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Pesticide companies are climate-washing their brands

Agribusiness is trying to spin itself some eco-credentials, to stop governments from regulating it.

Mat Hope
18 November 2020
Image: CGP Grey

If the current home page of pesticide giant Syngenta is to be believed, the company has two priorities: “Helping farmers. Fighting climate change”.

Eco-consciousness may seem unlikely from a company that has been one of the most strident opponents to an EU ban on bee-killing neonicotinoids, but Syngenta is by no means alone in the world of agribusiness giants, with Bayer “uniquely positioned” and Corteva (formerly Dow-DuPont) making similar claims.

Perhaps it’s about time? After all, our chemical-addicted agriculture and forestry industry are the world’s second most climate-changing sector. Have these companies really transformed from environmental pariahs to climate messiahs? Not according to environmental investigations website DeSmog (where I’m UK editor).

New research shows the two strategies that pesticide companies are throwing their multi-million dollar marketing weight behind – so-called “Precision” and “Regenerative” agriculture – are extremely unlikely to be able to deliver the benefits the companies claim. Yet they’re being pushed at policymakers and the public by a coordinated network of lobby groups with close ties to fossil fuels and proponents of climate science denial.

In the UK, this rebrand comes as Brexit threatens to tear-up environmental protections, and as the EU is working out how to reform its ginormous Common Agricultural Policy to (theoretically at least) put environmental protections front-and-centre. If the companies can persuade world leaders that they are already responsible environmental stewards (despite what they might have heard), then there’s no need for them to put tricky regulations in place.

Currently, there is no coherent strategy for the sector to become a low-carbon actor, as climate scientists say it must. And as the UK saw with Brexit, where there is a political vacuum, lobbyists step in. In the absence of a proper plan, pesticides companies and their associates have drawn up their own.

Given the profitability of these companies over the past century, and much like Big Oil’s failed promises, it is perhaps unsurprising that these plans serve to perpetuate the sector’s status quo of industrial, monocrop, chemically-laden, meat-and-dairy heavy, and ultimately high-carbon, agriculture.

Marketing strategies

From denial, to delay, to appropriation of supposed solutions – the pesticide industry’s major players have progressed through the stages of the climate lobbyists’ playbook at a glacial speed. But they’re now firmly in the latter stages, pushing theoretically legitimate environmental stewardship strategies as climate solutions, and massively over-hyping their potential.

In developing their new spin, they’ve invented some lovely sounding jargon. “Precision” agriculture uses technology such as drones and GPS-systems to target the deployment of pesticides. “Regenerative” agriculture puts soil health at the forefront of farming, using natural grazers (such as sheep) to keep farms orderly – supposedly the mark of an efficient farm, which normally means prioritising profit over habitat.

While both strategies can have environmental benefits, their ability to sufficiently enable farmers to make the changes scientists say are necessary to combat climate change is seriously in doubt.

The long-term impacts of Regenerative Agriculture are largely unknown, and geographical variations in farmers’ needs means it is far from a one-size-fits-all strategy. Estimates of how much carbon can be sequestered using the strategy also vary widely – from 322 billion tons to one terraton globally. That’s a big difference, though the industry generally favours the bigger number.

Precision Agriculture also does not necessarily imply a move away from pesticides, but a different way of using them. And the drones and computers needed for this digitised form of agriculture are extremely expensive, putting them out of reach for many farmers across the world.

When presented with these criticisms, all the companies happily continued to present both their chemical and technological products as significant climate strategies. Bayer pointed out that the sector “has a vested interest in being part of the solution to climate change”, and claimed it was leading the way. A spokesperson for Syngenta was eager to emphasise that “as far as crop protection products are concerned, yes they can play a role in helping reduce greenhouse gases”. Meanwhile, BASF said it was committed to “reducing negative climate impacts while continuing to support the sustainable production of healthy, high-quality food”.

(You can read their full responses here.)

As their responses attest, ultimately, the pesticide industry’s preferred climate strategies serve to perpetuate the status quo of agriculture: keeping large-scale farming reliant on the big five companies’ products, be they chemicals or software systems, and enabling them to sell the damaging products that have driven agribusiness to be the highest emitter, after the energy industry.

Networks

So why are policymakers and the public (so far) buying the companies’ spin? Like big oil, or big tobacco before it, the pesticides industry has a sophisticated network of trade associations and lobby groups to push its message.

Sometimes, it’s as easy as buying the media – openDemocracy previously revealed how Syngenta had cut a deal with London’s Evening Standard that saw the paper avoid covering the fact that the company was facing billion dollar lawsuits in content it sponsored.

But, more often, it takes a whole host of organisations coordinating their message to really make it heard in the corridors of power. DeSmog’s new Agribusiness Database, launched alongside our investigation, profiles 20 key players pushing the industry’s messaging on climate change across the globe, and how they all connect.

Some of the groups have significant ties to the fossil fuel industry, whose products are used to manufacture and distribute the pesticide companies’ chemicals. For instance, Exxon, Shell, Total, BP and Chevron are members of the American Chemistry Council – a lobby group that recently hit headlines for trying to persuade the UK government to cut environmental protections in a post-Brexit trade deal with the US, and Kenya to become Africa’s new plastic hub.

Other groups, such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, have long histories of climate science denial. In the 1990s, the Farm Bureau worked with the oil-industry backed Global Climate Coalition to oppose international action on climate change, and high-profile members were still publicly questioning whether climate change was caused by humans well into the 2000s.

Some of the lobby groups now have insider status. Croplife International, for example, just signed a partnership agreement with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The group counts all of the big five agrichemical companies – Bayer, Syngenta, Corteva, BASF, and FMC – as members. The UK-wing of the organisations, the Crop Protection Association, was quick to defend the agrichemical industry’s role in climate mitigation – when asked by DeSmog whether pesticides have a role to play in the fight against climate change, a spokesperson replied: “absolutely”.

Others claim to represent farmers supposedly set to benefit from these strategies, such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which pushes agricultural techno-fixes to climate change, and has strategic partnerships with both Syngenta and Corteva. Unsurprisingly, it has been condemned by Friends of the Earth as “little more than a trojan horse for agribusiness”.

Some maintain they do not even represent the industry. The Cornell Alliance for Science is a science communications initiative based within Cornell University - however, our research has shown their published materials closely align with industry talking points. “Of course, we are not an 'agribusiness organization' but a communications and training initiative based at a US University, so we don’t do 'marketing’”.

All in all, this network has access to policymakers at the heart of regulatory bodies and legislatures across the world. The lobbyists have managed to overturn bans on ecologically disastrous pesticides in the past. Now they’re trying to persuade the people that matter that pesticides companies are already climate heroes – before regulators act to make them so.

So can the pesticides industry be part of the solution to climate change? It can and must be. But are the companies already? No – despite what you might see in marketing materials from the industry’s major players, and those they pay to boost their brands.

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