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Climate Impacts Wipe Out Seven Years of Food Production Growth as Big Ag Blocks Climate Action

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  • Apr 5, 2021


Climate change has caused global food productivity growth to drop more than 20% since the 1960s, despite the billions of dollars Big Ag has funnelled into production technologies. Meanwhile, some of the world’s biggest meat and dairy producers have been spending further billions to undercut climate action. 

A study just published in the journal Nature Climate Change has produced the world’s first calculation of how the climate crisis “has historically affected agricultural production on a global scale,” reports Bloomberg Green. 

Undertaken by researchers from Cornell University’s Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, the study found that 60 years of warming have produced a cumulative decline in food productivity growth equivalent to zero growth for the past seven years.

Notably, the lost productivity occurred “even as billions has been poured into improving agricultural production through the development of new seeds, sophisticated farm machinery, and other technological advances,” Bloomberg writes.

“Even though, globally, agriculture is more productive, that greater productivity on average doesn’t translate into more climate resilience,” explained study co-author Ariel Ortiz-Bobea, associate professor at Cornell Dyson.

And even as climate change has been holding back food production, some of the world’s biggest food producers have been holding back climate action, writes Inside Climate News. Just published in the journal Climatic Change, a study led by New York University found that “top U.S. meat and dairy companies, along with livestock and agricultural lobbying groups, have spent millions campaigning against climate action” while dragging their feet on their own emissions reduction pledges. Inside Climate points to a particular focus on denying the connection between animal agriculture and the climate crisis.

From fighting climate regulation efforts to spending more than US$3 billion over the last 20 years to lobby federal politicians, U.S. agribusiness (including corporate heavies like Arkansas-based Tyson Foods, the world’s second-largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef, and pork, and industry groups like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association) has come out swinging against government attempts to rein in sector emissions. 

At times, Big Ag has lobbied harder against climate action than even Big Oil. According to the study, “Tyson spent double what Exxon spent on political campaigns and 33% more on lobbying” in the past 20 years as a proportion of each company’s revenue, Inside Climate reports.

Reviewing the climate commitments of the world’s top meat and dairy producers, the report found that, “as of last summer, only four of the 35 companies—Dairy Farmers of America, Nestlé, Danish Crown, and Danone—had pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.”

While China-based Smithfield and JBS have since issued pledges (the former to be carbon-negative by 2030 and the latter to be net-zero by 2040), and Minnesota-based Hormel told Inside Climate that it was “on a path to zero,” Cargill (also Minnesota-based) and New Zealand’s Fonterra are among the companies that remain silent on the subject of emissions reductions.

Even where present, however, Big Ag commitments to reduce emissions “are short on specifics” and in some cases very narrowly applied, Inside Climate notes. JBS, for example, has asserted that it cannot be held responsible for the emissions of third-party suppliers like feed producers.

Whether they assume that responsibility or not, however, such companies present a serious climate burden, with animal agriculture alone contributing more than 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions every year.

The NYU study also looked at how the future emissions of Big Ag companies “compared to the emissions reduction pledges of their home countries,” Inside Climate says. Among the grim discoveries: “emissions produced by Switzerland-based Nestlé, the world’s largest food company, and New Zealand-based dairy giant Fonterra were so high that they would eclipse their respective home country’s emissions pledges, in effect consuming the entirety of those countries’ emissions budgets.” 

The researchers also discovered that “only seven of the 16 countries where the largest livestock producers are based mention animal agriculture in their plans to meet the targets of the Paris climate agreement.”

Bloomberg, meanwhile, notes the ironic timing of the Cornel Dyson study on the decline in food production growth: the revelations were tabled just as the United Nations’ World Food Programme issued a report warning of a “‘looming catastrophe’ with about 34 million people globally on the brink of famine”—thanks, in large part, to the climate crisis. 

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