Agribusiness devastates our environment

    12 Sep 2021

    The global food system is driving environmental injustice and increasing greenhouse gas emissions. The way we are using land is accelerating the climate crisis.

    This is the main idea of Harpreet Kaur Paul and Dalia Gebrial article. They’re the curators and editors of Perspectives on a Global Green New Deal, where this article first appeared.

    The ability of communities around the world to live autonomously and harmoniously on the land to which they are tied is routinely and violently intercepted by multinational corporations in the name of conservation and food and energy provision.

    Yet, the same communities in the Global South whose land is grabbed under international trade and investment agreements for these purposes, are the same communities systematically denied from the harvests exported from places that have been taken.

    This series of articles has been published in partnership with Dalia Gebrial and Harpreet Kaur Paul and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in London. It first appeared in a collection titled Perspectives on a Global Green New Deal.

    The global food system is driving environmental injustice through extreme water use, the pollution of ecosystems by pesticides and agricultural run-off and producing roughly a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

    In the last two decades, it is estimated that 26.7 million hectares of land has been acquired by foreign investors for use in the agriculture business.

    Yet, the global, multinational corporation driven agricultural industry – which we refer to as agribusiness – implicated in these acquisitions, has only become more inefficient, unequal, polluting and reliant on displacement.

    Much of this is rooted in the unevenness of land ownership, where industrial commodity crop farms have taken land away from those who use it for direct, local food production, and who often have spiritual, cultural and ancestral connections to the land.

    Many of these commodity crop farms use vast swathes of land for the production of just one crop, like palm oil or sugar, which places a huge toll on the health of the soil and its ability to support diverse plant growth later.


    According to GRAIN, small farms make up 90% of all farms -– and yet these small farmers have just 25% of the world’s farmland to work on.3 Indeed, small farmers – mainly women – feed most of the world on less than a quarter of all agricultural land.

    The large agribusinesses that own the majority of the land and control trade in grain, biotech and industrial food production force out local food producers and impoverished people, and drive environmental degradation with the highly polluting activities and intensive water use at the core of their practice.

    Workers in the industry also continue to rank among the world’s most insecure workforces.

    The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that at least 170,000 workers in the agricultural sector are killed each year – whether through lack of protections, higher risk of poverty or exposure to toxic pesticides.

    Indigenous peoples are custodians of 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity, but are facing severe food insecurity

    Meanwhile, indigenous peoples are custodians of 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity, but are facing severe food insecurity, extreme poverty and other human rights deprivations.


    Agribusiness fundamentally fails to adequately fulfil the food needs of the worlds’ population – one in three people face some form of malnourishment, and one in nine face hunger issues.

    The ‘supermarketisation’ of food systems leads to an increase in reliance on processed, rather than fresh, food – contributing to this rise in malnutrition and obesity.

    Children remain the most vulnerable to malnutrition – according to the World Health Organization, malnutrition is the underlying contributing factor in approximately 45% of deaths of children under five.

    Today’s food systems are dominated by trade​​​​​​ agreements and economic policies that prioritize profits over the right to food.

    Power is concentrated in the hands of a few corporate actors that benefit from free trade rules and export-oriented agricultural policies.

    Such regimes privilege large-scale agribusinesses to the detriment of others, creating instability in the global food system.


    Yet, the food produced in this way represents a small part of global production – the UN estimates that 70-80% of the food consumed in most of the Global South is produced by smallholder farms.

    The 20-30% of food produced by large agri-businesses is having huge, destructive impacts across the system.

    Big commodity traders like Bunge Ltd, Cargill, Luis Dreyfus and Archer Daniels Midland, are the agricultural equivalents of fossil fuel companies like Shell and BP.

    They reap the rewards of a broken system and are subsidized by state handouts, while leaving the basic needs of millions unfulfilled and destroying the natural world.

    Trade agreements encourage the planting of cash crops and the industrial meat industry, thereby incentivizing deforestation, the redirection of water away from local communities and the pollution of ecosystems.


    Indeed, the destruction of forests in order to grow animal feed is one of the biggest threats to biodiversity, which is vital to sustainable agriculture, resilient and sustainable food production, and carbon sequestration.

    This process also results in the marginalization of women from agricultural decision-making, whose subsistence-based knowledge and practices are derided and made impossible.

    Women face a lack of voice in shaping work agendas, and increasingly depend on men for cash and access to the market to purchase the food they previously grew.

    This contributes to a growing dissonance between women’s roles as agriculturalists and the social recognition accorded to them, and has particularly troubling implications for household food security since the main responsibility for this lies in women’s hands.

    It also prioritizes business-led ways of knowing and doing over more sustainable methods, like traditional rotational systems, permanent pasture and conservation grazing.


    These sustainable forms of farming that can restore soils and biodiversity, and sequester carbon, are derided, while the demand for crops requiring high inputs of fertilizer, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides are forcibly increased.

    The growing feminization and casualization of the waged agricultural workforce over the past few years enables flexibility for larger growers, while increasing precarity for workers.

    The ecological cost of agribusiness is also clear. As a model, agribusiness dangerously increases emissions while destroying wild habitats – and by driving climate breakdown, the agricultural industry is, somewhat ironically, making access to food increasingly precarious.

    As a recent example, Cyclone Idai – which struck Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe in March 2019 – alone destroyed nearly two million acres of crops, including corn, cassava, beans, rice and groundnuts such as peanuts.

    Displacement caused by increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather is being particularly felt by those who rely on the fishing and agriculture sector for income and subsistence.


    Industrial agricultural practices also threaten food stability by reducing our resilience to intensifying ecological impacts – such as desertification – in the future.

    A 2015 report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization found that, globally, 25 to 40 billion tonnes of topsoil are lost annually to erosion, thanks mainly to plowing and intensive cropping.

    The IPCC’s August 2019 Special Report on Climate Change and Land found that to become fit for purpose in an era of climate change, agriculture must move away from intensive and industrialized approaches and towards food systems based on agroecology and less and better meat.

    Countries on the frontline of the most extreme impacts have done very little to cause the crisis and instead been required – through trade and investment agreements – to open their markets to foreign investment in a carbon intensive, displacing and polluting way of growing food.

    A vicious and ironic cycle, where global agribusiness is behind some of the biggest threats to food sustainability and accessibility, is therefore coded in the DNA of our global food system.


    The Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights warns that this is leading towards a “climate apartheid scenario in which the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict, while the rest of the world is left to suffer”.

    In response to this crisis, the international peasant movement La Vía Campesina developed the concept of ‘food sovereignty in the 1990s.

    Introduced at the World Food Summit in 1996, food sovereignty was framed as an explicit critique of the neoliberal global food system13, representing a radical break with the dominant agrarian system.

    The 2007 Nyeleni Declaration defines food sovereignty as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”

    Food sovereignty prioritizes factors such as local production, direct commercialization, the use of agroecological methods, opposition to genetically modified crops and agro-chemicals, and rights to land, water, seeds and biodiversity.


    A globally just Green New Deal must think of land and food as part of the global commons, and therefore to be regulated and shared fairly. It must also recognise the intimate relationship between land sovereignty and food justice.

    This means supporting indigenous land rights, halting land grabs for mining, agro-industrial plantations and biofuels and banning land speculation by big financial institutions.

    Supporting regional, short and regenerative agro-eco- logical models, as well as traditional knowledge that minimizes the use of toxic inputs, reduces food waste and re-allocates industrial agriculture subsidies to small farmers, would not only cool the planet but feed the world at least three times over.

    It is entirely possible to live in a world where everyone has access to publicly paid for food. Agricultural policies across 53 countries currently provide an average of USD$528 billion per-year of direct support to – predominantly intensive – agricultural businesses.

    These resources must be redirected to climate change resilient and equitable practices. In addition, while it is no substitute for land and resource redistribution, any technological innovations, such as plant-based meat alternatives, must be accessible to all those who need and want it.


    Taking the agricultural industries into public ownership, re-thinking what we produce and how much we really need, democratizing land access and control of food decision making to prioritize sustenance over market power is crucial, especially for revaluing the labor rights of a women-dominated workforce and enabling food justice.

    Embracing this kind of ‘food citizenship’ may take many forms, including support for greater urban-rural engagement, collective procurement and participation in food policy councils. Such community-based movements are taking control of local and regional food systems with the goal of promoting bottom-up change.

    Indeed, the food and energy needs of the world’s population do not contradict principles of land sovereignty, which holds that “land belongs to those who work it, care for it and live on it”.

    On the contrary: a Global Green New Deal that enshrines land sovereignty is necessary to achieve a just new deal.

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