How Capitalist Agribusiness Enables Climate Crisis

Book Review of Anna Lappe, Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It, with a forward by Bill McKibben; Bloomsbury USA (New York: 2010), paperback, 323 pp.; and

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals; tenth anniversary edition, with a new afterword by the author; Penguin Books/Penguin Random House LLC (New York, 2016); paperback, 460 pp.

Don’t look now, but what we all buy and consume in the way of food – combined with how corporate agribusiness shapes how most people eat – is helping to create climate catastrophe.  That’s a key message conveyed by both of the authors featured in this Washington Socialist book review. It’s also a warning that’s been echoed in recent months by various scientific experts and other climate commentators.

A recent three-year study of global agriculture summarized on Jan. 16 by the respected medical journal The Lancet, for example, warns that “Diet and food production must radically change to save [the] planet.” According to the Lancet article, food production today “is exceeding planetary boundaries -- driving climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution due to over-application of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers, and unsustainable changes in water and land use.”  To reverse this effect while still feeding an expanding human population, a leading contributor to the Lancet study declares, “Nothing less than a new global agricultural revolution” is needed.

As DSA members, ecosocialists at large and mainstream environmentalists all struggle with a deepening climate crisis, therefore, it’s imperative that we grapple with the climate impacts of capitalist agribusiness.  It’s also important that we understand and if necessary work to change the dietary habits that most people in the U.S. and other wealthy capitalist societies currently practice – in some cases out of loyalty to longstanding cultural preferences, but in others because capitalist agribusiness has deployed powerful marketing techniques to manipulate our food choices.

Last October, as the Socialist reported, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC delivered some extremely daunting news on greenhouse gas emissions.  Societies around the world, on average, must reduce their total carbon dioxide emissions by some 45% from 2010 levels to avoid potentially disastrous rises in global temperatures, an IPCC special report stated.  What’s more, this needs to happen by 2030 – a deadline just 11 years from now – to head off very negative consequences.  And climate observers outside of the IPCC note that since global greenhouse gas emissions were surprisingly low in 2010, since most market economies were then recovering from the 2008 financial crisis, we actually need to slash global CO₂ emissions by 60 percent from current levels to meet the IPCC’s target.

Climate activists and climate skeptics alike tend to focus on fossil fuel consumption, automobile use, airline travel and the energy efficiency of buildings when considering the IPCC’s warning.  But global agriculture, according to the IPCC’s own Fourth Assessment report, has recently accounted for 13.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities.

This figure, moreover, doesn’t include the energy now employed in shipping agricultural commodities to market and processing them in various ways.  A 2006 report by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization calculated that the global livestock industry alone contributes about 18 percent of the greenhouse gases altering the atmosphere. And according to Anna Lappe’s Diet for a Hot Planet, when livestock production and other forms of food production are counted together, the production, distribution and processing of food arguably generates some 31.6 percent of “anthropogenic” or human-generated greenhouse gases.  

If socialists hope to formulate any kind of program that can actually bring climate change under control, it appears, we urgently need to devote attention to capitalist agriculture.  A big piece of this will have to involve changing the heavy dependence of U.S. as well as global agriculture on meat production, and changing the excessively meat-heavy diets of many Americans.  But the contributions of global agriculture to climate crisis are bigger than those associated with the livestock industry alone.

What do the numbers say?  According to experts cited in Diet for a Hot Planet, the livestock industry today generates only about 9 percent of global CO₂ emissions.  However, it also produces some 37 percent of the world’s emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas that over a century’s time is 23 times more potent than CO₂ in trapping heat within the atmosphere.  Livestock growing likewise produces an estimated 65 percent of world emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas some 296 times more potent than CO₂.

Reducing global consumption of meat, or ending it entirely, is “one of the most important personal choices we can make to address climate change” in the short run, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, the IPCC’s head at the time, stated back in 2008.  And it’s an objective that Anna Lappe’s mother, food activist Frances Moore Lappe, explored in detail in her 1971 book Diet for a Small Planet.

As the elder Lappe pointed out in 1971, and as many vegans insist today, there are ecological reasons grounded in the ways that energy flows through natural food webs that make meat production a more energy-intensive process than the raising of most plant-based foods, even without any intervention by capitalism.

Whenever an animal raised for human consumption consumes calories in the form of some plant-based food, only a fraction of the calories present in the plants are converted into meat or milk that humans can digest.  As much as 90 percent of the food calories in the plants are necessarily “wasted” in the sense that the livestock animal uses them up growing to maturity and keeping itself alive from day to day.

In broad general outlines, then, it should be possible to feed far more humans on a mostly plant-based diet than on one based significantly on meat-eating.  Frances Lappe had this idea foremost in her mind when she composed Diet for a Small Planet as a counter to pessimistic neo-Malthusians of the late 1960s who predicted that continued population growth would trigger global famine.  If people in wealthy western market societies could eat far more vegetables and grains and far less beef, pork, lamb and chicken, Lappe’s book suggested, the world might easily have enough calories on hand to provide adequate diets to the Third World poor.

Frances Moore Lappe herself, however, has developed a much more nuanced approach to global hunger since 1971, and in Diet for a Hot Planet Anna Lappe offers a significantly modified stance on animal agriculture.

In many traditional societies where livestock are grown for milk and meat, Diet for a Hot Planet notes, a limited amount of animal agriculture can actually be good for the soil and human beings dependent on it.

For one thing, grazing animals such as cattle, goats and sheep, because of their complex digestive systems, can digest cellulose plant walls that human digestive systems can’t.  Therefore the grazing of cattle, sheep and goats can be an effective form of food production in certain landscapes where pasture plants thrive and many grains do not.

Also, when animals grown for meat, milk and the pulling of plows and wagons are grown on traditional farms with good crop rotation systems, the manure from the animals can help keep the soil from being depleted of minerals because of its previous use in growing vegetables and grains.

Yet traditional mixed farming systems with animal agriculture as one component in a sustainable system of soil management are on their way out, thanks to capitalist agribusiness.

As Lappe reports in Diet for a Hot Planet, and as Michael Pollan, a veteran contributor to the New Yorker, notes in his classic agricultural expose The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the vast majority of the meat products consumed in the U.S. today, and the vast majority of our milk and eggs as well, are produced under corporate auspices in enormous factory feedlot / poultry growing operations where the animals are of no benefit to soil fertility.

There’s another problem with factory feedlot meat, too. Traditional animal agriculture and the traditional raising of grains and other food crops both are processes that essentially generate more energy, in the form of food calories, than they consume.  The conversion of carbon dioxide and water into simple sugars through photosynthesis is the ultimate energy source for both traditional forms of food production.  But as Lappe and Pollan both explain, modern capitalist agribusiness has turned food production into a process that consumes far more energy – generally in the form of fossil fuels – than it produces.

The primary reason is that modern agribusiness operations, whether they produce grain crops or meat and milk, do not rely on recycling animal manures or any other waste products back into the soil to avert the long-term loss of essential minerals.

Instead, a key pillar of modern agribusiness is the production of synthetic ammonium nitrate fertilizers through the famous Haber-Bosch process, first invented in 1909, which employs enormous amounts of energy to “fix” nitrogen from the atmosphere in a form where it can be taken up and used by plant roots.

Arguably, the Haber-Bosch process has helped support an enormous expansion in human numbers since 1909 by making cheap nitrogen fertilizers readily available to farmers.  But Lappe notes that the process can use up to 33,000 cubic feet of natural gas to create a single ton of nitrate fertilizer, which makes synthetic nitrate fertilizer use an enormous contributor to greenhouse warming.

In traditional societies that raise cattle for beef and milk, the cattle grow to maturity on natural pastures, where their complicated four-part digestive systems enable them to convert the cellulose in grass into substances they can digest.  But in modern capitalist feedlots, as Lappe mentions and as Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma explains at length, only very young calves survive on pasture grasses for a short period in their rather brief lives.

Early in their lives, the calves are shipped to giant factory feedlots where they’re taken off grass and fed a thoroughly unnatural diet of corn and soybean mash.  Both the corn and soybeans have generally been grown on huge monoculture farms dependent on ammonium nitrate fertilizers, which means reliance on them contributes significantly to climate change.  Production of these feed grains also ordinarily relies on gasoline-powered tractors and combines and the use of synthetic chemical pesticides derived from fossil fuels.

As feedlot-fed cattle rapidly put on weight and fat from their corn and soybean diet (which essentially ruins their health and makes contamination of their beef with a particularly dangerous form of E. coli bacteria more likely),  they likewise need to be dosed with large amounts of antibiotics to avoid dying in feedlot epidemics.  Much the same is true of pigs, chickens and turkeys grown under factory farming conditions.  Meanwhile crowding huge numbers of animals into feedlots generates enormous volumes of manure that cannot be recycled back to the soil, but is instead stored in grossly offensive lagoons where it is likely to contribute to water pollution, through spills, and whose overpowering smell can cause nightmares, nausea and worse for nearby human neighbors.

For these reasons, both Pollan and Lappe deem animal feedlot agriculture basically unacceptable, on grounds of greenhouse gas emissions as well as other considerations.  Both point to the development of alternatives to feedlot meat – including, in some cases, the production of beef, milk, and chicken and pork under more ecologically sustainable conditions – as one step that consumers and society at large need to support as we work for a more climate-friendly food production system.

As Pollan very eloquently points out in Omnivore’s Dilemma, however, factory feedlots are not the only reason why capitalist agribusiness as practiced today is essentially unsustainable.  Partly for economic and even evolutionary reasons, partly as the result of government agricultural policies that have been twisted since the 1990s to support the interests of the world’s largest grain distributing companies, U.S. agriculture today is excessively dependent on the growing of corn, essentially via the use of synthetic nitrate fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals.  Indeed, Pollan sees factory feedlot meat production, along with several other features of today’s agribusiness system, as ultimately being driven by a bizarre overproduction of corn at market prices below the cost of raising the stuff, thanks in large part to U.S. Department of Agriculture policies shaped around the economic interests of the world’s largest grain-trading companies, including giants such as Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, or ADM.

Because of USDA policies that serve the big grain trading outfits by paying U.S. farmers to keep growing corn even when the market prices they receive for it do not cover their production costs, and to increase their planting of the golden grain when prices fall rather than reducing their corn acreage, the U.S. and world markets are now awash in surplus corn, Pollan writes.

It is at least partly for this reason that high-fructose corn syrup has replaced sugar in many soft drinks and other low-priced food products, and why corn oil, corn solids and other corn byproducts also are found in a dizzying array of different commodities found on supermarket shelves, from processed foods to cosmetics.  Salmon and tilapia raised on fish farms also are increasingly fed on corn,  Indeed, out of some 45,000 items on sale in the average U.S. supermarket, more than a quarter of them now contain corn in some fashion.

“This goes for the nonfood items as well,” Pollan writes, for “everything from the toothpaste and cosmetics to the disposable diapers, trash bags, cleansers, charcoal briquettes, matches, and batteries,” down to the chemical coating that adds a shine to the covers of popular magazines and some of the chemicals in the linoleum and adhesives used in building the supermarket.

And at the base of the surplus corn production that makes all these corn-based products possible are nitrate fertilizers produced through the Haber-Bosch process, the use of gasoline-powered farm machinery and the protection of the fields with petroleum-based chemical pesticides – all of these contributing to potential climate catastrophe.

Several other features of modern capitalist agribusiness also contribute to climate crisis and environmental degradation while failing to cure world hunger, Lappe and Pollan note.  They include the fast food business, exhaustively researched by Eric Schlosser in his best-selling 2001 book Fast Food Nation, and the extensive growing of palm oil in tropical rainforest settings, both for use in making ethanol fuels and as an ingredient in popular candies and toaster-friendly breakfast foods.

Then there are the fossil fuels used in shipping foods from the points of production to consumer markets.  One study conducted by a researcher with the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Iowa found that for 33 different fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S., food traveled some 1,500 miles from the farm to the Chicago Terminal Market where it was sold to the consumer.

The mass media have made too much of the “food miles” issue based on this single study, Lappe concludes, because the use of fossil fuels in producing most food is far greater than the fuels used to transport it. Yet food miles are not irrelevant: when another study compared greenhouse gas emissions from the transport of food from California farms to California consumers with those emissions associated with foods imported into California from elsewhere, the shipping of the imported food generated up to 45 times the greenhouse gases generated by the transport of the foods grown in state. Lappe adds: “Global warming pollution was five hundred times greater for foods imported by airfreight.”  

In Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan adds that the long distances traveled by organic foods grown on corporate-style farms and shipped to health-conscious supermarkets like Whole Foods are one flaw in the performance of what he calls “Big Organic.”  It’s still better for the climate and the environment to eat an organically raised chicken from Whole Foods than it is to eat a chicken sandwich from the average fast-food establishment, Pollan concludes: it does not require the use of synthetic nitrate fertilizers and pesticides.  But it still may rest on significant fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions from other aspects of the food production and transportation chain.

The environmental and human implications of capitalist agribusiness in all its forms, in short, are complicated.  What are the implications of Lappe’s and Pollan’s work for a new socialist approach to agriculture?  By all appearances, neither of these authors is a socialist, much less a Marxist, although Pollan’s book devotes considerable attention to the pitfalls of “commodity” food production as opposed to alternative approaches.

But in laying out some of the major climate dimensions of our society’s predominant food production system and also highlighting several different components of a rapidly emerging “alternative foods” movement currently challenging it, Lappe and Pollan both provide socialists who are serious about food issues, both human and ecological, with an essential survey of where the main problems with capitalist agribusiness lie.

Every DSA member who is somewhat curious about food can gain from reading these books, and those who simply enjoy a well-told story may be particularly impressed by the intriguing literary style Pollan brings to the subject.  For at least a minority of ecosocialists, meanwhile, both of these books could serve as serious introductions to food politics and how a host of different food activists, from eccentric libertarian organic farmers to “Big Organic” business owners, to food cooperatives and urban farmers markets, are shaping it.

Future books to be reviewed in this exploration of the literature of capitalist food production and consumption include The Meat Racket, a powerful expose by the former chief agribusiness reporter of the Associated Press covering the growth of Tyson Foods, and  A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism, an essentially Marxist and anti-imperialist analysis of U.S. and global agribusiness by Eric Holt-Gimenez of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as “Food First.”

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