This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on stories with the theme of 'climate politics'. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.
The ongoing US-UK trade talks have been seen by some lobby groups as an opportunity to strip back environmental and food safety regulations to allow them to sell products – pesticides, hormone-fed meat, genetically modified crops (GMOs), and chemicals – that have been previously banned under EU law. The groups represent industries worth billions of dollars, and are supported by some of the world’s largest polluters.
They are also backed by thinktanks and campaign groups with histories of obstructing climate action and ties to funders of climate science denial, and are affiliated with UK organisations closely connected to the UK's Department for International Trade, DeSmog can reveal.
The US lobby groups’ “increasingly powerful positions of influence” are of “huge concern”, Shadow International Trade Secretary Emily Thornberry told DeSmog, while campaigners said the groups’ access to negotiators risked the UK taking “a huge step backwards” in its efforts to tackle climate change.
So who are the organisations? And what do they want?
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US Agribusiness Lobby
While the US and UK governments continue to negotiate largely behind closed doors, a particular set of lobby groups with close ties to both negotiating teams has been publicly pushing for their preferred, deregulated, version of the countries' future trading relationship.
The National Chicken Council (NCC) is a Washington D.C based US trade body that according to its website, represents companies that account for 95 percent of the 9.2 billion chickens produced in the US each year. Its members include meat giants Tyson and Pilgrim’s, a subsidiary of Brazilian meat giant JBS S.A, and Mountaire, a major donor to Republican causes, which also contributes to the NCC’s $4.5 million a year revenue.
Ahead of the opening round of trade talks in May 2019, the NCC coordinated a letter with 47 members of congress, calling on the US Govt’s top trade official - Robert Lighthizer - to negotiate an end to what it called the UK’s “unscientific” ban on chlorine-washed chicken in talks. 29 of the letter’s 47 overwhelmingly Republican signatories had received a combined $287,500 from the NCC since 2016.
An NCC spokesperson told DeSmog that its position was that “any free trade deal be just that – free and fair – unfettered by any tariff or non-tariff barriers.”
The Iowa-based National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) has received donations from major meat companies including Smithfield and Cargill, and is looking to expand the $34 billion industry by altering UK regulations to allow an influx of cheap US-produced pork.
Speaking directly to Lighthizer at a US government trade hearing, the NPPC pushed for a US-UK trade deal that would allow pork fed with the additive ractopamine - banned in over 160 countries including China and Russia - and for the end of health and safety testing of trichinae, a parasite which can cause serious health issues when passed from pigs to humans.
It has since written in the UK trade press outlining the benefits of what it calls a “science-based” agreement. The US Grains Council (USGC), whose members include Cargill, the conservative and climate-science denying agricultural trade body the American Farm Bureau Federation, and three of the world’s five largest pesticides producers — Bayer Cropscience, Corteva Agriscience and Syngenta — also told the trade hearing that the UK needed to adopt a “transparent, science-based” approach to trade, removing GMO and pesticides regulations that affect US grains imports and pesticides producers.
‘Science-based’ approaches are often contrasted with the UK and EU’s “precautionary” approach and imply much weaker regulations, with governments forced to provide “a very high level of proof that a product is dangerous” before restrictions can be put in place, according to the Pesticide Action Network.
The USGC had a revenue of $26 million in 2018, and has worked with a global coalition of trade bodies to lobby the EU to weaken its rules on GMOs.
Also representing pesticides producers was the American Chemistry Council (ACC), which represents subsidiaries of big oil companies including Shell, Exxon, Chevron, Total. It had a revenue of $128 million in 2018, and in 2019 spent $7.6 million on lobbying, with over 60 percent of its political contributions in 2019-2020 going to Republican politicians.
The ACC told the trade hearing that a US-UK trade deal should include “investor-state-dispute-settlements,” which have been used by companies to sue governments attempting to put in place stronger environmental protections, as well as “regulatory cooperation,” widely seen as US-trade speak for watering down regulations.
In May this year, the ACC published a joint statement with the UK’s Chemical Industries Association in an effort to push both US and UK governments to mirror these demands.
A full list of participants at a US-UK Trade Agreement public hearing on 29 January 2019. Source: US Trade Representative
History of Climate Science Denial
Some of the groups have a history of casting doubt on climate science or the seriousness of climate change.
And earlier this year, at the launch of “Farmers for a Sustainable Future”, an NPPC spokesperson said he didn’t know whether climate change was “human induced or naturally induced.” Despite its focus on sustainability, the group has been reluctant to refer to human-caused climate change, instead citing “climatic events.”
Clarifying the remarks at Farmers for a Sustainable Future, an NPPC spokesperson told DeSmog that the group’s representative had “indicated that regardless of whether climate change is anthropogenic or naturally occurring, there are efforts underway by U.S. agriculture to further reduce emissions.”
“Hog farmers are dedicated to reducing the impact of pork production on the environment”, they said, pointing to the sector's relatively small contribution to greenhouse gas emissions compared to other agricultural practices.
“Given the United Kingdom’s population of 66 million and cultural and culinary tastes similar to those of the United States, a free trade agreement with the country offers the potential for a major increase in UK demand for U.S. agricultural products, including pork. However, for that potential to be realized, it is critically important that the United States use the free trade agreement negotiations to ensure that U.S. pork products enter the United Kingdom duty free,” they added.
The ACC has made donations to American Council on Science and Health, which has said there is no scientific consensus on global warming.
The ACC has also lobbied on behalf of the oil and gas industry. It was formerly led by the “force majeure behind big oil,” Jack N. Gerard, the Washington Post reported, who went on to lead the American Petroleum Institute (API). Gerard is credited with transforming both groups into aggressive political campaigning forces for the oil and gas industries. Between 2006 and 2018, API sent $1.2 million in funding to the ACC.
The ACC did not respond to a request for comment.
Corporate and Political Backers
All four trade bodies are backed by powerful political and business interests that have worked to obstruct climate action.
The NPPC has worked with climate science denier Jim Inhofe and Senator Joni Ernst, to pass COVID-19 legislation. It has also opposed stronger climate policy, protesting the 2009 Waxman-Markey Bill for a cap and trade system by arguing that the Bill would unfairly “raise the cost of production” and drive producers into “financial despair”.
Inhofe, who once brought a snowball into Congress to protest against the climate “hoax”, is one of US politics’ most outspoken climate-science deniers and has received over $2 million from oil and gas industries since 1989.
USGC member the American Farm Bureau Federation, which also works with the NPPC on Farmers for a Sustainable Future has been described as a “powerful defender of the nation’s fossil fuel interests”, which has provided a “grassroots” voice further legitimising the industry.
AFBF has consistently aligned its policy positions with oil and gas and worked with the American Petroleum Institute on initiatives including the “Transportation Fairness Alliance,” a fossil fuel industry alliance set up in 2020 to obstruct the transition away from petrol-reliant vehicles.
A spokesperson for the USGC, when asked for clarification on its position on climate change, said “the Council has no official policy on climate change”. They pointed DeSmog to a webpage on sustainability on which there is no mention of climate change, but which alludes to farmers’ role in addressing climate change, saying:
“Modern production practices, including low-till and no-till planting, result in reduced energy consumption, less soil loss, fewer pesticide applications and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.”
Mountaire, an NCC member, is a big backer of conservative causes that have played an important role in fostering opposition to climate action.
Owner, Ronald “Ron” Cameron was a major donor to Donald Trump’s leadership campaign, donating $2 million to the pro-Trump super PAC Rebuilding America Now during the 2016 campaign. He has also donated millions to Americans for Prosperity Action and Freedom Partners, PACs affiliated with billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, who died last year.
Freedom Partners has repeatedly opposed the Paris Agreement, calling it a “symbolic deal that would do nothing but increase our debt” while Americans for Prosperity has accused environmentalists of “cry[ing] wolf”.
The ACC is also an active participant in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) having attended its annual meeting in 2019. ALEC has worked with corporations including ExxonMobil and Koch Industries, to obstruct and roll back environmental legislation, drafting over 800 model bills to roll out corporate friendly regulations across the US states.
ALEC has received at least $1,880,700 in grants from ExxonMobil since 1997, according to the Climate Investigations Centre and $3,241,620 from Koch foundations between 1997-2017, according to Greenpeace. It also has a long history of climate science denial which led to an exodus of high-profile members in recent years.
Thinktanks and Lobby Groups
Closely connected to the negotiations are a set of US thinktanks and campaign groups that have a history of spreading misinformation on climate change and are tied to funders of climate science denial. The groups are also closely related to UK thinktanks and campaign organisations based in and around offices at 55 Tufton Street, home to the UK’s principal climate science denial group, the Global Warming Policy Foundation.
In January 2019, the Mercatus Center joined the trade groups in calling on trade representative Lighthizer to push for a deregulated US-UK deal. Appearing at the morning panel of the trade hearing, Senior Research Fellow for the thinktank, Daniel Griswold, called for the UK to abandon the “precautionary principle” that currently guides its approach to environmental and health regulations.
The Center’s leadership has strong affiliations with Koch Industries, with both Charles Koch, and former Executive Vice President Richard Fink, sitting on the Center’s board. Its representatives have repeatedly dismissed mainstream climate science, saying that evidence on global warming is “mixed” and have even suggested that global warming would be “beneficial, occurring at night, in the winter, and at the poles.”
Another Koch-funded lobby group vocal on both a US-UK trade deal is the Cato Institute.
Co-founded by Charles Koch along with libertarian activist Edward H Crane, the Cato Institute has promoted the concept of “lukewarming”, where “future global warming will occur at a pace substantially lower” than anticipated.
The report was described by the Guardian as calling for a “bonfire” of regulations after Brexit, and attacked the precautionary principle as well as calling for the opening up of the NHS to foreign investment.
Commenting on the report, an IFT spokesperson told DeSmog that it believes “regulations covering consumer and environmental protection are extremely important, and are most often legitimate barriers to trade. We also recognise, however, that very often regulations in these areas are thinly-veiled vehicles for protecting domestic industries from foreign competition. It is these mercantilist abuses of regulation that we are interested in “bonfiring” — not those that legitimately seek to protect consumers or the environment.”
Other contributors to the report included the U.S-based Heritage Foundation, The American Enterprise Institute, The Competitive Enterprise Institute, and The Manhattan Institute, and the UK’s Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), Adam Smith Institute and Centre for Policy Studies, all of which have historically played down the threat of climate change or cast doubt on the veracity of climate science.
With the exception of the IFT, the groups are all members of the Atlas Network, a network of free market thinktanks founded by the British founder of the Institute of Economic Affairs, Anthony Fisher, and which counts Koch-family foundations among its top donors, receiving over $3 million from the Donors Trust.
The IFT was set up by prominent Eurosceptic and former Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan who has close ties to Senior Cabinet Ministers having founded both the European Research Group and the Vote Leave Campaign.
The IFT’s advisory board includes Republican US Senator Ben Sasse, who has criticised “alarmism” about climate change and who has received campaign funding from the NPPC, as well as the £70,000 from oil and gas industries since 2015.
Hannan was touted to receive a peerage from Prime Minister Boris Johnson in February 2020, though failed to make the final list, which included individuals with a history of climate science denial and opposition to environmental protections.
The IFT’s advisory board includes a number of individuals known to cast doubt on the veracity of climate science and downplay the risks of climate change. Former Prime Minister of Spain José María Aznar has actively promoted the work of climate science deniers including former UK chancellor and GWPF founder Nigel Lawson through his FAES Foundation and sits on the IFT’s International Advisory Board, alongside former Australian Prime Minister and vocal climate science denier, Tony Abbott. Conservative peer Peter Lilley, who has a history of voting against climate measures and was a GWPF trustee until recently, sits on the IFT’s Executive Board.
When asked for its stance on climate change, the IFT said “we believe strongly in tackling climate-change, and we take a special interest in how market forces can be involved in finding solutions.”
Like the IFT, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) published its own report on the UK’s future trade deals, which called on the UK to drop “restrictive” regulations, including environmental protections. The IEA was later forced to withdraw and reissue the report for breaching charity commission guidelines on political neutrality.
The IEA told DeSmog it considers the commission's actions to be “a breach of the Regulator’s Code and misapplication of charity law”.
Singham has been listed as an “expert” of another powerful libertarian and climate-science denying organisation, the Heartland Institute, also a member of the Atlas Network, and advises private clients on ongoing trade agreements for his private consultancy, Competere.
In September 2020, he was reported to be in line to receive all or part of a $200 million government contract related to post-Brexit checks in the Irish Sea.
The IEA participated in the US-UK trade hearing alongside many of the US groups, where an Advisor to its Trade Unit, former US lobbyist, and former Deputy U.S Trade Representative, Peter Allgeier, called for a roll back of environmental regulations. Allgeier also has his own private trade consultancy and previously led the U.S. Coalition of Service Industries, a trade body whose former members include oil giants Halliburton and Enron.
The IEA told DeSmog that “Peter Allgeier is entitled to his own views on this matter and does not represent an IEA view when expressing it”, adding that his claim to represent the organisation at the hearing “was not authorised by the IEA.”
In 2018, the IEA and its Director General, Mark Littlewood, were embroiled in a “cash-for-access” scandal following an undercover investigation by Greenpeace’s investigative unit Unearthed. A reporter posing as a US agribusiness lobbyist was offered “intimate” access to UK ministers in return for funding an IEA report. The IEA continues to deny any wrongdoing.
The UK groups have access to UK ministers close to the negotiations.
Singham and IEA Director Mark Littlewood have held undisclosed meetings with now Secretary of State for International Trade, Liz Truss, who founded the “Free Enterprise Group” of MPs, described as the IEA’s “parliamentary wing.” Truss is also President of the Board of Trade, a body established by the Government to promote “free and fair trade” while the UK negotiates new agreements.
Former Australian Prime Minister and IFT adviser Tony Abbott was recently appointed to the Board. Abbott once gave the GWPF’s annual lecture, and is an Advisor to the IFT, whose president, Daniel Hannan, was also appointed to Board.
The IFT is also set to be one of six attendees of the UK government’s Trade and Agriculture Commission, created to ensure that the farming sector “remains competitive” and that “animal welfare and environmental standards in food production are not undermined” in a US-UK trade deal.
The Commission’s fifteen members include two members of the IEA’s trade unit: Singham and former New Zealand Trade and Agriculture Minister, Sir Lockwood Smith.
Singham’s affiliation with the IEA was changed on the government press release announcing the commission shortly after publication, while Sir Lockwood Smith’s was not disclosed.
In August 2020, the Department for International Trade also removed Liz Truss’ recent meetings with the IEA from the public record, saying the meetings were held in a personal capacity, a decision which was quickly reversed after media and political outcry.
A spokesperson for the UK's Department for International Trade told DeSmog that “the Government remains clear that it will not compromise on the UK's high environmental protections.”
“Throughout UK-US negotiations, the UK negotiating team has continued to consult a wide range of stakeholders and experts closely, including dedicated trade groups set up by DIT, to make sure our position in negotiations delivers for the UK,” they said.
But opposition politicians and campaigners told DeSmog they remain concerned that the groups may be able to influence the negotiations without public scrutiny.
The UK's Shadow International Trade Secretary, Emily Thornberry, said that “at a time when the UK government is becoming increasingly desperate to agree a trade deal with the US, it is a huge concern that advocates of US agricultural interests are in increasingly powerful positions of influence around Liz Truss, whether through their appointment to official advisory roles, or in the behind-closed-doors meetings that she has tried desperately to hide from the public record.”
“It all demonstrates more than ever why we need binding legislation to ensure that all agricultural imports from the US must meet British food and farming standards, and also why the UK Parliament needs effective scrutiny and a guaranteed vote on all proposed trade deals.”
Dr Alex Lockwood, an academic researching the links between climate change and food who is also a member of Writers Rebel, an Extinction Rebellion offshoot that recently organised a protest outside 55 Tufton Street, said it was “no surprise” that the US groups were using UK affiliates “to get the ear of the UK government” given big industries’ lobbying histories. “Big Ag has always used the same playbook as Big Oil and Big Tobacco,” he said.
“They’re working tirelessly to ride roughshod over the UK’s existing animal and environmental protections that will be redrawn after Brexit. Any deregulation of the UK’s agricultural sector to meet American demands will be a huge step backwards in our battle to achieve a just climate transition, and put UK farmers at risk,” he added.
“We just cannot afford to let Big Ag and their lobbyist shills decimate UK food standards.”
Updated 24/09/20: The story was amended to reflect that Truss is not currently listed as the convener of the Free Enterprise Group. Updated 29/09/20: This story was updated to include statements by the IEA and correct the spelling of trichinae, as well as clarify that it is a parasite.
Editing: Mat Hope. Graphic: © Sam Whitham/DeSmog.