An International Agribusiness Show in the US National Congress

By Saulo Araujo and Betty Fermin, WhyHunger


The US Congress’s Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee held the hearing “Climate Change and the Agriculture Sector” last month. If you haven’t had the chance to watch it, you can access the livestream here. This hearing brings up several issues that are critical to achieving food sovereignty and realizing the human right to food in the U.S.

The committee’s chairman, Senator Roberts, rightfully mentioned the role of farmers in finding solutions to climate change.  Senator Stabenow, who opened the hearing, stated that “climate change could result in crop losses costing up to $53 billion every year” and emphasized that “farmers are uniquely positioned to address the root causes [of climate change]”.

That kind of a frame was refreshing and initially hopeful, in light of decades-old U.S. policies pushing farmers to maintain the status quo of international agribusiness, which contributes 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions and uses 70% of the planet’s fresh water. Unfortunately, it was followed by a less rich and frankly predictable discussion. The panel of witnesses lacked a diversity of ideas and represented just one demographic of farmers whose operations are big enough to benefit to some extent by the current corporate-dominated food system.

A more robust discussion and debate could have been minimally addressed through the inclusion of some of the 1.9 million or so small-scale farmers that must work off-farm and are still barely making ends meet, struggling to hold on to their farms. Or, the opinion of young, landless and small-scale farmers – an estimated 350,000-400,000 people who are producing and feeding communities with fresh, organic produce often on borrowed or rented land – who could have testified to policymakers that sustainable, small-scale farmers are feeding people and cooling the planet.

The co-optation of Agroecology by the international agribusiness

To achieve Food Sovereignty and the Right to Food in the U.S., small scale farmers are waging big battles on two fronts: one is in the realm of ideas, providing new ways to see the problem; and the other is happening on the ground through agroecological practices that are concrete examples of how to get out of this crisis. As the U.S. Senators mentioned, farmers do have the real solutions – just not the farmers they chose to participate in the hearing. La Via Campesina International, one of the largest social movements of rural families on the planet, goes even further to say that the pathway to nourish our communities and cool the planet is through food sovereignty and agroecology.

As we heard in this hearing, the international agribusiness industry is working to redirect the narrative from agroecology and food sovereignty to “soil health”, “regenerative agriculture” and “climate smart agriculture” among other ideas that depend on technological fixes that might address the symptoms of climate change, but not its underlying causes, effectively propping up a system that is one of the major contributors to climate change and undermining our chances of effectively dealing with what is undeniable a climate crisis.  Meanwhile, small-scale farmers around the globe are advocating for agroecology – a way of life and a set of sustainable practices that produces abundant pesticide-free food; nourishes and replenishes soil and resources; and connects and strengthens small-scale farmers and their communities. At the end, the hearing’s four witnesses delivered the message in a coordinated way:  industrial agriculture (and the international agribusinesses) should not be blamed for gas emissions and global warming. Mr. Vilsack, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture during the Obama administration delivered the final argument by stating that:

“We need to promote new technologies in seed genetics. There’s research that will eventually lead to corn and soybeans and the root systems for those two commodity crops being able to significantly increase carbon sequestration, developing better censors so we have a better understanding of the amount of carbon that is being sequestered in our soil. Feed additives that can reduce methane currently exist but are going through a regulatory process that is very time consuming. Improved manure management; there are literally thousands of ways in which we can use the fiber, the water, the chemicals, the materials from manure to create new opportunities and new business opportunities in rural America. This is going to require an increase and focus of research dollars in the public sector, a modernization of our regulatory systems designed to keep pace with this incredible pace of change and financial incentives to encourage farmers to adopt these technologies and techniques.”

Not addressed in Vilsack’s argument is that these new technologies which will be even more expensive and inaccessible to small-scale farmers is one of the reasons that brought us to this environmental crisis in the first place. The other reason is the very same idea expressed by Mrs. Debbie Lyons-Blythe, a landowner and rancher in Kansas:

“I’m sure you heard the statistic that less than 2% of the American population is involved in agriculture today, but do you know why that is? It’s because in American agriculture we’re so good at what we do that the rest of the population does not have to work daily to grow their own food. By our improved efficiencies and technologies, other people are free to become scientists, clothing designers and teachers and doctors and data processors and maybe even legislators. The beef cattle industry has a great story to tell in the climate conversation. According to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, direct emissions from beef cattle only represent 2% of  all greenhouse gas emissions in this country and a recent study published by the U.S Department of Agriculture found that emissions from cattle ‘were not a significant contributor to long term global warming.’ That’s because American agriculture produces agricultural products more efficiently than the rest of the world and those efficiencies mean real reductions in climate emissions. Various technologies are helping us produce a safer product that has a smaller footprint on the environment. One of the technologies we use on our ranch is genetic testing to identify the best bulls to breed; with a small DNA sample we can select those with the best feed efficiency, carcass quality and growth as well as other important traits. The efficiency traits directly affect sustainability. An animal who will reach harvest faster and still produce a high-quality product will impact the environment for a shorter period of time. Antibiotics are another technology we utilize to maintain cattle health which in turn allows our cattle to utilize feed and water more efficiently. A sick animal takes longer to gain weight and reproduce and that results in a larger environmental footprint. These technologies and some like them allow cattle ranchers to produce the same amount of beef today that we were producing in the 1970’s with 33% fewer animals.”  

To the contrary, the continuous concentration of land and water in fewer hands throughout history is the heart of a food system that is unjust and unsustainable. Mass production to “feed the world” has benefited very few corporations and their investors at the expense of the majority and our collective future.

The Congressional hearing ended after two hours of pleasantries and pats-on-the-back. But no real solutions were offered beyond the tweaking of an agricultural system that benefits very large operations.  The most recent agricultural census shows that large and very large family farms (sales over $250,000 annually) produce over 63 percent of the value of all products sold and own 70% of the total cropland; yet they account for less than 9% of all operations.  2.2 percent of farm operations alone takes up more than a third of all cropland.  The voices of small-scale farms and landless farmers in the US were conspicuously absent in the hearing and therefore the policy debates on the relationship between U.S. agriculture and climate change. Meanwhile, a larger portion of the population is paying for international agribusiness’s continued growth at the expense of the hard labor of farmers, fisherfolk, farmworkers, food chain workers and consumers. As stated in different news publications last month, 43% of U.S. households don’t have the money to pay for the basics, such as housing, transportation, food and childcare. If small-scale farmers producing diversified crops for local and regional food and farm economies were equally represented in this congressional hearing, we would have heard that the real solutions to climate change are based on food sovereignty, when everyone has access to quality food and all food producers, farm workers, and other workers involved in bringing food from field to plate earn a living wage. Repeatedly representatives in Congress have disregarded these solutions as impractical in the past. And this hearing confirmed that the true solutions to nourishing communities and cooling the planet will continue to be out of the public view.


Saulo Araujo