Net Zero, Carbon Offsets, Nature-Based Solutions, Climate Smart Agriculture Debunked

GRAIN researcher Devlin Kuyek says the report “An agribusiness greenwashing glossary” identifies ten key greenwashing terms used by Big Food & Big Agribusiness that serve to protect their profits and that confuse people and block real solutions to climate change. Lynn Fries interviews Kuyek on GPEnewsdocs.

LYNN FRIES: Hello and welcome. I’m Lynn Fries producer of Global Political Economy or GPEnewsdocs. Joining me from Montreal is guest is Devlin Kuyek. He will be talking about a report published by GRAIN that is as its title says: An agribusiness greenwashing glossary.

Devlin Kuyek is a researcher in the global program at GRAIN. His focus is on monitoring and analyzing global agribusiness including land grabs. GRAIN is an international non-profit organization that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems.

Welcome, Devlin.

DEVLIN KUYEK: Thank you, Lynn.

FRIES: Start by telling us why you and your colleagues at GRAIN found it was necessary to publish this kind of glossary on Agribusiness Greenwashing.

KUYEK: If you look at any of the websites of the major agribusiness companies or big food companies, you’d be surprised to know what was the source of their profits. They seem to be run as almost like an NGO that is devoted to protecting the planet from all the ills that their own industrial food system is creating.

And they do increasingly recognize, I think they’re at a point now where it’s impossible to deny how the industrial food system plays a role in, say, the climate crisis or its impacts on people’s health and the loss of biodiversity. So, for many of the companies rather than continue to ignore it or try to deny it, they’re recognizing it. But I think that’s a bit the trick there because in the recognition then they’re trying to then control the narrative.

And where you have a growing movement or even a growing consensus (even among let’s say the scientific community) that the industrial food system is a root cause of all these ills and is in need of some major transformation. And that there’s a growing support for agroecology and food sovereignty as real alternatives.

You know, this is a clear threat to these food corporations. Because in that model of agroecology or in food sovereignty, there’s really no room for corporations to profit. You know, there’s no GMO seeds to sell. There’s no pesticides to sell. There’s no nitrogen fertilizer to sell.

So for corporations, that movement towards more local food systems, more, more agroecological practices is a real threat to their bottom line. So they have been trying to push back on this.

What we get it into in this report is just how much greenwashing sort of plays into their strategy. And greenwashing is that recognition of a problem but then you try to use kind of misleading information and to suggest that the products that you are selling are part of the solution.

FRIES: There are ten terms in this glossary: Net Zero, Carbon Offsets, Nature-Based Solutions, Zero Deforestation, Climate Smart Agriculture, Agriculture 4.0 (or the Fourth Industrial Revolution), Regenerative Agriculture, Carbon Farming, Bioeconomy and last but not least Green Finance. This then is what you identify as key greenwashing concepts and false solutions used by food and agribusiness corporations?

KUYEK: Yes. And some of the terms are not just being used by Big Food and Ag alone. There are terms that are being used by corporations from other sectors as well. But they are a big part of the greenwashing that agribusiness is involved in.

FRIES: Anyone following UN Climate Change Conferences (so last year’s COP 26 in Glasgow or the upcoming COP 27 in Egypt) or any news coverage for that matter on climate issues will run into these kinds of terms.

Let’s start with the first three terms on the list: net zero, carbon offsets, and nature-based solutions. One by one, tell us why these terms are listed in your agribusiness greenwashing glossary as a misleading concept and a false solution being used by food and agribusiness corporations. So start with net zero. What does that refer to?


KUYEK: Well, net zero refers to the Paris Agreement, the COP in Paris from several years ago, where countries agreed to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. And what that meant was that they would reduce emissions (it was supposed to mean they would reduce emissions) as close to zero as possible.

And then any remaining emissions would be absorbed from the atmosphere. Now, how much would be remaining and how that would be absorbed is not defined. And certainly at this point, the technologies that are being talked about and stuff is definitely not proven. But there was that.

And then it was also not discussed that if there are some emissions, well, what are those emissions for? Of course, you’d only want those to be for the most essential services or to fulfill the most basic needs of people. But the corporations have really used that as an open door to come forward with their own idea of net zero.

So after the Paris Agreement, there was this rush of net zero plans that corporations were proposing, including corporations like Nestle from the food and agribusiness sector. And of course, all of these are voluntary. So they’re not held to any kind of particular standard. And they’re not really… there’s no enforcement mechanism.

And if you look at these net zero plans, one of the defining aspects of them is that almost all of the corporations ( at least in the ones that I’ve looked at certainly from the food and agribusiness sector) are all based on actually increasing the sales of their highly emitting products. And that’s even the case with energy companies.

And then as a way to get to that net zero (which they’re claiming that they’ll be able to do), they are relying heavily on offsets. What is called carbon offsets. Meaning that they will invest or they’ll purchase credits of projects or technologies that are able to absorb carbon from the atmosphere

And an increasing amount of these sort of offset projects are based on land and forests. On the idea that if you say protect a forest from being deforested or you plant trees or you even engage in some kinds of agricultural practices that are set to store carbon in the soil, that through that (if a company purchases or pays for that) then they can offset their own emissions.

So really it becomes just this way for them to continue with business as usual.

And when we looked at the net zero plan for Nestle, it was quite shocking. You could see that they were proposing that by 2030, so 2020 to 2030, they were going to increase the sales of their meat and dairy and other highly emitting products by two- thirds over that period.

And their plan for offsetting these increased emissions was going to rely on planting trees or zoning off forest covering 4 million hectares per year. I mean, that’s every year. So I mean, it’s completely unrealistic and has no sound scientific basis. But this was one example of a net zero plan corporations are promoting.

FRIES: So when you looked at the net zero plan for Nestle, your research findings show that for Nestle to offset its proposed emissions Nestle would have to plant trees on or zone off for conservation four million hectares of lands per annum, so every year. Shocking as you say because as the report notes: four million hectares is more than the size of Nestlé’s entire home country of Switzerland. So, the numbers just do not add up.

YUKEK: Once you get into details about the numbers, it’s absolutely ridiculous. I mean, I, you know, it doesn’t hold any water at all.

Companies are putting some money into this. So it’s not just simple rhetoric. There are millions, or even in some cases billions of dollars that are going towards these kinds of projects. So they’re starting to have an impact on the ground.

Because you have these companies who specialize in this, you know who are taking over say, areas, or territories where you have indigenous people and small farmers living and zoning them off. And saying that they can no longer continue to practice their agriculture or their fishing or whatever it is in those territories. Because they’ve been sold off to ENI or TOTAL or whoever it is so that they can get their carbon credits to keep on polluting.

This is something that is happening on the ground and communities are feeling real impacts from this and we are seeing land grabs.

How could all these companies be doing this? There isn’t enough planet available to offset all their emissions. The fundamental thing that has to happen is they have to get to zero with their emissions. And they know that they can’t do that with their current model of production.

When it comes to the food system, the ultimate problem here for corporations is that the solution doesn’t involve them.

Food sovereignty and agroecology do not allow for the Nestles or Cargills or the Bayer Monsantos to continue to make the kind of profits they’re making now or many profits at all, frankly.


FRIES: Explain more about how carbon offsets fit into all this.

KUYEK: Yeah again this is part of net zero, right? So it’s the mechanism that allows a company, let’s use Unilever in this case, to purchase credit from some project that may run in Gabon. Where they’re claiming to have prevented deforestation that was going to happen. And they did so for financial reasons because they were promised payment for this credit.

And then Unilever gets to claim an offset for its own emission so it can keep on polluting. And conceivably this community in Gabon would get payment for having preserved their forest which they wouldn’t have done otherwise.

I mean, the problem in this is once you get into the accounting and look at what’s actually happening on the ground, we’re far from that rosy scenario. Usually it’s a lot of consultants who get paid. They come up with some very, well fraud may be too strong a term, but they come up with some very ingenious ways to make it appear as if emissions have been saved or that the carbon will be securely stored in say a protected forest.

Often what we’ve seen too, often these models rely on actually constraining local food production. So preventing communities from, say, using parts of the forest for their agricultural production. So a company, who is engaged in the expansion of oil palm plantations in say Indonesia gets to offset those emissions by forcing a community, say in Madagascar, to not use certain parts of its land for its own food production.

I mean, it’s entirely inequitable, unjust and frankly disingenuous.

FRIES: Carbon offsets are being called out as carbon colonialism.

KUYEK: Yes. Well. It’s the same basic equation. You have companies largely from the North who are the main polluters. And they are looking to take over the lands, forest, waters, territories (mainly in the Global South, mainly in places occupied by indigenous people and local communities) in order to be able to allow themselves to go on polluting to maintain  their dominance; to maintain their systems of production.

So, it’s a kind of a strange way of looking at it now but it still remains about the control of resources. So in this case, not to necessarily serve as raw material but to serve as a way to allow for these companies to keep on polluting.


FRIES: Devlin, let’s move now to the third term in the glossary, nature-based solutions.

KUYEK: Well, this is a somewhat new word. It comes from the big conservation NGOs. But it is being increasingly used by the fossil fuel industry and by Big Food and Ag as a way to describe carbon offsets that come from forests and land. It’s not just for the climate crisis but it can also be for biodiversity loss and those things.

Again, it’s just a way for them to say: Okay, let’s look at how we can use nature to resolve the quandary that we’re in, in which our profit model is to blame for the climate crisis. So how can we get around that? Well, let’s look to these remaining forests. Let’s look to the farmlands and see how that they can provide an offset for us so we can keep on, we can keep on polluting.

FRIES: So briefly comment on GRAIN’s position that nature based solutions are rightfully described as nature based dispossessions.

KUYEK: Yes, because they involve such large areas of land. So again, the emissions that we’re talking about are huge. And just again from the food system alone. A third of all global greenhouse gas emissions come from the industrial food system.

So if you think about trying to offset even just a fraction of that it is a huge amount of land and forest that would be required. I gave the example of Nestle of 4 million hectares per year that they would need to be taking over.

Almost all of these projects are happening in the Global South. And it will involve the dispossession of people who lose control of their lands and territories.

FRIES: And as you commented earlier, this term nature-based solutions came from the big conservation NGOs?

KUYEK: Yes. And I mean for conservation groups, I think, there’s money in this too. I mean, that has to be understood. And when we see a lot of the promotion around these nature-based solutions, they are expecting that there’ll be much more money for their conservation parks and various things that they’re promoting.


FRIES: To keep this conversation at a manageable length, we will just cover two more of the ten terms in the glossary. So next up, talk about zero deforestation

KUYEK: Well, it’s again, another instance of zero, not meaning zero. The reason why they don’t say a stop to deforestation or no deforestation is because they understand that the expanded production of the agricultural commodities that Unilever, Nestle, Cargill, ADM, you know, all these companies depend on that’s the source of their profits, that involves deforestation. I mean, that’s the main driver of global deforestation.

So if the demand for these commodities continues to increase that will drive forward deforestation. And they’ve been unable to meet any of the previous commitments they’ve had.

The idea of zero deforestation is really just to sort of carve things out and say: Okay, well you have like imagine a large forest and half of it is already deforested and then the crops that are being grown in that area or the cattle that are being raised in that area that’s the good food. And anything that comes out of future deforestation in the other area, well, that’s the bad food.

And the corporations are colonizing and taking over all of this sort of space for the good food and pushing more of the everybody else’s needs into sort of the bad area.

So it really means that corporations are just sort of capturing these areas that they under their own standards would consider not to be causing any further deforestation. So that’s where you get this term zero deforestation.

But of course, there’s all kinds of loopholes in it. And their structural need for more commodities means that there’s a constant call out that keeps happening. There is not a month that goes by when you’re not seeing another report of a particular agribusiness company who’s claiming to not be involved in deforestation sourcing beef from say the Amazon or being involved in the deforestation in the Cerrado of Brazil. I mean, it’s impossible for them to continue with their model without being a part of that as well.

FRIES: And the devastating consequences are made all too clear in the report which notes for instance how <quote>: an area of forest equivalent to 27 football fields is destroyed every minute and the rate of deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon hit a record high in the first half of 2022.

KUYEK:  Brazil’s a good case. I mean, what led to the expansion of all this commodity production and deforestation in Brazil was the inflow of money; was the construction of infrastructure; was the building up of, of trade routes. And all that was done by these corporations who are now claiming zero deforestation.

FRIES: All of which goes to say that foods produced with the agricultural commodities that are driving deforestation are being brought to market by food and agribusiness corporations under zero-deforestation labels, so with a green image.

KUYEK: Yes. That’s the idea. You label all your products with these kinds of claims. And there’s very little, that’s being done in terms of accountability on them. And overall, even if you could show that this specific commodity wasn’t sourced from an area that was deforested, it’s the overall growth that these corporations are involved in that is it main driver of deforestation. So they are implicated. They are responsible whether or not a particular batch of corn that they acquired caused any deforestation.


FRIES: Let’s talk next about climate smart agriculture which as put in the report is a term that agribusiness corporations devised about a decade ago. This term is used to counter growing support for agroecology in international forums on agriculture and climate change.

KUYEK: Absolutely. Within the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, there was this sort of growing recognition and support for agroecology. There was also a major World Bank study that had also concluded that agroecology and the move away from industrial agriculture practices was necessary.

So you had gaining momentum for the term <agroecology> and for what it implied. And there was really a deliberate effort, I’d say by certain countries, notably the United States, but also by some of the largest fertilizer companies in the world including Yara and some other corporations to try to head this off. And they came up with the term climate smart agriculture which means absolutely nothing.

But that became the focus of several international events that used it as a title. There was then efforts to do all these reports about it. Without ever really stating what it was. And if you looked at it, it was really just dressing up the old Green Revolution model in new clothing.

And the Green Revolution model basically depends on seeds, uniform varieties of seeds that will rely on a huge amount of chemical fertilizers in order to produce yields. And they’re also dependent on chemical pesticides. So that is, you know the bread and butter of agribusiness.

FRIES: You point to some of the world’s largest fertilizer companies as key actors in this deliberate attempt to ramp up agribusiness greenwashing.

YUYEK:  Yes. And they don’t get enough attention. Uh, I think, you know, it’s easy to to point. A lot of the oil companies or even some of the bigger food and Ag companies, um, but often the fertilizer companies are left out of that. And that’s  unfortunate because they, you know a company like Yara is very active in all these efforts around greenwashing and all these different lobby groups that exist and the different coalitions that exist that are trying to give a space for industrial agriculture as a solution to the climate crisis.

FRIES: Early on GRAIN warned that the fertilizer industry’s role in climate change was poorly understood and severely underestimated. I was quite struck by some statistics released on this issue by GRAIN back in 2015. I’ll quickly cite some of those statistics from an article titled The Exxons of agriculture. To quote: We now can say that the use of chemical fertilizers this year will generate more GHG emissions than the total GHG emissions from all of the cars and trucks driven in the US.

KUYEK: We did some more recent calculations on that looking at the specific numbers when it came to production of nitrogen fertilizers and the emissions that come from use of nitrogen fertilizers which accounts for a large part of it. And we found that just nitrogen fertilizer alone accounts for one out of every 40 tons of greenhouse gas emissions globally, annually.

It’s a huge factor in the climate crisis. It takes tremendous amount of energy to produce these fertilizers. And you can’t really think of addressing or getting to zero by 2050 without a real change and a real transition away from chemical fertilizers.

FRIES: We are going to have to leave it there. I’ll just note for viewers that the glossary with a one- page explainer and links to further reference docs for all ten terms is available online at under the title of An agribusiness greenwashing glossary. Once again many thanks to our guest, GRAIN’s Devlin Kuyek. Thank you, Devlin.

KUYEK: Thank you, Lynn

FRIES: And from GPEnewsdocs in Geneva Switzerland thank you for joining us.

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Devlin Kuyek is a researcher at GRAIN, a small international non-profit organization that supports small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems. He monitors and analyses global agribusiness, including the global land rush and corporate concentration in the livestock sector. Devlin co-authored the major 2018 report Emissions impossible: How big meat and dairy are heating up the planet. “ theme music

written by Slim Williams for Paul Jay’s documentary film “Never-Endum-Referendum“.  

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