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Oxford Study Attacks Regenerative Agriculture — Monsanto Ally?

Insights + Opinion

The British Empire has schooled the world in colonialism, with resulting devastation in India, Africa and the Americas. While the colonies' revolutionary army was successful in defeating the British redcoats more than 240 years ago, today we face a new kind of threat from the United Kingdom.

A University of Oxford think-tank, the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN), has come out with a report, Grazed and Confused, that likens 100-percent grass-fed beef to that produced on a 10,000-cow confined animal feedlot operation (CAFO) like Harris Ranch on Interstate 5 in Central California—calling them basically the same in climate impacts.


Think, for a moment, how absurd that is. One has to wonder why this Oxford think-tank is being so deferential to Monsanto and the GMO/fertilizer industry, which profits via the planet-killing, health-destroying CAFO model.

The Monsanto Connection to Oxford University

It seems that Monsanto has deep and enduring connection to the University of Oxford (UO). Monsanto has paid out to UO through various business ventures more than $50M pounds ($75M US).

Also, Oxford University Press has published a flattering book, written by Robert Paarlberg, full of Monsanto puffery: Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know.

In 2006, the Guardian reported that UO professor and Oxford resident Dr. Richard Droll wrote and testified that Monsanto chemicals did not cause cancer, while he "was receiving a consultancy fee of $1,500 a day in the mid-1980s from Monsanto, then a major chemical company and now better known for its GM crops business."

Oxford University has advertised a Monsanto Senior Research Fellowship.

The search function on the FCRN website produces only one link for Monsanto (a very favorable article on CRISPR, a new GMO 2.0 technique). How could a supposed climate independent food research group not be writing about the high impacts of the agrochemical sector within the areas in which it claims expertise, such as health, food access, environment and climate change?

The FCRN website makes the following statement:

Our principles of impartiality, academic rigor, and interdisciplinarity inform our vision of a fair, healthy, and ethical food system that sits within environmental limits.

They fail to mention their university's conflict of interest regarding Monsanto. Why are they silent about Monsanto's role in creating an unhealthy and unethical food system? It's convenient for Monsanto and the giant synthetic fertilizer industry to have this "green credentials" think tank to discredit the small ranchers who have created a soil-health building meat production system that has no use for Monsanto merchandise.

Many of the U.K.'s wealthy families and investors hold vast acreages in Argentina, where cancer rates have skyrocketed in towns near the heavy spraying of Monsanto RoundUp on GMO soy fields. Now perhaps FCRN is just an anti-meat cheerleader. Either way, the report is damaging.

Dazed and Confused

A better title for FCRN's report might be Dazed and Confused, given how unscientific the paper is. It completely discounts the climatic and ecological damage done by the Monsanto and DuPont GMO mono-crop corn and soy supplied to CAFOs.

The authors did not bother to compile a full life-cycle analysis comparing climate impacts of industrial meat to grass pasture meat. They skipped over a 2016 paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Sciences Europe, which reported that 18.9 billion pounds (8.6 billion kilograms) of glyphosate were used globally. It takes 454 MJ of energy to manufacture 1 kg of glyphosate, one of the most energy-intensive pesticides. Significantly, it requires 5.8 times as much energy to produce a kilo of glyphosate as it takes to produce a kilo of nitrogen. The largest global users of glyphosate are GMO corn and soy grown primarily for cows.

During the entire 127-page report, the terms "soil health," "soil ecosystem," "soil microbes" and "topsoil loss" aren't mentioned at all. And they failed to mention the vast amounts of synthetic nitrogen from fracked, methane-belching wells applied to grow the GMO corn: 300 times more damaging to our climate than carbon.

The distinguished and well-respected U.K. Sustainable Food Trust was also critical of the report, stating:

The report focuses exclusively on greenhouse gas emissions, and while it does accept that grassland can sequester carbon, it fails to understand the vital necessity of returning degraded cropland to rotations that include grass and grazing animals, in order to rebuild carbon and organic matter levels, and the potential of integrating grazing livestock production with crop production in genuine mixed farming systems, to address a wide range of the food system problems currently faced ... The only sustainable way to obtain food from grassland is to graze it with ruminants. With the growing global population it would be irresponsible not to do that.

In one conclusion, the FCRN report states, "Grain-fed intensive livestock systems use less land and so cause less damaging land use change." Yet the destruction of forest and savannah lands in South America for soybean farms to feed CAFO animals is in the millions of hectares. GMO corn and soy are two of the most damaging systems for land and habitat that the world has ever seen.

Our Food Choices Matter

It's a fact, as outlined in the Guardian, that CAFO cows are an ecological disaster.

The CAFO industrial-meat system is a cancer-linked, bee-killing, carbon-busting, soil-destroying, nitrous oxide-emitting, air- and water-polluting, ocean-acidifying human and planetary health disaster. (Learn more about industrial ag's role in destroying the planet's oxygen system).

Millennial moms, generally distrustful of the industrial food system, are now moving to better choices, from pasture-raised meat and dairy products to leading-edge vegan options. Nut milks and cheeses from cashews, coconuts, or almonds are gaining popularity within this age group.

Many Starbucks customers are saying no to industrial-milk lattes and choosing coconut milk, or going to cafés serving organic dairy options.

STARBUCKS, Destroyer of the Seas.

If you care about a livable planet, stop buying industrial, grain-fed meat and milk. We need a "big tent" approach to solving the climate crisis. Some may choose to reduce meat consumption, while others will focus on buying 100 percent grass-pastured meat. Going plant-based and eating little or no meat is another viable dietary option.

Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds and enhances ecosystem services. The FCRN authors chose to ignore the growing body of work of regenerative agriculture that shows the many benefits accruing to human and environmental health from changing our farming systems. According to Stanford researchers, the ability of well-managed soils to trap carbon dioxide is potentially much greater than previously estimated and could "significantly" offset increasing global emissions.

See the recent article How to Start a Regenerative Agriculture Movement in Your Community.

The Denis Hayes and Gail Boyer Hayes book Cowed: The Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on America's Health, Economy, Politics, Culture, and Environment, is a good place to start learning about the impact of cows and meat on the planet. It turns out that taking care of the land leads to better nutrition in the food that's raised. Pasture-raised meat has six times the levels of Vitamin E and several times the Omega-3 and CLA (beneficial fatty acid) levels of industrially raised beef, which often contains drugs and antibiotics numbering in the hundreds.

Why Monsanto Is Freaking Out About the Rise of Grass-Fed Beef

The countries that supply much of the GMO soy used by industrial cattle feedlots in the U.S. and the European Union are Brazil and Argentina. Meanwhile, Monsanto's GMO corn and soy crops in North America are losing market share as the company faces massive lawsuits in the U.S. due to RoundUp's link to cancer.

Clearly, the rising tide of pasture meat replacing CAFO meat is bad for Monsanto's bottom line. Sales of pasture beef have about doubled every year since 2012, as reported in the 2017 report Back to Grass: The Market Potential for U.S. Grassfed Beef:

Grass-fed beef, when produced using regenerative grazing practices, can have many benefits for human health, animal welfare and the environment. Consumers are beginning to recognize this, and demand for grass-fed beef is growing strongly.

Cows eat grass; therefore they don't need to consume vast amounts of GMO corn and soybeans. Less GMO corn planted means less cancer-linked, soil-killing RoundUp being sprayed. If consumers can understand that pasture-raised beef is better for them than CAFO meat, they'll change their buying preferences and sales of beneficial pasture-raised beef will go up, while Monsanto profits from agricultural products with a multitude of negative impacts for animals, humans and the environment will go down.

The German Der Spiegel magazine recently profiled how Monsanto manipulated science in its article, Monsanto Faces Blowback Over Cancer Cover-Up:

A release of internal emails has revealed that U.S. agrochemical giant Monsanto manipulated studies of the company's herbicide, Roundup. Experts believe the product causes cancer—and the consequences for the company could be dire.

And Monsanto's relentless scorched-earth policy is a primary cause of an "ecological Armageddon," with a dramatic 75 percent plunge of insect numbers in past 25 years in German nature reserves. The windshield test shows that splattered insects have almost disappeared—you just don't see them on the road compared to a few decades ago. As insects and pollinators disappear, so will birds. Conventionally grown corn and soybeans for cows are leading us down a dark path—and the end of nature.

FCRN to "the Rescue"

Fake news doesn't happen just in politics. After the Grazed and Confused report came out, it began spreading virally across the web. One headline in the New York Post read: Your Grass-Fed Burger Is Making Climate Change Worse.

To quote from this article:

Environmentally conscious meat eaters have touted grass-fed meat as a solution to help negate the impact of cows on the environment. But unfortunately, it's not that simple. Raising grass-fed cows also leads to deforestation—another big climate change issue—as farmers chop down forests in order to expand their pastures.

The above is a red herring, and the piece as a whole should make Monsanto blush for its brazen spinning of untruths. Vast tracks of Amazon forests are being cleared to grow GMO Monsanto soy for industrial meat (FCRN conveniently left that out of its report).

Grass-Fed Beef Is Powered by Sunlight and Plants

Today, thousands of ranchers across the U.S. and Canada graze cattle on mostly sun-grown grasses that require zero pesticides and few to no fertilizers, deriving water from the sky and soil.

The Circle Ranch in west Texas is restoring high desert rangelands, conserving water and thus improving habitat for all species of birds and animals.

Gabe Brown runs a holistically managed 5,000-acre mixed-crop pasture operation in North Dakota, producing 100 percent grass-fed meat—an approach based on farming and ranching in nature's image. Brown is featured in the video Soil Carbon Cowboys and the forthcoming book Kiss the Ground: How the Food You Eat Can Reverse Climate Change, Heal Your Body, and Ultimately Save Our World by Josh Tickell.

Cover for Kiss the Ground by Josh Tickell.

Per Gabe, "One thing that is important to remember is that with approximately 32,000 tons of atmospheric nitrogen above every acre there is really no reason for the use of any synthetic nitrogen. If farmers would diversify crop rotations, add cover crops and grazing, and proliferate nitrogen-fixing bacteria, there would be no reason for the synthetic fertilizer."

Here's some of the good news included in a recent report on the kind of pasture grazing Brown and ranchers like him are doing:

The authors propose that the majority of GHG emissions of many current tillage-based cropping and feedlot-based livestock production systems can be avoided, and even reversed, by ecologically sensitive management of ruminants in mixed crop and grazing agroecosystems through increased carbon sequestration as well as changes in cropping practice. They note the following additional potential benefits: improved soil nutrient cycling, increased soil stability, enhanced watershed function, increased production of healthy food, and enhanced biodiversity and wildlife habitat.

CAFO Meat Powered by Monsanto, Tillage and Oil

The story of CAFO meat begins with Monsanto growing experimental GMO crops on Maui and Kauai islands next to schools and homes, thus subjecting the locals to toxic pesticides (with pockets of birth defects and cancers).

The GMO seeds are grown in Monsanto labs and dipped into bee-killing neonics (banned in the EU) from the German chemical giant Bayer (with which Monsanto is merging). The seeds are then trucked to American farms or shipped to South America by giant ocean freighter along with RoundUp, Monsanto's petroleum-based herbicide.

Farmers growing corn and soy for animal feed apply synthetic fertilizers derived from natural-gas fracked oil that releases huge amounts of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas pollutant. The fields are then sprayed two to three times with RoundUp, including a coating for the final ripe grain.

The grain is packed onto trucks and freighted to a port where it's loaded onto container ships, then transferred to giant GHG-belching oil extractors that crush the crops using hexane, a toxic byproduct of gasoline production. The hexane-and-RoundUp-laced soy and cornmeal is then transported to the feedlots to be fed to cows packed 5,000 to 10,000 to a pen for fattening, while the oil byproduct is sold to the junk food industry for cookies, crackers, and candies. Imagine the toxin-belching carbon footprint created by these processes.

Highly concentrated decomposing manure from animals packed in small spaces releases methane, ammonia, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide. And the cows, meant to live in a natural setting and eat grass, grow sick from tight living conditions and poor feed quality unless they're fed a daily ration of antibiotics. Unlike happy cows munching sweet, green grass, those unhappy cow stomachs then belch more GHG emissions.

Yet FCRN fails to mention this Monsanto/DuPont/Chevron/Exxon/fracking ecological nightmare, and instead discredits small ranches growing local meat from local grass without the need for chemical inputs.

The bottom line: No matter what the authors' motives were, they're working to convince people that one's choice of meat doesn't matter, pasture soil health doesn't matter, less RoundUp doesn't matter, reduction in NOX-exuding fertilizer doesn't matter, and better nutrition doesn't matter. The end result is that Oxford University is protecting Monsanto's market share while helping to destroy vast ecosystems and while also boosting cancer levels.

The next time you buy beef or dairy, make sure it's from 100 percent grass-pasture cows.

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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