The Case for Big Ag

Industrial farming pollutes rivers, distorts politics, and hurts rural communities. But it might just save the rainforest.

By Michael Grunwald

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Photo: Bruce Forster

Once upon a time—actually, it was just two years ago—almost everyone in the scientific and environmental communities thought of farm-grown biofuels as a green alternative to gasoline, a renewable win-win solution that would decrease global warming as well as increase agricultural incomes. Then an environmental lawyer named Tim Searchinger had an epiphany, and proved that almost everyone was wrong.

Searchinger wasn’t a scientist, an economist, or an agronomist, and he was new to energy issues. But he had spent years analyzing and litigating the ecological impacts of agriculture, especially its intrusions into natural habitats, and he wasn’t the kind of enviro who assumed that something was good just because it was "renewable." So he dug into the literature. A slew of studies had concluded that crop-based fuels would slash carbon emissions, mainly because the act of growing crops removes carbon from the atmosphere. But Searchinger realized the studies had completely ignored the real-world implications of devoting crops to cars instead of people. This was his epiphany: in a world with 6.7 billion mouths to feed, when you use an acre of farmland to grow fuel, somewhere an acre of something else is probably going to be converted into new farmland to grow food, and that something else is likely to be forests or wetlands that store far more carbon than farmland ever could. It certainly isn’t going to be a parking lot, which was the implicit assumption of the earlier studies.

And sure enough, when Searchinger and others began incorporating these indirect land-use effects into their greenhouse gas assessments, they found that when biofuels use productive land, the emissions created by induced deforestation outweigh the carbon benefits—while increasing hunger and decreasing biodiversity, to boot.


"The most pungent critique I’ve had was a scientist who just said, ‘No duh!,’" says Searchinger, now a scholar at Princeton. "It all seems so obvious in retrospect."

The impact of this analytical boo-boo has been staggering. The United States and Europe have already enacted strict mandates for biofuel usage that are ravaging the planet in the name of saving it, jump-starting a $100 billion global industry in renewable fuels, forcing beleaguered automakers to manufacture counterproductive "flex-fuel" vehicles, artificially boosting demand for grain, and creating a deadly competition between the 800 million (and rising) people with cars and the 800 million (and rising) people with hunger problems. The grain it takes to fill an SUV’s tank could feed an adult for a year, and the United States is now diverting one-fourth of its corn crop to ethanol, which has helped spark riots to protest rising food prices in countries like Haiti, Mexico, and Pakistan.

It has also ratcheted up deforestation rates through a chain reaction that Searchinger and I witnessed on a visit to the Amazon last year: as U.S. soybean farmers switch to corn to take advantage of the ethanol boom, Brazilian soybean farmers expand into cattle pastures, so cattlemen move to the rainforest. The effect is not instantaneous, but when grain prices go up, the forest comes down. Meanwhile, Indonesia has bulldozed so many of its forests and peatlands into palm oil plantations for the European biodiesel market that it has surged from twenty-first to third among the world’s leading carbon emitters. Malaysia has converted almost all its uncultivated land into fuel. Biofuels have made deforestation more attractive than ever. Searchinger’s epiphany has a clear implication for public policy: biofuels that do not reduce emissions over their life cycle should not receive lavish government support. This has been echoed by the World Bank, the National Academies of Science, and even the British agency created to promote biofuels.

Unfortunately, the agricultural industrial complex that makes billions of dollars from crop-based biofuels dominates government farm policies in the United States and Europe. For example, just months before Searchinger published his revelations in Science, Congress passed a bipartisan energy law mandating a stunning thirty-six billion gallons of biofuels by 2022. While lawmakers later added a life-cycle test of sorts, they also included an exemption for corn ethanol, once it (inevitably) fails that test. Recent studies suggest that first-generation agro-fuels like corn-based ethanol would never pass a legitimate test. Even speculative second-generation fuels like cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass would increase overall emissions if they were produced on arable land, though there are some interesting experiments under way using fuel sources such as algae that could get around this problem (see Mark Rice-Oxley, "Algae Soup"). But Big Agriculture and its water carriers in Congress have made it clear they will defend biofuels against any technical challenge; House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson furiously vowed to scuttle the unrelated climate change bill after the Environmental Protection Agency tried to include land-use calculations in its life-cycle tests—even though Congress had directed the EPA to do so with Peterson’s support, even though the tests were still predictably biofuel friendly, and even though the climate change legislation (outrageously) exempts agricultural emissions. "I want this message sent down the street!" Peterson seethed—in case anyone in the Obama administration was unaware that Big Ag was untouchable.

B ut Searchinger has had another epiphany—really, an epiphany about his first epiphany. It’s no great shock that farm-grown fuels are an aggie boondoggle; U.S. agricultural policy teems with price supports, disaster aid, direct payments, insurance subsidies, tax breaks, and countless other policies with the common goal of shoveling dollars to industrial farmers. And it’s no surprise to see Big Ag pushing policies that would ravage the rainforest; Searchinger has spent much of his legal career defending the earth against agricultural assaults. But the more he’s thought about his analytical and mathematical scoop, the more he’s realized it has a hidden pro–Big Ag message.

The message is that land is an incredibly precious commodity—so precious that we’re better off burning gasoline on a warming planet than using land as a substitute. It turns out that land is really great at growing the food we need to feed us, and really great at storing the carbon we need to save us, but not so great at growing the fuel we need to transport us; converting the entire U.S. grain harvest to ethanol would supply less than one-fifth of our automotive fuel. The key point is that for each acre of potential cropland that isn’t used for food production, either an acre of nature is going to be converted into new cropland—an acre of nature that has probably been storing up carbon for years—or the planet is going to get a bit less food. And the planet is going to need a lot more food. There could be nine billion mouths to feed by 2050, many of whom will (one hopes) be able to afford more resource-intensive foods like meat. But crop yields are no longer increasing as much as they once were, and ecologists believe that water shortages, soil erosion, and climate change could actually shrink future yields; every degree Celsius of global warming is expected to reduce global yields by about 10 percent. Even if modern technology helps boost yields in Africa, and farm-grown biofuels are somehow strangled in their cradle by an outbreak of global sanity, there’s going to be intense pressure for more farmland and more deforestation.

But deforestation already accounts for 20 percent of all carbon emissions, and scientists believe the world needs to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050 to avert an unthinkable catastrophe. So unless we can eliminate all emissions from all other sources—from cars to light bulbs to burping cows—we need to limit the expansion of agriculture.

Hmm. We’re going to need more food. And we’re going to need our
food growers to use less land. It sounds like we’re going to need—industrial agriculture.

I n the future, for the same reason we won’t want to sacrifice valuable cropland for biofuels, we won’t want to sacrifice it for low-yield organic kale either. As much as we love Michael Pollan’s delicious prose, as much as we feel we ought to love locally grown, pesticide-free, genetically unmodified, naturally fertilized, antibiotic-free, multigrain whatever, we’re going to need the world’s farmland to produce as much sustenance as possible on as little ground as possible, so that we can leave the Amazon alone. Just as we’ll have to increase people-per-acre urban densities to rein in exurban sprawl, we’ll have to increase calorie-per-acre farm production to rein in agricultural sprawl. Michelle Obama’s little garden is a lovely gesture, but it’s not going to feed a world where food demand is rising much faster than food supply, where overpumping is lowering water tables and imperiling agriculture in China and India, and where grain reserves dwindled to an all-time low last year. To feed that world, we’ll need Big Ag to do what it does best.

This will require a jolting paradigm shift. Industrial farmers have a well-earned reputation in policy circles as obesity-promoting, pesticide-spewing, water-wasting, energy-hogging, illegal-alien-hiring, politician-buying corporate welfare queens who wax hypocritical about family farmers and the "heartland" while driving small farms out of business and hollowing out rural towns. Their subsidies help deplete aquifers, destroy rivers, intensify Third World poverty, and scuttle free trade deals that would boost the nonagricultural sectors of the U.S. economy. But now that their high yields look like the best way to limit agriculture to a sustainable footprint that would leave enough trees and marshes to avoid a planetary emergency, it might be time for good-government types, environmentalists, anti-hunger activists, free trade supporters, health advocates, and other perennial Big Ag bashers to start thinking about how to work with them. Those taxpayer-supported amber waves of grain have environmental benefits as well as costs.

That doesn’t mean we have to support agro-fuels—although we should support efforts to convert crop waste into energy as long as it doesn’t remove land from production. We don’t have to support egregious subsidies for multimillionaire farmers, either—although given the hopeless politics of the issue it might make sense to agree to support them if they’re tied to soil, water, and energy conservation requirements. But we ought to recognize and encourage the potential of genetically modified crops to produce high-yield, drought-resistant crops that require fewer petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides. And we ought to acknowledge that agricultural consolidation, while painful for family farmers and rural communities, is not only inevitable but in many ways desirable. Big Ag can use the advantages of bigness not only to boost production (by buying the best seeds and inputs and tractors) but to reduce waste (with precision GPS gadgets that adjust spraying and watering according to the topography of the field). We might even rethink our opposition to those icky confined-feeding operations, especially when they’re clumping together (more greenhouse-friendly) chickens rather than cows. In exchange, maybe those feedlots could stop destroying the Chesapeake Bay.

That would be Big Ag’s end of the bargain: Eliminate its most egregious and least sustainable practices. Stop farming to the edge of the river, and stop draining wetlands. Keep the cows out of the stream, and more runoff on the farm. Stop spreading petroleum-based fertilizer when and where it isn’t needed. Stop creating a massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The industry made strides dealing with its erosion problems in response to federal incentives; perhaps it could clean up the rest of its act with proper inducements.

Big Ag has been so politically successful for so long that it might resist any compromise, but the farm lobby knows its cue-the-violins baloney about humble tillers of the heartland soil might not justify redistribution from taxpayers to agro-industrialists forever. And one positive by-product of the trend toward corporate farming is that corporations tend to worry about their images. If agriculture keeps producing more than 30 percent of the world’s emissions, including the deforestation effect, it’s going to get stuck with the mother of all image problems.

Brazil is an interesting example. Its larger producers make our Big Ag look like Jeffersonian yeomen, and they’ve become international pariahs to the save-the-rainforest crowd. But they’re much lighter on the land than the slash-and-burn subsistence farmers on the Amazon frontier.

It’s probably too late for another green revolution; we’re bumping up against the limits of photosynthesis, and global yield increases have dwindled to about 1 percent per year. And there would be social costs to a large-scale expansion of industrial agriculture in Africa and the rest of the low-yield Third World, as well as political costs; it’s no coincidence that the world’s biggest soybean farmer is also the governor of a large Brazilian province on the Amazon frontier. But agricultural consolidation is going to continue no matter what; economies of scale create huge efficiencies, and they give large producers at least some counterweight against the vastly consolidated processing, shipping, and retailing industries. Searchinger’s epiphanies remind us that if it’s going to happen eventually, it might as well happen now, while there’s still a rainforest to save.

World hunger and global warming are two of the great challenges of this century, and they are inextricably linked through agriculture and the land. About five million children already die of nutrition-related causes every year, and about fifteen million acres of carbon-rich forests already get converted into farms every year. As the world population rises, both of those figures are likely to explode unless agricultural productivity can explode as well. So by all means, we should ask industrial farmers to clean up their act. But first, we might want to beg them to save the planet and feed the world.

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Michael Grunwald, a senior correspondent at Time magazine, is the author of The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise.  
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