Change is afoot in Trump country

This climate crusader made an unlikely pilgrimage through Trump country.


By Brian Barth, The Washington Post 

January 11, 2018


Barth is a journalist based in Toronto.


DUNN, N.C. — It was a quarter after eight on a steamy August morning when Rachel Grantham rumbled up in a big black pickup truck. The 26-year-old, six-foot-three agronomist sported a pink top, a purple miniskirt, camouflage muck boots and a single blonde braid draped over one shoulder. I hoisted myself into the cab of the truck, and we sped down I-95 through eastern North Carolina’s “Swine Alley” — a land of industrial-scale hog farms, expansive vistas of soybeans and enormous confederate flags — on an unlikely climate crusade.


Grantham worked for Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the world. Once a regional meatpacker based in Smithfield, Virginia, the company is now a vertically integrated multinational powerhouse owned by a Chinese conglomerate, with 50,000 employees and $15 billion in annual revenue. Smithfield holds the distinction of being one of the most reviled agribusinesses among environmentalists, perhaps second only to Monsanto.


So when Walmart, Smithfield’s biggest retail outlet, announced a plan in November 2016 to cut one gigaton of greenhouse gas emissions from its supply chain by 2030, the pork company’s executives leapt at the opportunity to be part of a high-profile corporate greening. A month later, they launched their own plan to reduce emissions, from seed to sausage, 25 percent by 2025.


Smithfield is passing much of the burden of reaching that goal onto the farmers who produce the grain needed to fatten the 19 million swine the company slaughters annually, even though the biggest chunk of emissions comes not from what the animals eat but from their manure. Tilling and fertilizing with nitrogen contribute significant quantities of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, however, and Grantham’s job was to persuade Smithfield’s grain suppliers to cut back on both. It was a delicate negotiation.


“How recently did you fertilize those sorghum fields?” she asked Donnie Barefoot, a jowly redhead who farms 2,500 acres of grains in Harnett County, where 60 percent of residents voted to install Donald Trump, a climate change denialist, in the Oval Office.


“Well … yesterday?” he offered, rather sheepishly. “Was I too late?”


“Kind of,” said Grantham, with a wry grin.


Barefoot’s sorghum was in seed stage, nearly ready for harvest, which meant it was too late for the nitrogen fertilizer to be absorbed by the roots. Some of the unused nitrogen would leach into the nearest waterway the next time it rained, and some would evaporate into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas nearly 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Applying just the right amount of nitrogen at just the right time is, in theory, a simple way that farmers can green their operations while also saving green: fertilizer is one of the costliest inputs for most growers.


Grantham had enrolled upwards of 125 farmers in Smithfield’s “agronomy” program ­— that’s roughly half of the company’s grain-sourcing acreage in the southeast. She deliberately avoided linking her mission with climate change, an eyeroll-engendering topic in this deeply conservative region. The program is a hard enough sell as it is, especially for a woman in a male-dominated profession.


“Farmers have told me when they saw ‘this blonde girl’ get out of the truck, they expected me to be stupid,” she said. “Sometimes guys start whistling and making inappropriate gestures. I feel like I have to be 10-times faster and know 10-times as much to gain the same amount of trust.” Her long-term goal? “I want to be the best damn agronomist in the country,” she said, without hesitation. “I want to do what no one else has done.”


It’s surprising how little has been done to address the carbon footprint of food production, given its immense size. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, agriculture accounts for about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, roughly the same as the combined total for electricity and heating, and well above the transportation sector, which contributes just 14 percent. Add emissions from refrigeration, shipping and other activities required to get your dinner from farm to plate, and the food system’s share of global greenhouse gases climbs to roughly a third, making it easily the most climate-unfriendly sector of the global economy.


Yet just 2 percent of United Nations funding for climate change mitigation goes toward agricultural projects...


more, including links, charts, photos; Graphic: Smithfield Food's carbon footprint in 2017