We're dispelling the myths of industrial agriculture.
Welcome to our Big Ag Mythbusters blog series! We are here to debunk the tall tales that multinational agrifood corporations use to defend their business model and defeat any meaningful reforms. We’re publishing this series alongside our groundbreaking report titled “The Truth About Industrial Agriculture: A Fragile System Propped up by Myths and Hidden Costs.”
Industrial agriculture is sustainable, climate-smart, and renewable.
Like manure in a CAFO lagoon, the evidence is piling up: industrial agriculture’s toxic, extractive, inefficient, and carbon-intensive practices cause damage to the environment and pass the costs of cleanup along to taxpayers, family farmers, and rural communities.
Farmers, especially Indigenous peoples, have known for centuries that food production can and should work in sync with the earth’s natural ability to regenerate resources like soil and freshwater. In fact, present-day diversified farms have the ability to reduce soil erosion and even increase yields over time. Yet agrifood corporations have chosen destructive industrial methods for food production over long-term environmental health — to the detriment of everyone who lives on this planet.
Recently, more consumers and policy makers have been getting wise to the damage industrial agriculture is inflicting on the environment. In order to distract from the problems they created, agrifood giants have conjured up marketing ploys that co-opt, water down, and rebrand time-honored ecological wisdom with shiny new terms like “climate-smart.”
The “Efficiency” Tall Tale
The crux of Big Ag’s “climate-smart” claim is that the efficiency of intensive production models protects the environment and reduces pollution. The truth is, their profit-driven models are as inefficient as they are environmentally destructive. Instead of using cropland to feed people, Big Ag puts about 50% of U.S. cropland to work just feeding livestock. This perpetuates the inefficient and sprawling feed-meat complex, a system of subsidies and consolidation that produces less food and feeds fewer people.
For a food system to be successful, resilience is just as important as efficiency. For proof, look no further than the flooding in North Carolina, or even COVID-19. These disruptions caused millions of pounds of food to be lost, exposing just how brittle and vulnerable industrial agriculture’s supply chains are, and how catastrophically its systems will fail in the face of inevitable complications.
Monocultures — the so-called “efficient” industrial practice of replanting the same crops in the same fields — are known to exacerbate extreme weather events like droughts and floods. Of course droughts and floods cause losses for smaller independent farmers, too, but the consolidation in our agriculture system means that all of our proverbial (and even literal) eggs are in just a few baskets. As extreme weather becomes more common, the resiliency that local and regional food systems provide is more important than ever.
As monocultures and extreme weather leave soils devoid of water and nutrients, shameless agrifood corporations peddle remedies for the problems they’re amplifying: inputs like seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers, which are chemically and biologically engineered to make crops more resistant to droughts, soil erosion, and pests. The stated purpose is to conserve natural and financial resources (droughts cost the U.S. $10 billion to $14 billion annually). But these inputs do nothing to actually restore healthy soil, a natural buffer to drought and flooding, and in fact their production emits vast amounts of methane and carbon. The truth is, these products are nothing more than a quick fix with devastating long-term consequences.
Big Ag’s Green Gimmicks
Methane-producing CAFOs have begun to attract global attention for their outsized contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, leading a growing number of food companies and concerned individuals to turn away from meat. Faced with the prospect of losing customers, corporations could have changed their practices to raise livestock sustainably, the way millions of farmers and ranchers have. (Of course, livestock production itself is not the environmental problem, but the manner in which it has been industrialized, consolidated, and allowed to operate in the absence of environmental regulations.) Instead, consolidated corporations like Tyson Foods are launching plant-based and cellular meat alternatives — the industrial production of which bears a whole host of other problems.
If agrifood corporations reduced their emissions by deploying more sustainable practices, the positive impact would be profound. But this is not the swiftest path to greater profits, and so Big Ag finds deviously inventive ways to take advantage of programs that should financially reward truly sustainable practices. Methane digesters (also called anaerobic digesters) are another prime example of this kind of greenwashing: agrifood corporations have been awarded huge amounts of government dollars (aka taxpayer dollars) to build the equipment necessary to extract methane from animal manure and turn it into biogas, touted as a renewable energy source.
The trouble is, paying corporations to install methane digesters only incentivizes CAFOs, which are demonstrably terrible for human and environmental health, and turn what should be an incentive for sustainable practices into yet another enabling mechanism for industrial agriculture. On top of that, the renewable manure-turned-fuel is releasing multiple hazardous (and terrible-smelling) air pollutants that are only slightly less environmentally harmful than a CAFO manure lagoon.
Yet again, agrifood corporations have found a way to profit from a problem they created. Yet again, consumers are being misled by companies like Smithfield, who market a green façade instead of cleaning up their act.
Placating with Policies
As corporate greenwashing practices dupe consumers and steal opportunities from truly sustainable farmers and ranchers, policymakers have attempted to step in and set things straight.
Carbon markets are an example of a theoretically good way to reward farmers practicing regenerative methods — but of course, corporations have wielded their influence to turn policies like this into another revenue stream. In a market that theoretically pays farmers based on the amount of carbon captured, stored, or offset, those monoculture crop systems and methane-belching CAFO lagoons will rake in the most cash. An independent farmer pasture-raising cattle in a diversified operation might only get some spare change.
Government programs like the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services, designed to respond to ecological crises perpetuated by industrial agriculture, have locked in the profit-extracting scheme of agrifood giants too. And programs like the Conservation Reserve Program provide short-sighted incentives that stand to benefit the biggest farms the most.
So What’s the Solution?
It should be said that the lead architects of the system that produces such environmental devastation are the agrifood corporations. For the most part, individual farmers and ranchers are stuck on a treadmill with few options to exit. It’s not a radical idea for farmers to make ends meet without polluting, and it’s not a radical idea that food production could actually provide climate benefits.
We urgently need to hold agrifood corporations responsible for the damage they’ve caused. That damage includes the exploitative way they do business with farmers. It includes polluting low income communities and communities of color only to offset the damage for a profit.
Ultimately, creating an environmentally-friendly food system requires breaking up the market power that a handful of agrifood monopolies wield over the world today.
Instead of rewarding these polluting monopolies with taxpayer dollars, let’s restore market opportunities for Indigenous farmers and acknowledge the contributions they continue to make to our thinking about regenerative food production systems. Let’s prioritize the young and beginning farmers who have been shut out of the market by monopoly powers. Let’s help truly diversified and sustainable farmers access markets, grow their businesses, and feed their communities and beyond.
We have the tools we need to build a better food system. It all starts with taking on the myths, and taking off the green-tinted glasses.
Written by Anna Straus; designed by Dee Laninga; edited by Dee Laninga, Angela Huffman, Emily Miller, and Joe Maxwell; concept developed from “The Truth About Industrial Agriculture: A Fragile System Propped up by Myths and Hidden Costs” by Emily M. Miller.