Food companies and farmers active at Climate Action Summit

If the Trump administration’s effort to stymie action on climate change is having an impact on food and farming, it isn’t apparent at the Global Climate Action Summit underway in San Francisco this week, which features representatives from around the world.

At a side event ahead of the main conference, corn and soybean farmer Fred Yoder said farmers would get on board and help fight climate change as long as they had a seat at the table. “If we’re going to get this done, farmers have to have skin in the game,” said Yoder, past president of the National Corn Growers Association.

He spoke at the 30X30 Forests, Food and Land Challenge, which argues that food, land, and farming can deliver 30 percent of the solutions to tackle climate change by 2030.

Speaking of issues like fertilizer runoff in the Midwest, which, among other things, contributes to massive algae blooms in Lake Erie, he said, “We’ve got a big target on our back. As the saying goes, never let a crisis go to waste.”

Big food companies also realize they need to do more, said Barry Parkin, chief procurement and sustainability officer at Mars Inc. He envisions the “end of commodities,” since companies can no longer risk sourcing generic goods but instead need know how those goods are produced, what impact they have on the land, and what that means for the farmers. Among the smallholders producing cocoa, poverty has been endemic.

As for the climate, the challenges are massive, since agriculture contributes a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. Add in everything, from fertilizer to packaging and transport, and the figure rises to third of all emissions.

Companies are working on ways to reduce greenhouse gases, but some of the most exciting work may come from farming methods that actually sequester carbon in the soil, offsetting those emitted into the atmosphere.

Danone, the massive dairy company, figures it can offset 30 percent of its agricultural emissions by encouraging its farmers to build soil carbon, said Eric Soubeiran, who leads Danone’s One Planet agenda, including climate and agricultural strategy. 

Plants and trees soak up carbon from the air, and agricultural methods, such as no- and low-till agriculture, can keep that carbon in the ground. Other methods, including adding cover crop rotations — plants grown specifically to build healthy soils and sequester carbon — have also been shown to have an effect.

But the status quo of deforestation and over-tilling the soil has been anything but climate-smart. An example brought up repeatedly during the day were the massive forest fires in Indonesia, where rainforests are burned to create oil palm plantations. “If we can’t find a way to produce palm oil sustainably, perhaps we shouldn’t be using palm oil at all,” said Jeremy Oppenheim, director of the Food and Land Use Coalition and founding partner of SYSTEMIQ, to loud applause.

As for the corn and soybean farmers that dominate the U.S. landscape, Yoder said they are first and foremost concerned about their bottom line — and profits have been exceedingly thin of late. With so many farmers working on leased land, they have little incentive to incorporate long-term soil-building practices. He also said bankers are reluctant to support long-term measures because they are looking for a quicker return on their investments.

He noted that farmers in the Chesapeake Bay region got government incentives to plant cover crops, which build soil carbon, and that’s exactly what they did. By contrast, in Iowa, the top corn-growing state in the nation, cover crops are grown on less than 3 percent of farmland.

In the United States, even formerly effective measures like the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to set aside environmentally sensitive land, is under threat. The White House also recently proposed rolling back Obama-era regulations on methane, which is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Although the focus of the Obama regulations was leaks from oil and gas operations, livestock are the second-largest source of methane emissions.