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GoGreenNation News: Opinion: The global food system is failing small-scale farmers — here’s how to fix it
GoGreenNation News: Opinion: The global food system is failing small-scale farmers — here’s how to fix it

I held her as she wept into my shirt while my lab mate ran across the coffee field to get tissues. We were standing on a coffee farm 7,500 feet above sea level in the middle of the Jamaican Blue Mountains. Before she broke down, the woman was telling us about her life as a farmer. Weeping was commonplace throughout my interviews in Jamaica. Farmers told me how fertilizer prices skyrocketed because Russia is the world’s top fertilizer exporter and the Russian invasion of Ukraine made it nearly impossible for them to afford the increased costs. I also heard stories of how unattended rural roads make it impossible to maintain vehicles. However, during this interview this woman was one of a few who told us about a more local economic issue: farmers have no control over the value of their crops because local corporations control the market. She explained how for farmers to produce enough to make a living, they need fertilizer and pesticides, which are expensive. Agrochemical companies spend billions of dollars to ensure that industrial farms can maintain a crop year-round —so that Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee beans get from a farmer’s bush in Portland Parish of Jamaica and into your hands at your local grocery store, even in the middle of February. But the labor of small-scale farmers is not calculated into these companies’ profit margins, leaving the people who grow those coffee beans crying on the shoulder of anyone who would listen. The global food system is broken. We have seen the latest examples wreak havoc across the world this past year: wheat production in Russia declined with the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine; Hawai’i’s governor wants to grow more food on-island because recent studies have shown that if they were to be hit by a natural disaster, they would only have three days’ worth of food as they rely on imports for survival. Meanwhile, industrial agriculture emits one-third of the world’s climate-warming gases. But the biggest example of how broken the system is: small-scale farmers, which produce more than 70% of the food we eat, are often the populations with the most malnourished individuals living in absolute poverty.This essay is also available in SpanishIf humans want to withstand upcoming and ongoing climate disasters, our food system needs to change. It is time to shift away from industrial agriculture. We need to produce our food in ways that give back power to those who produce, distribute and consume food so they can change and design the mechanisms and policies that govern food production and distribution. You have the power to change what happens to your food before it's on your plate or in your cup by integrating a relationship with farmers and the land around you into your daily lifestyle.How has agriculture changed throughout history? The Jamaican woman I interviewed at the Blue Mountains reminded me of my history with agriculture. My grandparents were sharecroppers in the deep South during the Jim Crow era. Throughout my life, they explained they were forced to produce crops that white landowners wanted to sell in markets, and, as a result, my family had little to no control over what they ate or how much money they made. Millions of African-Americans were cogs in the machine of what we in academia know as the industrial agriculture food regime. A food regime is, in simple terms, how food is produced in a certain society during a specific period. For example, between 1870-1914, tropical fruits, vegetables and crops like sugar were shipped from colonies to Europe, where a new industrial class was growing. That era was called the colonial food regime. But as we approached 1945, industrialized countries, also known as the Global North, pushed former colonies (the Global South) toward industrialization, injecting into their fields with crops like wheat, corn, or soy –and the pesticides needed to help them grow to industrialized standards – and the use of agricultural technology, such as tractors. This led us to today’s food regime: agriculture is characterized by the overuse of fertilizers, large extensions of single crops known as monocultures, and, most importantly, pesticides. It’s the era of the corporate food regime. Jamaica is a prime example. The third-largest island of the Greater Antilles, there are 14 parishes in Jamaica, of which 13 produce coffee. The high mountains crossing the landscape of the Caribbean archipelago nation infuse a uniquely earthy and herbaceous flavor to Jamaican coffee beans. Due to this limited production and high demand, this coffee is also significantly more costly and sold internationally by large-scale companies. In Jamaica and elsewhere, this food regime is taking an enormous toll on the environment, from polluting waterways to endangering public health through disease outbreaks and pesticide exposure, to exacerbating climate change. Industrial crops require fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides, and other intensive materials to kill all other organisms that might touch our food. Cattle production requires clearing large swaths of land, and all plant life that would have been sucking CO2 from the surrounding atmosphere is gone and replaced with livestock. As a result, one-third of the world’s carbon emissions come from agriculture.What do the farmers think about industrial agriculture? After the weeping subsided, the woman I interviewed had a lot to say about the Jamaican food system. She wasn’t the only one. When I sat down with farmers of all ages across the Jamaican Blue Mountains to understand the choices they had made and where they saw themselves in the grand scheme of the global food system, I realized many of them had family ties to agriculture that reached back generations. They told me how they prefer small, local business owners to buy their crops because they treat them better than larger corporations. Mr. Brown, a coffee farmer with 40 years of experience, said of the small business owner he works with?, “He’s a small farmer like us, and he knows the benefit of it, so he pays us more than the other people that come in to buy would buy for, you know?”Agents of Change in Environmental Justice · Alexa White on supporting small-scale farmers Walking with them through their farms, I saw that the crops growing alongside the coffee were not foods that they would take home to eat but rather foods that they needed to sell for export. Yet that diversity did not bring in enough additional money. Most of the companies, mostly led by non-Jamaican men, that buy their crops are only interested in coffee production. Even when these companies would buy other crops, they would pay them a minuscule amount compared to what they would make from the coffee on the international market. If you compare the prices of the fertilizers, manure, and other inputs needed to produce enough coffee to satisfy these companies with their rising costs, they would probably not be able to last until next year, farmers told me. Mrs. Crew, a third-generation farmer, explained, “It’s giving us a hard time, so I say maybe that is what is going to push small farmers out of the business.” Small-scale farmers are stuck in limbo, as they need to produce enough food to sell to the companies that control the market, which forces them to use expensive inputs that make it possible to get the crop yields the buying companies require. Profit margins are small –and farmers struggle to put enough food on their table. As a result of this unjust arrangement, half of the world’s undernourished population (about 407 million people), 75% of Africa’s malnourished children, and most people living in absolute poverty live on small farms. That means that those living on the nearly 500 million small farms on this planet do not seem to benefit from their contributions to the world’s food security.What can be done to help small farmers and tackle hunger?For years now, sustainable development circles have debated changing the agricultural system as an urgent task if humanity is to have a livable future. A lot of attention has been given to pushing small-scale farms to increase production to “feed the world’s growing population.” And yet, small-scale farms already produce enough food to feed the world. Therefore, international initiatives to address world hunger should include small-scale farmers’ perspectives and participation.But that won’t be enough. To drive ourselves away from industrial agriculture we have to embrace the ideals of the food sovereignty movement –a movement that advocates for a food system in which the people who produce, distribute and consume food also control the mechanisms and policies of food production and distribution. It stands in contrast to the present corporate food regime, in which corporations and market institutions control the global food system. Food sovereignty requires us to rethink our relationship with food. It invites us to recognize, for example, how unnatural it is to expect to drink a cup of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee on a cold February morning. A good way to start developing a more intimate relationship with food can be by consuming food from nearby food cooperatives or Community Supported Agriculture systems, which you can find using websites like Local Harvest or the Co-op Directory. Buying your food from Black, Indigenous, or POC-owned farms helps to re-distribute wealth to small-scale farmers.Food is an environmental issue that we encounter every single day, yet as an international society, we chose to ignore the people who help to get food to our table and do nothing to end the oppressive systems impoverishing them. There must be a major shift in how our food systems operate. This can begin with you. This essay was produced through the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice fellowship. Agents of Change empowers emerging leaders from historically excluded backgrounds in science and academia to reimagine solutions for a just and healthy planet.

GoGreenNation News: How the Meat Industry Undermines Effective Climate Policy
GoGreenNation News: How the Meat Industry Undermines Effective Climate Policy

For years, meat producers have worked furiously behind the scenes to keep meat reduction out of discussions on climate policy. The first draft of the 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report on climate change mitigation recommended shifting to plant-based diets and agricultural systems. Delegates dispatched by then-Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro—who presided over a mass burning of the Amazon rainforest, in part by beef producers—helped get that phrase removed. The IPPC flinching in the face of lobbying meant that same ambivalence toward agriculture could carry over into that year’s Conference of the Parties for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was focused on establishing a framework to reduce methane emissions: Despite the fact that animal agriculture emits a third of global methane and that it is impossible to meet emissions targets without addressing the food sector, the question of the industry’s contribution to anthropogenic climate change was conspicuously left off the policy menu—even though food options offered to conference attendees were paired with a carbon calculator.The public is well aware, at this point, of fossil fuel lobbyists’ obstructionism on climate policy. We know, for instance, that there were more fossil fuel lobbyists than delegates for any country at COP26, and that the number has increased further at this year’s COP27. It’s harder to run the numbers on those representing the meat industry. Their influence, however, is evident.As criticism of animal agriculture and its contribution to climate change has ramped up in recent years, so has the industry’s counter-offensive.The plan President Biden announced on Friday at this year’s COP27—which to its credit is putting food on the agenda—set specific goals for energy, but was conspicuously vague on agriculture. The president merely said he intended to expand the country’s domestic programs for “climate-smart” agriculture globally—domestic programs that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has previously said would not require any reduction in meat production. This is in line with last year’s methane pledge, which set strict new standards for energy and waste sectors, but approached agriculture “through technology innovation as well as incentives and partnerships” with corporations like Bayer and JBS, a double standard celebrated by meat industry lobbyists.     As criticism of animal agriculture and its contribution to climate change has ramped up in recent years, so has the industry’s counter-offensive. Drawing on the playbook developed by the fossil fuel industry during its fifty-year campaign to sow doubt about the role of fossil fuels in climate change, the meat industry is now using dodgy science paired with savvy public relations  to convince everyone, from the public through to world leaders, that we should do anything other than the one thing scientists agree we need to do: scale down the meat sector.One of the most effective tactics employed by the meat lobby is the use of creative accounting methods to obscure its climate impact. Because some greenhouse gases are stronger than others, when quantifying emissions, climatologists use a quotient called global warming potential (GWP) to boil everything down to a single figure: carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). Since gases like methane contribute to rapid heating but break down in the atmosphere, GWP changes depending on the time frame. For instance, while the global warming potential of methane over 100 years (GWP100) is 28 times that of CO2, over 20 years, methane is approximately 86 times as powerful as CO2. The 100-year figure is what’s typically cited, but many climatologists assert that this downplays the importance of reducing methane and nitrous oxide pollution in the immediate future, as we don’t have a century to stop climate change. Methane’s biggest emitters, including the meat industry, don’t stop there in downplaying methane’s damage. Rather than use the GWP100 figure, which already underestimates heating from methane, they prefer a different one: GWP*. GWP* was developed because although GWP is the universal tool for counting emissions from a country, industry, or company, it doesn’t work well for modeling, since it can’t capture the transience of gases like methane. The new quotient, GWP*, is instead a tool for predicting global temperature change. Since the planet doesn’t heat more when methane levels are stable, the GWP* of a constant methane level is zero. The meat industry quickly realized this meant that as long as methane emissions didn’t rise they could claim they weren’t contributing to global warming, and began lobbying for its use as an accounting metric—not what it was designed for at all. Funneling millions of dollars through backchannels, the animal agribusiness lobby has financed the promotion of GWP* as the new greenhouse gas accounting standard through groups ranging from U.C. Davis’ CLEAR Center to the lobbyists at COP. Challenging the conventional climate calculus not only helps the meat industry to downplay its emissions, but to seed the suspicion that IPCC statistics unfairly malign the industry. The second line of defense that the meat industry has been promoting are technological fixes for the environmental damage caused by livestock. In the case of methane, the industry has rushed to fund research into seaweed-based feed additives for cows, aimed at reducing the methane produced by their digestive systems. But while industry pilot studies estimated the emissions-reduction potential of such additives as high as 80 percent at the feedlot stage, they didn’t mention that this translates to life cycle emissions cuts of only around 9 percent. The industry is quick to drum up positive press to suggest that all it will take to make cows climate-friendly is some algae or methane-capturing masks for cows, but these fixes are far from being widely viable or scalable. In all these cases, the needed environmental improvements can’t be achieved by quick fixes. Yet by aggressively pushing their message to journalists and businesses, the meat industry has prolonged the debate over the environmental sustainability of meat by suggesting that the environmental impacts of animal agriculture aren’t fundamental features, just inconvenient bugs.But perhaps the most egregious tactic of the meat lobby is to sell itself as the solution to the problems it creates. Factory farms and industrial feedlots, by concentrating thousands of animals in confined spaces, also create massive manure lagoons that both generate methane and leech or are outright dumped into waterways, contributing to the so-called dead zones expanding from river deltas. But while scientists stress the need to reduce animal waste, the industry has succeeded in securing lucrative tax exemptions for increasing it, touting the ostensible environmental benefits of refining manure into methane biogas, turning waste into an income stream. Due to successful lobbying, methane digesters have been classified under Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act as renewable energy generation, complete with huge tax credits incentivizing expansion of factory dairies, who have excitedly projected that “milk has become the byproduct of manure production!” Similarly, so-called carbon farming has become a cash cow for the ranching sector. While international panels of experts and even the industry’s own research shows that sequestering carbon in soil can’t persist for any meaningful time-scale, the industry still insists that ranching can become carbon negative with proper management. Carbon credits are now traded like stocks in speculative markets, with both agribusiness and oil backing them as a tool for emissions reduction. The USDA provides carbon credit calculators to assist ranchers in qualifying and buying in—helping them, or whomever buys their credits, to erase their emissions with carbon offsets based on sketchy assumptions and self-reported data. Like seaweed additives, carbon farming generates reams of good press for the industry. And by greenwashing their operations as climate solutions, the meat and dairy sectors can frame their critics as hostile not just to their industries, but to climate progress itself.In this battle over policy and public opinion, scientific claims are wielded as weapons and the industry is itself a weaponsmith, funding the research and scientists that fight in its corner. Both the tobacco industry and the fossil fuel industry have spent heavily on scientists and experts who would push out research and arguments to defend their interests—sometimes even using the same experts. The meat industry—which starts with the advantage of already having close links with land-grant university agriculture and animal science programs—invests in research under the banner of reducing its carbon footprint. Yet this research is also used—arguably, designed, in fact—to challenge critique in the court of public opinion. One recent bombshell investigation from Greenpeace Unearthed, for example, detailed how a livestock feed lobbying group conceived and financed a communications center at U.C. Davis and used it to spread disinformation on the meat industry’s impact on climate. On the global stage, the livestock sector wields considerable influence within international organizations like the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, which promotes the industry pursuing public-private partnerships for agribusiness development, unlike other UN organizations’ approach to energy.In 2017, industry finance overtook public grants to fund the majority of research in the United States for the first time in almost a century.This problem goes beyond one single scholar or even one single academic center. In 2017, industry finance overtook public grants to fund the majority of research in the United States for the first time in almost a century. The corporate long game to supplant public science has succeeded in transforming not only the output, but the culture of academia. Researchers become reluctant to criticize even the most egregious science corruption scandals when they know their own grants come from private institutions as well. This pattern erodes public trust in scientific institutions, which in turn benefits industry: By creating space for uncertainty, corporations funding misinformation about their products can then demand seats at the political table and the representation of “both sides” in media.When the science became unequivocal that cigarettes and their second-hand smoke were carcinogenic, the tobacco industry sought to challenge these findings, funding its own research and lobbying to cast doubt on the emerging scientific consensus. This delay in meaningful regulation likely caused millions of avoidable deaths. These tactics of delay and agnotology—deliberate ignorance, rather than the organic absence of knowledge—were picked up by the fossil fuel industry, which has regularly employed lobbyists and scientists to challenge the consensus on the role of fossil fuels in driving climate change. These ongoing delay tactics have helped prevent binding regulation and set us on a course to miss the target of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees. The historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway dub those who challenge scientific consensus and muddy the public discussion on behalf of harmful industries “merchants of doubt.” Their game is not necessarily outright denial, but active, perpetual equivocation. The goal is to drag out the debate and introduce doubt where there shouldn’t be in order to defend the status quo.Amid global climate and extinction crises driven in part by animal agriculture, the meat merchants of doubt have thoroughly succeeded at this goal: Their interests have infiltrated the highest echelons of global politics and their ideas have taken root in public discussions about the food system. In recent years, activists have made progress identifying and abating the influence of the fossil fuel industry from media and academia—through campaigning for divestment, tracking political contributions, demanding news coverage, and more. Now we must do the same for meat. The good news is that we know their strategy. The bad news is that we’re running out of time.

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