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Food Integrity Campaign Blog

FIC Researcher Talks Dark Money, Trade Deals and the Beef Industry

FIC Staff | February 20, 2019


The Food Integrity Campaign (FIC) and Climate Science & Policy Watch (CSPW) welcome seasoned researcher and international policy analyst, Anna Levy, to our team. As a Research Fellow, Anna is spearheading an investigation and research project at the intersection of industrial agriculture and climate change both in the United States and transnationally. She is exploring two research prongs, informed by over a decade of prior work, and in consultation with expert staff in our FIC and CSPW programs. The project has two areas of focus. The first is an analysis of climate change considerations in the new Mexico-United States-Canada free trade agreement. The accord, called T-MEC in Mexico, USMCA in the United States, and CUSMA in Canada, awaits final approval by all three countries’ legislatures. In the second area of focus, Anna is mapping the underlying economic and political forces at work that influence and shape the U.S. beef and cattle production industries, a key contributor to global methane emissions. An introduction to her forthcoming research is below.

This is an impressive undertaking. What stands out in your research, so far? 

I started with a focus on food systems since the oil and gas industries have received a lot more attention when it comes to climate change, and with good reason, over the past few decades. In recent years, however, the global scientific community has put greater emphasis on breaking down the science of emissions in food production as evidenced in the newest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released in late 2018. However, the industrial interests underpinning these global food supply chains has somewhat remained in the background.

Since climate change impacts occur across political borders, I wanted to prioritize transnational food systems. They are complex, harder to pin down, and encompass a broad range of governmental jurisdictions and communities. Moreover, food supply and distribution chains are almost always dependent on political forces. Food is central to survival, rendering food production and supply chains as political as it gets. These same systems are more difficult to break down in terms of accountability, in part, because most enforceable public policy remedies exist at the national rather than the transnational level. Unlike dumping toxins into a river, areas most affected by climate change may be, and often are, in completely different legal and political jurisdictions than those that contribute most heavily to the problem.

Over the last year alone, we’ve seen the gathering for COP24, the publishing of the IPCC 2.0 report, the projected merger of the Environmental and Agricultural Ministries in Brazil, the passage of a new US Farm Bill, the promise of a Green New Deal, and Executive commitment to a new free trade deal among Mexico, Canada, and the United States..  Whether domestic or international in scope, each has global implications.

Rather than gauging the degree to which countries declare their alignment or opposition to new agreements or gatherings, I am going to focus on what climate diagnostics might look like within and across these interconnected accords, policies, and borders. As a starting point, I’ll zoom in on the T-MEC / USMCA / CUSMA accords, which directly build on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was first signed in 1993, and which went into effect on January 1, 1994. As the revised accord has yet to be formally approved by each country’s legislature, I hope that this analysis and its findings can inform ongoing debate in all three countries as individual lawmakers evaluate the new provisions.

The agreement had profound effects. The majority of environmental protections in the original NAFTA were ultimately ignored or unenforceable. Its environmental, economic, and political impacts ranged from forced migration to soil contamination to industrial concentration among a few corporate actors, among others. It saw the sale of Indigenous and peasant land (ejidos) in Mexico to multinational corporations and contributed to the decline in the economic feasibility of family farming in the United States. Overall GDP growth in all three countries rose during the same period, which raised critical questions (which others have written about at length) about who benefited and at whose expense these accords were operationalized.

That’s the first area of research I’ve been focused on.

While my mind first went across borders given the globalization of food systems and climate change alike, I was quickly reminded that a significant segment of global carbon emissions from food production is concentrated right here in the United States in the beef and cattle industry. That fact has formed the basis of the second area that I am researching.  In food systems, it’s rare for everything from corporate decision-making to food processing to market distribution to live and operate under the same legislative and political authority. Yet, according to the USDA, the US both produced and consumed more beef and cattle than any other country globally in 2018.

For this research, I’ll be conducting a network analysis of political and financial interests throughout the industry, focused on information politics and flows related to carbon emissions and their impacts.

While nationally bound, meat production in the United States is not as straightforward as you might think. At a high level, the structure of the beef and cattle industry involves three somewhat distinct, though interdependent, supply chains: animal feed, pork, and beef. This is interesting for research purposes since it means that political and investment interests might also be different across the three. The poultry industry, and much of the pork industry, are vertically integrated, which means the major brands you see behind them own the animals from the beginning and contract out all the services needed to prepare them for slaughter and eventual processing. The beef industry relies more on a constellation of ranchers of different sizes that raise their own cattle, which they eventually sell to feedlots at auctions. From there, the cattle are then sold again to meatpackers. This difference matters. While the lifecycle and sale cycle of poultry and pork can be more closely linked with the corporations processing them, beef and cattle involve more disparate interests, pressures, and actors at each point of sale in the supply chain. Ultimately, this may mean that financial and political interests in the beef industry are more geographically and economically spread out than they are in others. This difference in market structure is part of what I’ll be examining.

Another interesting point is that while other global agro-commodity companies (for example, those processing and exporting cereal, coffee, or rubber) have achieved their central position in the global market over the course of a century—often with and through the legacies of imperial advantage, machinery, and exploitation—the beef and cattle industry has seen a much more recent acceleration in growth and concentration of activity among a few key corporations, mostly over the last three or four decades. Yet similar to agro-commodities, at present, just a handful of companies are at the center of the global meat-producing industry: JBS, Tyson Foods, Cargill, and Smithfield, three of which are headquartered in the U.S.

How do whistleblowers play into all of this?

Whistleblowing is highly individualized and premised on the exposure of legal wrongdoing. It’s a powerful tool in some situations. Yet, much of what goes into these agreements is totally legal and normalized along those lines. Trade agreements are a collection of tradeoffs between the state-centered interests of two or more countries, and an even greater number of people and interest groups within those countries. They are the product of complex political bargaining. If food systems in one country are compromised or regional livelihoods destroyed for the economic benefit of people in another, on top of the climate costs—we’re talking about systemic accountability challenges, which warrant a complex combination of responses. A lot of my thinking on this has been shaped and influenced by the work of Dr. Jonathan Fox, who founded the Accountability Research Center at American University, and has partnered with dozens of grassroots organizations and research institutions around the world to begin unpacking accountability questions, and responses, at this level.

If climate considerations are incorporated into trade agreements as future commitments, we can often apply them as a litmus test to everything else already written into the current agreement. Industrial expansion is, by default, going to involve growth in emissions unless strategically mitigated or developed through alternative means. Accords entrench the future of economies, livelihoods, sovereignty, social welfare, and environmental changes for years and sometimes decades to come. If climate commitments made in one section of a trade agreement are significantly undermined by some or all of its other provisions by doing simple math (i.e. calculating the ratio of emissions to projected industrial growth in specific areas), and there are no accompanying mitigation plans, this goes beyond whistleblowing.

I hope this research provides multiple entry points for different groups of people including policy-makers, civil society organizations, scholars, and even potential whistleblowers or dissenters raising questions from inside these processes and institutions. When you can see a more complete picture than what is available from an individual or legal perspective, avenues for accountability certainly become more complex, but the assumption and hope is that they also become more varied. Perhaps there are even some new openings to consider.

Sounds like amazing work, when can we read your report?

At the very least, I hope it adds to a robust conversation already taking place, and speaks to varied groups trying to understand different pieces of an interconnected whole. I just got back from Mexico and have a few more stops to go. I hope to have both briefs published this spring, but I’ll be in touch periodically until then and keep you posted on how things are shaping up.