it’s hard to change lanes,” he said. “We need programs to grow carbon.”
Industrial Agriculture, an Extraction Industry Like Fossil Fuels, a Growing Driver of Climate Change
Industrial farming encourages practices that degrade the soil and increase emissions, while leaving farmers more vulnerable to damage as the planet warms.
By Georgina GustinJAN 25, 2019On his farm in southwestern Iowa, Seth Watkins plants several different crops and raises cattle.
He controls erosion and water pollution by leaving some land permanently covered in native grass. He grazes his cattle on pasture, and he sows cover crops to hold the fertile soil in place during the harsh Midwestern winters.
Watkins’ farm is a patchwork of diversity—and his fields mark it as an outlier.
His practices don’t sound radical, but Watkins is a bit of a renegade. He’s among a small contingent of farmers in the region who are holding out against a decades-long trend of consolidation and expansion in American agriculture.
Watkins does this in part because he farms with climate change in mind.
“I can see the impact of the changing climate,” he said. “I know, in the immediate, I’ve got to manage the issue. In the long term, it means doing something to slow down the problem.”
But for several decades, ever-bigger and less-varied farms have overtaken diversified operations like his, replacing them with industrialized row crops or gigantic impoundments of cattle, hogs and chickens.
This trend is a central reason why American agriculture has failed to deal with climate change, a crisis that has been made worse by large-scale farming practices even as it afflicts farmers themselves.
Consolidation has swallowed smaller farms, bolstering a financial and regulatory status quo that has thwarted the kind of climate-friendly approach Watkins and his fellow outliers employ.
“I don’t think any of us wants to get bigger,” Watkins mused. “It’s just the curse of a commodity business. We made all the focus on production, and all the economics, the subsidies, are tied to production. We have a production-focused agriculture policy.”
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This article is part of a series by InsideClimate News exploring agriculture’s role in the global warming crisis and the forces preventing it from playing a greater part in combating climate change.
The consolidation of American farming, reinforced by an emphasis on just one or two main crops—corn and soybeans—has led to a system in which there’s little incentive to grow much else, especially in the agricultural heartland of the Midwest.
This has profound climate and environmental implications. Mega-sized farming encourages practices that degrade the soil, waste fertilizer and mishandle manure, all of which directly increase emissions of greenhouse gases. At the same time, it discourages practices like “no-till” farming and crop rotation that grab carbon dioxide from the air, store it in the soil and improve soil health.
“The industrial food system presents a barrier to realizing the potential climate benefits in agriculture,” said Laura Lengnick, a soil scientist who has written extensively on climate and agriculture. “We continue to invest in this massive corn and soybean and beef-making machine in the Midwest despite all that we know about the changes we could make that would maintain yields, improve farm profitability and deliver climate change solutions.”
This is happening as landmark government reports and ample academic research show that agricultural soils are critical for stabilizing the climate.
One recent government report called the trend toward ever-bigger farms “persistent, widespread and pronounced.”
The report, a comprehensive assessment of consolidation published last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, confirmed what was already apparent to small farmers: “Agricultural production has shifted to much larger farming operations over the last three decades.”
While the report concluded that consolidation is responsible for improvements in productivity, it noted: “At the same time, large-scale farming operations are said to force small farms out of business, damage the viability of rural communities, reduce the diversity of agricultural production, and create environmental risks through their production practices.”
More than a third of cropland is on farms bigger than 2,000 acres. That’s twice the share of land held on big farms 30 years ago.
Bigger operations are richer, too. Half of the value of farm production came from those with annual sales of at least $1 million.
The drivers behind this ongoing expansion are intertwined and complex—a confluence of politics, economics and technology. Agricultural policy has long emphasized over-production, propped up by government subsidies that favor certain crops. Lawmakers have been unwilling to change the system, largely because of a powerful farm lobby and the might of agribusinesses that profit from technological advancements.
“Farmers are dictated in how to farm,” said Adam Mason, a policy director with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. “They’re locked into a system.”
This system has transformed agriculture into a business that resembles the fossil fuel industry as it extracts value out of the ground with relentless efficiency and leaves greenhouse gas pollution in its aftermath.
“From a climate, soil health, and carbon sequestering perspective, we need greater diversity,” said Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “We’re never going to make huge progress on soil health and carbon sequestration until we get that diversity.”
Subsidized Corn and Beans
“You come down to Iowa, it’s all corn and beans, and it’s neutering the land,” said Chris Peterson at his family’s farm near Clear Lake. The farm was nearly pushed out of business in the 1990s, Peterson said, because of consolidation in the livestock industry, but he managed to hang on by finding niche markets for the pork he produces.
Four or five decades ago, typical American farms looked a lot more like Peterson’s, growing several crops and raising livestock in diversified, integrated and time-honored synchrony. Farmers sold some crops and fed others to their animals, which also foraged on grass and over-wintered on hay. Cash crops paid the bills and meat met the mortgage.
Hefty government subsidies, along with market forces and technology, have since tilted the balance to corn and soybeans, transforming much of the Midwest into a vast duoculture of those two crops. The fields get bigger and bigger.
“Subsidies give the larger producers the resources to add more ground that they can tack on to their ever-growing acreage,” Hoefner said. “We directly subsidize consolidation. We reduced the risk of consolidation. Without subsidies, crop insurance and commodity payments, consolidation would have gone much more slowly.”
The resulting corn-and-beans duo demands the heavy use of fertilizers—especially nitrogen synthesized from natural gas—and depletes the soils. And by neglecting diversity, the system forfeits a crucial recovery cycle that would build soil back up and improve its ability to hold carbon.
“We could do a lot to change this simply by shifting to policies that promote nature-based climate resilience,” Lengnick said.
Farm to Fuel
Like subsidies, government mandates to use biofuels have pushed farmers to expand corn and soybean acreage—especially on environmentally sensitive land.
“A lot of erodible land, and some in wetlands, was converted to row crops,” said Matt Liebman, an agronomy professor at Iowa State University. “If you want to soak up the surplus, putting it into ethanol is a good way to do that.”
The mandates require refineries to blend a percentage of biofuels, including corn-based ethanol or soy-based biodiesel, into their fuel mix. Demand for the two crops shot up, adding pressure to shift land into producing them.
But just like what’s happened to oil and gas in the fracking boom, ample supply tended to depress prices. Aside from several years of record crop prices, peaking in 2012, profit margins have remained low, so farmers are driven to compensate by boosting volumes.
“If you’re making fewer dollars per acre, you try to farm more acres,” Liebman said.
As ethanol mandates arrived, genetically modified “Roundup Ready” corn and soybeans had become the dominant crops in the country. Engineering these crops to withstand herbicides that kill weeds made them easier to grow across ever-bigger pieces of land.
“Dumb it down, scale it up—that’s what happened,” said Mary Hendrickson, a professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri, who has studied consolidation in the industry.
Hendrickson said that developments in agricultural technology, including genetically modified crops, have tended to benefit bigger farmers. “You already have consolidation, and farmers who have capital are the ones who benefit,” she said. “The technology is not neutral.”
While genetically modified crops simplified farming, they also boosted herbicide and fertilizer use. The Midwest became a nitrogen fertilizer hotspot, causing soils to emit more nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas. The enriched runoff also feeds algal blooms, another source of greenhouse gases, which recent research suggests are probably undercalculated.
Erosion, loss of grassland, greenhouse gas emissions linked to fertilizers—these, along with methane from manure, are central culprits in agriculture’s expanding climate footprint. The convergence of policy and technology has worsened all of them.
Meat and Mergers
That concentration has occurred not just at the farm level but throughout the food system, including in fertilizer and pesticide manufacturing, grain distribution, food processing and grocery retailing. Four companies or fewer control each of these sectors of the food industry.
Recent mega-mergers of agricultural chemical and seed companies—Monsanto and Bayer, ChinaChem and Syngenta, Dow Chemical and DuPont—have further concentrated seed technology in the hands of a few companies. Critics worry that could leave farmers with fewer choices over what to plant and how.
Nowhere has the consolidation been more pronounced than in the meat industry, a hugely profitable and influential force in American agriculture. Today, a handful of companies, led by Brazil-based JBS Holdings, dominate the global meat industry, wielding enormous economic and political might.
“It’s JBS and Smithfield,” said Joe Maxwell, a hog farmer from Missouri and executive director of the antitrust watchdog Organization for Competitive Markets. “They want the U.S. to be the cheapest place to raise meat. They drive the political power in D.C. The result is that farmers are locked into farming for government programs that are not sustainable, economically and environmentally.”
The consolidation in meat production is also what’s driving the consolidation of crop farming, Maxwell said.
Livestock is now commonly raised or fattened in confinement on a diet of soybeans and corn instead of grass or other forage.
“The decades-long removal of livestock from diversified farms and moving into industrial facilities has certainly increased corn and soybean acreage. Those two things go hand in hand,” Hoefner said. “I think it’s a very open question whether that kind of transition back to a more integrated crop and livestock system is even possible. We’ve made such major landscape changes.”
Technology in Few Hands
Even as the modern agricultural system has exacerbated climate change, powerful corporations in agribusiness have been very clear: The climate challenge presents a business opportunity.
Farmers will need new technologies to combat drought and pests, more irrigation, more equipment. In Iowa, where heavy spring rains mean the window for planting has tightened, farmers have to buy bigger planters to get their crops in the ground faster. Agri-chemical companies, including the newly merged Monsanto-Bayer, are committing billions to finding the next generation of drought-resistant crops and pesticides to use with them.
Many of these agribusiness giants say the future is in “climate smart” and “precision” agriculture, industry lingo that means relying on data and satellites to inform how farmers plant, fertilize and harvest—but that keeps the current system in place. Critics say this approach over-emphasizes technological fixes to adapt to climate change, rather than meaningful regulation or changes in agricultural practices to control greenhouse gas emissions.
“The problem with precision agriculture is that it’s going to be very expensive and capital intensive, and it’s already a capital-intensive business,” said Mark Rasmussen, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.
That, like so many factors influencing today’s agricultural system, favors larger farms.
Simplification Driving Risk
The interaction of a warming climate, crop specialization and concentration “increases the vulnerability of the U.S. food system,” Lengnick warned in a peer-reviewed study published in 2015.
In the agricultural powerhouse of the Midwest, the risks could be especially high because diversity has disappeared across such a broad landscape.
“Most farmers have corn and soy, and if they have a drought they lose everything,” said Francis Thicke, a former soil scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who now keeps a small herd of dairy cows, feeding them grass and hay that he grows on his farm. “There’s very little resilience in these systems.”
Diversified farms have more protection against bad weather or low demand. When one crop fails, another provides a back-up. In a simplified farming system, insurance and other government subsidies effectively take the place of this security by guaranteeing payouts when crop yields or prices are low. But most of this federal support goes to larger farms, further driving consolidation.
“You really don’t have to worry if the crop fails because insurance is available and that’s shifted the dynamic,” Liebman said. “Farmers respond to averages, but also to extremes—and insurance buffers the extremes.”
Bigger farms focus on fewer crops because it’s simpler and more efficient, especially on a huge scale. This sacrifices the diversity that keeps the food system safe from the vicissitudes of climate change.
“Redundancy is the enemy of efficiency because redundancy says: Let’s maintain backup systems. Efficiency says: You don’t need them,” Hendrickson said.
Some researchers suggest bigger farms could be less adaptable or able to change course as global warming drives more extreme and unpredictable weather.
“Are these large organizations going to be flexible and be able to adjust on the fly, and keep up as things get more erratic and uncertain?” Rasmussen asked. “You may be big and have a lot of influence, but you can also fall hard.”
A Generational Change
The aging of a generation of farmers is also accelerating consolidation.
The average farmer is approaching 60 years old, and many farmers are relying on the land to finance retirement. But they’re not selling it to young farmers, who can’t afford the high land prices. They’re selling it to larger farms or leasing it out. In Iowa alone, more than half the farmland is farmed by non-owners.
According to the Oakland Institute, nearly half of all U.S. farmland will change hands in the next 20 years as more farmers retire. “With an estimated $10 billion in capital already looking for access to U.S. farmland, institutional investors openly hope to expand their holdings as this retirement bulge takes place,” the institute says.
Investors and tenants, critics worry, are less likely to farm in ways that conserve the soil—because conservation measures can shrink profit margins—or to grow diversified crops because there are fewer markets or support for them.
“The traditional midscale family farmers are more likely to be diversified,” Hoefner said. “We used to think in terms of 1,000- or 2,500-acre grain farms being big, and now 10,000- and 15,000-acre farms are not unusual. It’s very hard to imagine those extremely large grain farms diversifying to the extent that we need to solve the problem.”
Last year, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey introduced legislation calling for a temporary moratorium on mergers across the food and farming industries—from seed corporations to grocery stores.
“Consolidation has now reached a point where the top four firms in almost every sector of the food and agriculture economy have acquired abusive levels of market power,” Booker said when he introduced the bill. “As a result, the U.S. is losing farmers at an alarming rate, agricultural jobs and wages are drying up, and rural communities are disappearing.”
But, so far, the momentum continues in one direction.
“They all think bigger is better,” Maxwell said. “Market power gives you political power. Even though many farmers would support better stewardship, we’re beating our head against the wall.”
Top image: Illustration based on photo by Christian Ender via Getty Images.