At an Annual Sustainability Gathering, Big Ag Describes its Efforts to Control the Narrative | Civil Eats

At an Annual Sustainability Gathering, Big Ag Describes its Efforts to Control the Narrative

A report from the floor of the Sustainable Ag Summit, where industry leaders are paying more attention to an ‘anti-meat agenda’ than the climate crisis.

Combines Harvesting Corn On Field Against Clear Sky

Las Vegas, built on unsustainable excess, is now the fastest-warming city in America and is running out of water. It was within that fraught context that, late last month, representatives of the U.S. agriculture industry’s most powerful trade groups and agribusiness companies—along with farmers, scientists, and advocates—gathered there for the 7th annual Sustainable Agriculture Summit.

Field to Market, a nonprofit alliance of commodity farm groups that promotes adoption of farm conservation practices, and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, an arm of the Dairy Checkoff, hosted the Summit. Groups that represented other sectors, including the Pork Checkoff, the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, and the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, were also involved. And Corteva Agriscience—the pesticide-and-seed company spun off after a series of mergers and acquisitions between Dow, DuPont, and Pioneer—was the event’s premier sponsor. This year’s theme was “regeneration and resilience.”

“With more than 700 diverse stakeholders participating in the 2021 event, we believe the Summit provides our participants with a critical meeting place for sustainability leaders across agriculture to make connections and share learnings with peers up and down the value chain,” said Brandon Hunnicutt, a Nebraska farmer and chair of Field to Market. “We hope that participants walk away having forged and strengthened cross-sector partnerships which will drive a more sustainable future for our industry.” Hunnicutt added that this year, organizers were proud to expand beyond key environmental topics to “elevate conversations related to social and economic sustainability.”

Overall, the feeling that pervaded the Summit was not of urgency; instead, industry leaders focused on communicating the sustainability progress they had already made to consumers.

I attended the event to moderate the first panel on agricultural labor (Civil Eats paid for my travel and lodging), but I also wanted to find out first-hand how the representatives of these influential groups and companies were thinking and talking about sustainability. The timing was especially apt for a discussion of agriculture’s role in curbing and adapting to the climate crisis: The week prior, COP26 directed new attention toward the importance of cutting methane emissions—a significant percentage of which come from the food system—in order to meet global goals to limit warming.

At around the same time, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released an analysis that found the food system accounts for a larger chunk of greenhouse gas emissions than previously calculated. And farmers had felt the impacts of the climate crisis acutely in the year leading up to the gathering—from winemakers losing grape harvests to smoke damage to ranchers selling off cattle due to extreme drought.

Many of the farmers who attended were eager to discuss those circumstances and to discover and implement new solutions. But, overall, the feeling that pervaded the event was not of urgency or of a need to rethink or rebuild systems. Instead, most representatives from the meat, dairy, and commodity crop industries were focused primarily on talking about the progress they believe they have already made within their supply chains and how they can more effectively communicate that progress to consumers.

Discussions around how to reward farmers for climate-friendly practices were also central. Multiple panels focused on carbon markets and other ways to pay farmers for ecosystem services, and in a virtual address from Washington, D.C., Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Jewel Bronaugh emphasized the agency’s support for scaling up ecosystem markets, voluntary conservation programs, and methane digesters. “It’s past time to take the challenges of climate change and turn them into opportunity,” she told the crowd.

On a panel dedicated to COP26, William Hohenstein, Director of the Office of Energy and Environment Policy at the USDA, added that an unprecedented level of federal investment in “deploying things like cover crops, [methane] digesters, and solid separators and a whole range of technologies” has the potential to “really transform and improve the climate performance of the sector.”

‘Us Versus Them’

However, discussions about new revenue streams didn’t seem to do much to chip away at an undercurrent of resentment toward the bulk of Americans, who farmers see as unfamiliar with the realities of agriculture and yet still demanding changes from those doing the work. Over and over, I heard farmers express frustrations about the public’s growing attention to agriculture’s environmental impacts and their demands for more sustainable food.

“I’m sure you’ve all seen the blue-green algae horror stories on the East Coast,” said Gene Lollis, the ranch manager of Archbold Biological Station’s Buck Island Ranch in Florida, a working cattle operation and research facility that focuses on environmental stewardship within the Northern Everglades Ecosystem. “You know who gets the blame for that? It’s all agriculture. It has nothing to do with the 21-and-a-half million people that live in Florida or the 125,000—before COVID—who come to visit.”

Industry representatives took that messaging and ran with it. Multiple panelists repeatedly referred to an amorphous “them” to refer to an uneducated public without their hands in the dirt. As a result, the conversations often felt politicized and at odds with other discussions happening around the country, in which politicians are calling for shifts away from classes of pesticides or experts are recommending Americans reduce meat consumption (which is currently much higher than dietary guidelines recommend) to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

This framing was most prominent on a panel devoted to the U.N. Food Systems Summit, which almost immediately turned into a narrative of industry efforts to thwart what they saw as an “anti-animal-ag agenda” driving it. One of the major criticisms scientists and activists had of the U.N. event was that it gave powerful food and agriculture corporations too much of a voice. And, panelists at the Sustainable Ag Summit from the meat, dairy, and animal feed industries laid out, step by step, how they came together to ensure that their interests were represented, specifically by preventing any recommendations to reduce meat consumption.

“We were scared to death that these guys were trying to undermine the system that feeds the world very efficiently. Hopefully [we] changed the narrative.”

“We had some intelligence that there was a very realistic possibility early on . . . that there was going to be a broad recommendation from the United Nations that across the world people should dramatically reduce their animal protein consumption, and that was a concern for a variety of reasons,” said Eric Mittenthal, vice president of sustainability at the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), which represents the country’s biggest meatpackers, including JBS, Tyson Foods, and Smithfield Foods. “Meat was very much in the crosshairs.”

Another panelist, Lloyd Day of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, referred to the much-read 2019 EAT-Lancet report as an example of the looming threat to animal agriculture. The Commission behind the report reviewed the body of research available to pinpoint the ideal diet for both climate and nutrition; it recommended a 50 percent reduction—not elimination—of red meat. Day outlined how groups from across the dairy, livestock, poultry, feed, and other industries had come together in advance of the U.N. meeting to challenge those conclusions by producing a document that would position industrial animal agriculture as part of a global climate solution.

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“We were scared to death that these guys were trying to undermine the system that feeds the world very efficiently,” Day said. “Hopefully it changed the narrative.”

Constance Cullman, the president and CEO of the American Feed Industry Association, said that she thought the coalition’s engagement with both the U.S. and global governments had been successful at doing that, especially around “access to innovation and new technologies, diverse production systems and processing systems, and diverse diets.”

The panelists expressed their pleasure about the coalitions they formed through the Summit, like the USDA-led Coalition of Action on Sustainable Productivity Growth for Food Security and Resource Conservation, which will allow them to continue to work together to position industrial meat as crucial to sustainable, healthy diets. But at the same time, they warned the audience about other coalitions that emerged from the event.

“There’s a healthy diets coalition, which sounds fantastic until you realize that the folks leading that effort are the ones that would like to see animal protein and food from animals minimized on the plate,” Cullman said. “There’s also an agroecology coalition that is really very much aligned with the E.U. Farm to Fork [plan], which is somewhat problematic, because it does advocate taking major inputs off the table and major tools away from producers to be able to produce food.”

The E.U. Farm to Fork plan seeks to confront climate change and improve nutrition in the E.U. and includes specific goals to help farmers reduce chemical fertilizer and pesticide use, increase organic acreage, and to shift Europeans toward diets less focused on red and processed meats.

The U.S. government under both Presidents Trump and Biden has rejected that approach, instead launching the Agriculture Innovation Mission (AIM) for Climate at COP26, which focuses on investing in research and voluntary, market-driven shifts towards what USDA calls “sustainable productivity growth.” While at COP26, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told The Guardian he does not believe the U.S. needs to reduce meat consumption or production to meet climate goals, and AIM for Climate is already directing funds toward projects run by industry organizations like the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

The Promise of Regenerative Ag

While the U.N. Food Systems Summit panel spotlighted the intense efforts to keep meat at the center of consumers’ plates despite the climate crisis, another takeaway revolves around differences between the E.U. and U.S. approach to sustainable agriculture. Most farmers and companies at the Summit communicated an expansive—and chemical-inclusive—definition of “regenerative agriculture” that encourages cover cropping and reduced tillage while sustaining fertilizer and pesticide use.

“We’re already seeing the intersection of conventional or traditional agriculture and regenerative agriculture, and it’s coming together quite nicely. We’re not experiencing the ‘butting of the heads,’ but rather a willingness to collaborate and to talk and to explore.”

A panel on “Regenerative Ag’s Potential for Climate Resilience” was led by Eric Snodgrass, the principal atmospheric scientist for Nutrien Ag Solutions, the world’s largest seller of fertilizers and pesticides. Snodgrass shared clear scientific data on climate shifts and how those changes were already impacting growing seasons and destroying crops, but many farmers and experts who advocate for an organic approach to regenerative would see his reference to “our grower-customers” as impossible to reconcile with climate action, given the emissions impact of synthetic fertilizer and increasing evidence on pesticides’ negative impacts on soil health. However, on the same panel, soil health and regenerative grazing expert Allen Williams expressed optimism around commodity farmers’ willingness to try those new techniques.

“We’re definitely already seeing the intersection of conventional or traditional agriculture and regenerative agriculture, and quite frankly it’s coming together quite nicely in a lot of areas,” Williams, a sixth-generation farmer and founder of Understanding Ag and the Soil Health Academy, said, speaking to commodity growers’ interest in trying regenerative practices. “We’re not experiencing the ‘butting of the heads,’ but rather a willingness to collaborate and to talk and to explore.”

Considering that organic farming represents only a tiny fraction of U.S. agriculture, many groups see this kind of engagement with conventional farmers as a path toward achieving the highest-impact climate outcomes. And throughout the Summit, when conversations were led by farmers rather than industry heads, reducing the use of chemical inputs came up more often.

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Williams teaches regenerative practices and consults with farmers around the world, and during another session on the practical application of his regenerative principles, he detailed how farmers could apply the principles to reduce their use of inputs and increase yields and profits. In one case study he presented, a corn farmer reduced his fertilizer use by 75 percent and eliminated the use of fungicides and insecticides.

It was one of several stories that illustrated thoughtful, on-the-ground innovations made by many farmers in and outside of the room. On a panel presented to feature “producer voices”—the first of its kind at the Ag Summit—California farmer Matt Angell talked about using cover crops to build soil organic matter and hold water in his drought-plagued vineyards and almond orchards. “It has been a game-changer for us,” he said.

Texas cotton farmer Barry Evans shared a completely different approach to water scarcity in his region. “On my farm, it really comes down to capturing every drop of rainfall,” he said, detailing how he skips cover crops to avoid pulling water out of the depleted Ogallala aquifer and instead focuses on diverse crop rotations and no-till farming.

And Meredith Ellis issued a plea for a radical change to the status quo. On her Texas cattle ranch, Ellis is working to restore 1,000 acres of native Texas prairie by carefully grazing cattle while maintaining an equal acreage of forest and meticulously cataloguing biodiversity improvements and carbon sequestration. “In my home state of Texas, there’s only 1 percent native prairie remaining, so it’s near and dear to my heart that I keep that ecosystem, the watershed, and the 420 species that call my ranch home happy and thriving,” she said. “I want to fundamentally change the beef industry and empower ranchers like me to do what I do.”

To me, it seemed like she could be poised to do just that. Many in the industry around her, however, seemed content to continue following the Vegas approach—deny things are unsustainable until it’s too late and you’ve lost everything.

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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