At an event announcing $16 billion in federal relief for food producers on May 19, Donald Trump spoke at a podium flanked by tables stacked with corn, onions, apples, and other fruits and vegetables. “The American farmer is the backbone of our country,” Trump said. “There’s no president that’s treated the farmers like Trump.” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue briefly donned, and then removed, an American flag face mask.
Farmers who’ve suffered large losses due to price drops and market disruptions from the Covid-19 lockdown will certainly welcome the federal funds. But to critics who track the U.S. agricultural industry’s massive environmental footprint, the produce stage props seemed disingenuous: The stimulus will prop up a U.S. agricultural system in which more than two-thirds of crops become animal feed. The ultimate winners will be industrial meat companies like Cargill and Tyson. That’s disastrous news for the climate.
In 2018, watchdog groups GRAIN and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy estimated that the world’s top five industrial meat and dairy companies—JBS, Tyson Foods, Cargill, Dairy Farmers of America, and Fonterra—were together releasing more emissions than fossil fuel companies like Exxon. Factory farms have contributed to a 14.4 percent spike in climate-destabilizing U.S. methane emissions since 1990, EPA calculations suggest, while at the same time leaking tens of millions of tons of raw sewage into the country’s waterways. And that’s before you get to their other potential public health issues.
Much of this pollution can be traced back to a small group of powerful businesses such as Cargill, which is the largest privately held company in the United States, bigger even than Koch Industries. “They run agriculture,” Patty Lovera, a policy adviser for the Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment, told me, referring to the factory-farming giants. “They run the supply chain.” And the current stimulus contains no provisions for changing that. “Overall, it’s more subsidies to lock in the meat-based U.S. agriculture system,” said Glenn Hurowitz, executive director of the Washington, D.C.–based environmental watchdog group Mighty Earth. “That could be locking in polluting practices for much longer.”
The stimulus package isn’t actually a direct subsidy to industrial meat producers. But the logic of arguments like Hurowitz’s goes like this: Since the majority of U.S. crops become animal feed, and since the meat industry is so consolidated—Cargill, Tyson, JBS, and National Beef control 80 percent of all beef slaughtered—the $16 billion of stimulus money that the Trump administration is making available largely as direct payments of up to $250,000 to struggling farmers is a de facto subsidy to the factory farming model. And when you include the additional $3 billion the federal government is spending to purchase produce, dairy, and meat, that’s a $19 billion investment in climate chaos.
USA spokesperson Cameron Bruett called this line of reasoning “ridiculous,”
writing in an email that “supporting farmers during a period of unprecedented
and unforeseen economic upheaval is in the interests of everyone who supports
food production.” Tyson and Cargill didn’t respond to The New Republic’s
request for comment.
This is a recurring pattern under the Trump administration: play up the optics of supporting small farmers while mostly assisting atmosphere-warming corporations. That’s what happened with the $28 billion program announced in May 2019 to mitigate the impact of Trump’s trade wars. “What was meant to be a financial lifeline for struggling farmers,” The New York Times reported in February, “has been widely derided by critics as a corporate bailout for big agriculture companies and those who live in metropolitan areas but own farms in rural America.”
One of the larger beneficiaries of that trade war bailout has been the U.S. subsidiary of JBS, which received $67 million. “We are paid for the work of our U.S.-based team members and the U.S. pork products we produced, which will be used to support important federal feeding programs,” Bruett told me on behalf of JBS.
The Brazil-based company is the largest meat-processing firm on the planet. The annual emissions linked to its business model—which relies on suppliers clear-cutting sections of the Amazon rain forest for cattle grazing—amount to 280 megatons of greenhouse gases, according to 2017 calculations from the Climate Accountability Institute.
Factory-farming meat giants have largely avoided the climate scrutiny given to oil and gas companies. “I think agriculture is a huge blind spot for the climate community,” Hurowitz said. “We need to decarbonize energy, don’t get me wrong, but acting on agriculture is at least as urgent.”
The profit model of the large meat companies, like that of oil and gas, depends on rapid increases in consumption. JBS currently predicts that global “demand for sustainable protein will experience tremendous growth.” It has told shareholders that the average person’s meat intake around the world could grow 30 percent by 2030. Yet if this were to happen, “it would become impossible to keep global temperatures from rising to dangerous levels,” according to GRAIN and IATP’s report. Despite this, JBS has no target for reducing emissions. “We have adopted a comprehensive sustainability program that addresses the environment, team member health and safety, animal welfare and supply chain integrity,” Bruett said.
Tyson and Cargill have committed to greenhouse gas cuts, but Mighty Earth has called Cargill’s climate target “ill-defined and unenforceable.”
The meat industry’s political allies also dismiss the climate emergency. Secretary Perdue, who has close ties to factory farming interests, referred to global temperature rise in 2014 as “a running joke among the public.” Asked about those comments three years later, Perdue acknowledged that “the climate is changing,” but said that “we don’t know definitively in my opinion what is causing climate change.” Perdue again denied the scientific consensus that humans are responsible on CNN last year, saying that “many scientists believe that it’s human caused, other scientists believe it’s not.”
The meat industry stands to profit from the Trump administration’s regulatory rollbacks. When Interior Secretary David Bernhardt gutted the Endangered Species Act last year, which could impose large penalties on meat producers for destroying protected habitats, one of the industry’s top lobby groups, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, was with him for the announcement. This January, then-NCBA president Jennifer Houston called Trump’s demolition of the National Environmental Policy Act “very exciting”; the change potentially allows ranchers to expand their operations with less scrutiny of environmental impacts.
That group—whose members include Tyson, JBS, and Cargill, as well as fast-food corporations McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Five Guys—helped lobby Trump to sign an April executive order forcing meatpacking plants to stay open even as worker infections were rising. The NCBA and another industry group known as the American Farm Bureau Federation also lobbied senators from farming states to get $23.5 billion in agricultural relief inserted into the $2 trillion coronavirus package passed by Congress in March. With Perdue in charge of distributing much of the stimulus money, fighting climate change will be an extremely low priority.
The relief funding announced in late May bears that out. “This looks like entirely a status quo aid package,” Ben Lilliston, interim co-director of IATP, wrote in an email after the details were made public. “I’m not seeing any acknowledgment of the challenges for farmers selling into local markets or diverse operations (growing multiple crops, or including livestock). Not seeing any recognition of the price premiums (and in this case losses) for organic or grass-fed producers.” He characterized the stimulus as “just Band-Aids to try to stop the bleeding in our existing system.”
While Trump points to those Band-Aids as proof of his support for rural farmers, critics say the effect is to protect the business model of factory-farmed meat. For example, directing funding to corn growers who’ve seen their income plummet by 22 percent this year helps ensure a crucial source of animal feed for meat giants. “These companies depend on cheap corn and soy,” Lovera told me. “If there wasn’t [federal support] to prop up farmers to return next year and overproduce corn and soy cheaply again that could be disruptive.”
And this in turn perpetuates a highly destructive agricultural system. Squeezing thousands of animals into small spaces on factory farms means creating massive manure-storing lagoons. The expansion of this model is one reason why U.S. manure-related emissions have grown 66 percent since 1990. Ironically, farmers are already feeling the effects of climate change, including hundreds of millions of dollars in uninsured crop losses from record Midwestern flooding last year.
In Europe, lawmakers are using the coronavirus crisis as a chance to reexamine the links between food production, climate change, and a healthy environment. The European Commission recently proposed an $11 billion plan to make agriculture more sustainable and less centered on meat production.
That’s the opposite of what’s happening in the U.S. Despite meat workers dying of Covid-19, farmers losing billions of dollars from the lockdown, and a factory model that’s accelerating global temperature rise and water pollution, the Trump administration is doubling down on a food system largely benefiting large meat companies. When the coronavirus struck this spring, “the big industrial food chain broke,” said Lovera. “But with the current politics and the current power of these companies, they seem pretty hell-bent on just rebuilding the same old thing.” Given the climate repercussions, that’s a mistake none of us can afford.