Sunk costs of US Agriculture

Written by: Ishaque Rahman Sadat

In international politics, agriculture can be used as a tool for influencing how nations act with one another. The US has long been a superpower in food markets, and is one of the largest food exporters in the world. Even amidst a global economic shutdown due to Covid-19 restrictions, the US withstood production shortages that have harmed the agricultural sectors of countries like Ukraine and Argentina. This has made them an unyielding exporting giant for the rest of the world.

How has industrial agriculture helped the US shape their foreign policy over the years? First, it has allowed them to charitably fund substantial foreign agricultural aid that is primarily distributed in Sub-Saharan Africa, South and Central Asia. The US benefits from this through an increase in agricultural trade and investment, whilst developing regions get equitable access to better nutrition and health amongst other benefits helps shape the image of the US as a charitable country. This solidifies the image of the US as being a superpower that cares for the world’s poor. Second, agriculture is a political tool that helps the US structure its relationship with other global superpowers. In 2020, China was the largest market for agriculture goods beside Canada and Mexico for the US, and their demand for high-quality food and animal protein is something the US farmers are well positioned to cater to. This allows the US to leverage agriculture as a unique strength they can use to create newer trade treaties that benefit them, with countries like China removing certain barriers to trade which has helped expand market access for US exports. Third, big agriculture has helped the US have an economic advantage over other countries by increasing its market competitiveness. Covid-19 has caused production issues with other foreign competitors, yet US agriculture has stayed resilient over the pandemic, leading to increased international demand for US crops. This has led agricultural exports to rise up to $146 billion, the second highest on record, ever.

There is a price to pay however for being an industrial supergiant, and it involves the climate. 

The nature of big, industrialized agriculture is that it is designed to focus more on earning revenue than worrying about the environment. This means they often neglectfully use more fertilizers and insecticides than required. The country mandates large, specialised crop and animal farms that focus on short term productivity and gains. The result? Around 35% of the region known for making crops like corn in the US spanning Ohio to Nebraska have completely lost its first layer of soil. The water flowing through the state capital of Iowa has become infested with bacteria, nitrates and phosphorus – making it exceed federal safe water drinking standards. Animal agriculture accounts for 60% of total nitrous oxide and 50% of all methane emissions, which respectively have 36 times and 298 times more warming potential than carbon dioxide. Things might get worse. Industrial animal agriculture has scaled up due to strong investments by the meat industry in the US due to rising demands from China, and that has only increased toxic emissions. The meat industry uses considerable energy and fertilizer, creates deforestation and releases methane in the environment (which now causes more deaths annually than emissions from coal-fired power plants). 

Presently there is a note of urgency found in the US government when talking about climate. Avril Haines, director of US national intelligence, has told world leaders that climate is now ‘at the center’ of US foreign policy. Mr. Biden claimed at the Earth Day summit hosted on the 26th of April this year that he would cut emissions by half by the end of this decade’s end.

There exists cause for concern. The US pledge to the Paris Climate Agreement makes just one reference to “farm animals”, possibly avoiding confronting the meat industry, and addresses ways to promote green-agriculture through reforestation, and crucially, improve technologies that reduce methane and nitrous oxide. There is significant tension between an industry that annually exports billions of dollars’ worth of food and a national mandate to restructure their operations, which if done properly would be expensive to manage and regulate.

What is worse is the meat industry is doing exactly what the oil industry did to fight against climate action. First, it has acted through major agricultural trade groups, like Farm Bureau, to pressure lawmakers from issuing environmental regulations. This lobbying against climate action has been done by each of the 10 largest US meat and dairy companies. Second, these companies have funded experts and trade associations to undermine scientific findings on the climate impact of animal agriculture. This is done by them strawmanning and hiding facts and figures to form opinions tailored to their needs. Third, the meat industry claims climate science is inconclusive at its best and portrays meat as the key to combating world hunger, and chooses to ignore that meeting the climate goals of the Paris Agreement would be almost impossible to reach if the current emissions by the global food system are not checked over. Only time will tell how far government intervention can influence the decisions of an industry historically known for trivialising the climate.  

There is some hope, however. Private companies like Indigo Ag are introducing advanced microbiology and technology to create crops that need lower insecticide and fertilizer use, which will help cut environmental impact. The company has raised over $500 million dollars in venture money, with more agricultural start-ups raising billions of dollars worth of investments that aim to help reduce emissions and create smarter solutions.

It is interesting to see how many different actors can influence and shape an industry that is one of the world’s biggest. Aside from being a key political tool, industrial agriculture helps rake in billions of dollars for firms that own a key stake in it. Firms and politicians alike are paying attention to how focusing too much on profits will make you ignore the ecological and human limitations found in scaling up your businesses, and the national cost of building greater productivity and gargantuan commodities must be paid through tears and trees.


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