23.11.2015 • Green Capitalism

How multinationals use climate change to impose an industrial agricultural model

Governments are keeping an eye on the agricultural sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. A new concept is emerging: "climate-smart agriculture," with the objective of producing more, better. In the arena of climate negotiations, multinational corporations are getting set to promote "smart fertilizers" and plants genetically modified for heat tolerance. While industrial agriculture is about to win the battle with organic agriculture, researchers and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are trying to overturn the deal.

Published on 23 November 2015 , by Sophie Chapelle

Close to a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to agriculture [1]. A worrying figure, and a disturbing one since it includes all agricultural systems of production, from "conventional" agriculture to organic agriculture, from battery farming to pasturing, from industrial monocultures to small, mixed farms. While farmers are blamed for their responsibility in climate change, actors from industrial agriculture take advantage of these conflations to greenwash their image.

That’s the case of Yara International, a Norwegian company and leader in synthetic fertilizers that in 2014 sold more than 26 tons of fertilizer in 150 countries [2]. The group is throwing itself into "sustainable intensification." Its idea? Increased use of chemical fertilizers will increase productivity and thus allow less area to be under cultivation and avoid those emissions linked to the expansion of cultivation to now-forested areas.

This argument has not convinced the agricultural NGO Grain, which, in a new report, emphasizes that fertilizer manufacturers figure "among the primary enemies of the climate at a global level." The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reckons that for every 100 kilos of nitrogen fertilizer applied to the ground, one kilo turns up in the atmosphere in the form of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. "Their products could be responsible for close to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions without even mentioning the damage brought about to waterways, soils and the ozone layer," adds the NGO, a discrepancy between its walk and its talk that earns Yara a nomination for the Prix Pinocchio du climat (climate Pinocchio prize) 2015 [3].

Climate-Smart Agriculture: a dangerous concept

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) does not share that opinion: It considers sustainable intensification a "smart" solution in confronting climate change. In spite of the criticisms formulated by NGOs, Yara is one of the multinationals that have recently joined the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture (GACSA), which assembles countries, environmental conservation NGOs, universities and research centers [4]. The concept of climate-smart agriculture is based on three pillars. First of all, the FAO explains, it’s a matter of increasing agricultural productivity to confront the increase in global population, then of "adapting agricultural systems" to cope with extreme climate events likely to increase, such as floods and droughts. The third pillar is the implementation of agricultural practices that "reduce" greenhouse gas emissions.

Basta! has plunged into the guide to "climate-smart" initiatives [5]. On the menu of miracle cures: herbicide-tolerant rapeseed that allows the use of "fewer and ever less toxic chemical products," and drought-tolerant corn, which would increase yields by "20 to 30 percent" - assertions that the Inf’OGM organization disputes. In September 2015, a hundred organizations signed an appeal that rebukes GACSA for its failure to specify the criteria that would allow a definition of what may, or may not, qualify as a "smart response" to climate change.

"There’s been no work on defining the criteria for climate-smart agriculture because defining would result in excluding existing agricultural practices," said Jeanne-Maureen Jorand of CCFD-Terre Solidaire. "Meanwhile, without norms or criteria of exclusion, this concept is quite simply dangerous."

Developing Industrial Agriculture in the name of the climate struggle

"Defining climate-smart agriculture was a red line for the French government," Jorand said. During the launch of GACSA, Annick Girardin, [French] secretary of state for the development of Francophonie, warned against the risks of certain practices such as GMOs or recourse to fuel crops. "We must be vigilant not to support everything in the name of the struggle against climate disorder and to assure that the solutions we put in place do not create more problems than they resolve," she declared in September 2014. The French government finally decided to join GACSA along with 21 other countries, explaining to AFP that it wanted "to be inside rather than outside, to have an influence."

That’s also the position of certain research organizations, such as the Center for International Cooperation in Agronomic Research for Development (CIRAD) [6]. "The definition is not sufficiently rigorous, which leaves the door open for different ways of intensifying and for a vision of a more industrial agriculture," said Emmanuel Torquebiau, climate change task force director at CIRAD. "We’re fighting within GACSA to assert our perspective."


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Danone and Walmart, new defenders of smart agriculture

"We’re proposing scientific studies that would allow us to verify what falls within ecological climate-smart agriculture and what is greenwashing," Torquebiau added. "It’s a matter of staying within these networks to put some science in there, because there’s a lot of smoke screens."

CIRAD, which works mainly with countries in the global South, encourages ecological agricultural practices, such as permanent ground cover in order to increase organic matter, trap carbon dioxide and limit recourse to fertilizers. INRA, the National Institute for Agricultural Research, also a GACSA member, encourages agroforestry, for example, by planting "cereal grains under trees to better resist dryness."

However, the battle between agroecology and industrial agriculture is strongly tilted within the alliance, which contains a strong private sector representation. In addition to active members such as Danone, the alliance contains the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which includes many multinationals. According to the NGOs, about 60 percent of GACSA members are from the fertilizer private sector [7].. Emblematic of their strategy, Walmart, the world leader in retail distribution, wants to reduce emissions by associating its suppliers with the "fertilizer optimization" programs developed by Yara [8].

Concretely, the orange plantations of PepsiCo, a Walmart supplier, must now use Yara’s nitrogen fertilizers labeled "low-carbon footprint." Supposed to lead to less runoff, these fertilizers aim to "avoid a situation where only organically produced food would gain the climate brand of approval," explains Yara.

"Carbon finance" attacks agriculture

Invited last March to the third meeting for climate-smart agriculture in Montpellier, French Minister of Agriculture Stéphane Le Foll emphasized that soils can act as "carbon sinks."

"The more you increase organic matter in your soils, the more you store greenhouse gas," he said. "Moreover, you increase yields!"

The government has launched an international research program entitled "4 for 1,000." By increasing the soil’s carbon-stocking capacity by 0.4 percent per year through the implementation of certain not-yet-defined agricultural practices, this project strives to absorb and store 75 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and, in addition, to restore depleted croplands, notably in the arid and near-arid zones of the African continent.

"Given the figures I’ve made public," Le Foll said, "the stakes more than justify the risk - and would also warrant that we finance tomorrow’s techniques, developments and production models through the carbon market." If it succeeds, the 4 for 1,000 project could also become a tool for compensating for private companies’ greenhouse gas emissions, along the lines of Air France’s project in the forests of Madagascar. "Carbon finance and financial investors are entrusted with a central role," the association Attac and the Confédération Paysanne [Peasant Confederation] deplore in a common memorandum on climate-smart agriculture. "Yet these measures have demonstrated their ineffectiveness and inability to generate a post-carbon transition. There’s no reason why it should be any different in agriculture."

Climate-Smart Agriculture: a new avatar of greenwashing?

A few days before the opening of COP21, civil society organizations asked governments not to recognize "climate-smart agriculture" as a possible solution to climate change, a position shared by the [French] secretary of state for the development of Francophonie who insisted in September 2014 that GACSA "not come interfere and interject itself into the climate negotiations." Contacted by Basta!, the [French] Agriculture Ministry emphasized that climate-smart agriculture could appear on the "solutions agenda," a text assembling the commitments of non-state actors, which could appear alongside the agreement negotiated in Paris.

"The 4 for 1,000 initiative already appears in that agenda," Jeanne-Maureen Jorand said. A roundtable on low-carbon technologies (LCPTI), sponsored by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and supported by the French government, also appears on the agenda. Among those invited to this roundtable figures none other than - Monsanto!

"It’s a catastrophe," Jorand said. "The government is in the process of institutionalizing this agenda of solutions and of validating climate-smart agriculture without any criteria and without any discussion." Questioned on this topic, the Agriculture Ministry declined to comment.

Sophie Chapelle

Photo: CC Malcolm Carlaw

Boîte Noire

Initially published in French. Translated by Leslie Thatcher, Truth Out


[1In an assessment published in April 2014, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) deems that greenhouse gas emissions related to agriculture, forestry and fisheries represent 10 to 12 gigatons equivalent carbon dioxide, or 24 percent of global emissions.

[2In 2014, Yara International achieved turnover of 11.1 billion euros.

[3"The objective of the Prix Pinocchio du Climat is to illustrate and denounce the negative impacts of multinational companies and especially those that whitewash themselves with ’green’ talk."

[4This alliance was launched in September 2014, during the New York climate summit, by the World Bank, the CGIAR (a consulting group for international agricultural research) and the FAO.

[5See the guide of CGIAR success stories, published in 2013 by CGIAR.

[6Member of the AllianceCIRAD organized the third international conference on climate-smart agriculture in Montpellier, March 16-18, 2015.

[7This over-representation is assured through professional alliances such as the International Association of Fertilization Industries or the "Fertilizer Institute" of which Yara is a member

[8See here and here.

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