What is agribusiness?

Agribusiness is synonymous with corporate farming. It combines the words agriculture and business and it involves a range of activities and methods used involving modern food production. This involves farming, seed supply, agrichemicals, farm machinery, wholesale and distribution of products, processing, marketing, and retail sales. They do not necessarily take into consideration environmental and social best practices when doing business. Their ultimate result for their bottom line is profit.

How does agribusiness impact the global climate? The boom in industrial scaled agriculture is responsible for much of the deforestation that is occurring in the rainforests in the Amazon and Southeast Asia. Large U.S. multinational corporations are responsible for clear cutting much of old growth forests the size of countries like Wales and the Netherlands, to create soybean and oil palm monocultures. Soybean farms are “eating up” the Amazon rainforest while Indonesia’s rainforest, the second largest behind Brazil, and Malaysia’s rainforest, are being swallowed up by oil palm plantations. 75% of greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil are due to clearing and buring the rainforest. Brazil is the fourth largest pollution contributer to the environment. In Indonesia’s wet forest, fires are rare, but in 1997 and 1998 fires raged through rural parts of the country and occurred on land dedicated to oil palm plantations. The “slash and burn” method, used by companies to clear land for monoculture farms is a contributer to climate change.

The destruction of the world’s rainforest is one of the most prominent environmental issues in decades. The Amazon rainforest is the world’s largest tropical rainforest and scientists describe it as the earth’s air conditioner; vital to climate regulation and cooling patterns. Just as the rainforest helps us keep at bay global climate change, deforestation exacerbates the problem. As trees burn and vegetation decays, a substantial amount of CO2 is released into the atmosphere. A link between large scale monocultures and the increased vulnerability to pest outbreaks and crop disease epidemics have been well established. Monocultures impoverish soil and lead to soil erosion. Another concern is the massive requirements of fertilizer and pesticides needed for huge harvests in poor soil while protecting them from pests. Loose safety standards in these countries enable companies to use many banned pesticides. Hundreds of thousands of people are affected by direct or indirect contact. Much of the rivers are contaminated, killing aquatic life and poisoning the water for drinking.

Agribusiness is directly linked to the loss of biodiversity. Monocultures cause soil degradation and the excessive use of agrochemicals affect the indigenous plant life and the animals. Palm oil conversion contributes to the loss of species, including orangutans, Sumatran tigers and Asian elephants. The Amazon, which is the home to many species of plants and animals of the world , is losing approximately 137 plant, animal and insect species every single day. That equates to 50,000 species a year. The practices of the agribusiness are not environmentally sustainable.

How does agribusiness impact human rights? The rainforests of Brazil and Southeast Asia are home to many indigenous and other rural forest people. The people not only depend on the forest for shelter, they rely on it for food, medicine, and their livelihood. In Indonesia, 100 million of its 216 million people depend on forest and forest products for their livelihood. In countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea, corruption or at best, weak governing systems exclude local, forest-dependent communities from the decision-making process to log rainforests and convert the land to palm oil plantations. This lack of collaboration causes significant social conflict.

Illegal land grabbing and other abuses for the expansion of soy farming is common. Fraudulently transferring public land to private individuals and then being exploited by big farms is a practice that has affected millions of hectares of public land. Some of the chief victims of this practice are Brazil’s indigenous peoples. The Amazon is home to about 180 different indigenous nations making up about 220,000 people as well as smallholders and traditional forest dwellers. The people are forced off their land and have limted means to support themselves and their families. There is evidence linking slavery with the agribusiness companies. Often, poor people are promised well-paid work to work on remote farms, but when they arrive, their documents are taken and they often work at gunpoint. If a worker gets ill, he is dropped off at the side of the closest dirt road. In 2004, the Brazilian government intervened in cases of slavery, but even with successful prosecution and fines, it is clear that using slave labor is still a profitable business practice.

Environmental devastation caused by the production of oil palm and soy monocultures kill the land on which people live. Excessive usage of pesticides and herbicides cause health problems, contaminate the soil and water source. Research shows that agrochemicals like paraquet used for oil palm causes nosebleeds, eye infections, contact dermatitis, skin irritatin, sores, stomach ulecer and damaged nails. Villagers depend on the river for clean drinking water and bathing, but the discharge from palm oil fruit mills has contaminated rivers and has killed the fish stock. Paraquat is also used often in soy monocultures to kill weeds and other plants. The Rio Xingu Basin has become a scene of devastation. The runoff from rain and flooding wash agrochemicals off fields and into rivers, killing fish and other life. The practices often have cumulative effects and are irreversible.

Why are they growing so much soy and oil palm? The global market’s high demand for these products have caused the surge of soy and oil palm production. The U.S. market has placed a high demand for palm oil to replace particially hydrogenated oils in packaged foods like cookies, crackers, microwave popcorn, cereal, margarine, etc for health benefits. Though it is less harmful than particially hydrogenated oils, it still promotes heart disease. Soy meal from soy grown in Brazil are used for chicken feed for chickens that are sold to fast food chains like McDonald’s, food and home products manufacturers like Unilever, supermarkets and restaurants. Our demand for these products feeds the problem, but becoming an informed consumer can put pressure on agribusinesses to change their practices to develop environmentally and socially sustainable business practices.