Biden’s ambitious goals for climate and agriculture require bolder strategies
by Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and agriculture, and Christopher D. Cook, consultant for Friends of the Earth
Originally posted in Food Tank
As Democratic Party leaders and the Biden campaign finalize policy platforms in advance of this August’s convention, we are gaining a window into how a Biden administration would tackle pivotal issues of agriculture and climate change. In stark contrast to the Trump administration, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Platform and the Biden Plan for Rural America recognize the urgency of climate action and the critical role that agriculture must play in combating the climate crisis.
Thanks in large part to DNC Climate Council advocacy, the final draft DNC Platform includes a pledge to do “its fair share and lead the world in the effort to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.” The Biden campaign and the DNC Platform are also proposing an aggressive net zero emissions goal for agriculture.
While many of the strategies outlined in the DNC Platform and Biden’s policy plans are on the mark, others run counter to the just transformation of our industrial food system that is necessary to reach these climate goals. And some core strategies to achieve a just transition are entirely ignored.
The Democrats’ plans on agriculture, for example, fail to even mention regulatory action or animal agriculture — though we know that regulating emissions and other pollution from large-scale meat and dairy operations is key to reducing agriculture’s impact on climate, air and water resources. Reducing factory farm pollution is also vital to improving life in many rural areas, particularly low-wealth and black and brown communities that are often located near factory farms.
Maintaining today’s status quo is not an option. Just ten years from now, “if the livestock sector were to continue with business as usual, this sector alone would account for 49% of the global emissions budget for 1.5°C by 2030,” scientists concluded in a 2019 Lancet article. As a 2018 report by GRAIN and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy documented, “even if other sectors aggressively cut emissions,” by 2050, the livestock sector “could eat up 80% of the allowable GHG budget in just 32 years” if current conditions persist.
Democratic plans lay the groundwork for resilient regenerative farming systems
A growing body of science demonstrates that diversified, organic and regenerative farming approaches are most effective in addressing the climate and other environmental challenges that threaten future food security. Compared with chemical-dependent, soil-depleting monoculture systems that dominate the U.S. farmscape, research shows that organic and regenerative practices –– such as cover cropping, crop rotation, composting, perennial planting, and managed grazing –– increase soil health and carbon sequestration, foster biodiversity, and expand water holding capacity of soils.
The DNC Platform and Vice President Biden’s plans on clean energy and rural America rightly expand support for overburdened voluntary conservation programs that help farmers implement these regenerative agricultural practices. Both plans emphasize supporting farmers of color and farmworkers; they also would strengthen regional food systems and create new markets by linking farmers with large public institutions like schools, hospitals and Department of Defense cafeterias.
The DNC Platform goes further than Biden’s plans by funding research on “low-carbon crops and organic agricultural practices,” and calling for a “reduction in the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers,” including a ban on chlorpyrifos. These provisions were included following a push by the DNC Climate Council and eight 501c(4) nonprofit food and agriculture groups that submitted recommendations to the Platform Committee. In another win for advocates, the DNC Platform calls for subsidy reforms to focus taxpayer funds on small and medium-scale farmers.
Crucially, the DNC Platform addresses market concentration, requires emissions reporting from public corporations and recognizes stronger protections and rights for farmworkers — predominantly people of color and immigrants –– who are excluded from federal minimum wage and other labor laws, a vestige of slavery.
All of these strategies are foundational to creating a more resilient, equitable and economically thriving food system. However, voluntary measures are not enough. For example, unless Democrats expand conservation compliance programs to require healthy soil practices on all subsidized farmland, the agriculture sector will never reach net zero emissions. Mandating subsidy recipients to implement healthy soil practices is one of the most important things we can do to make agriculture a climate change solution. Public procurement programs that support regional farmers are also important but unless preference is given to farmers who are implementing climate-friendly, organic agriculture practices — instead of supporting “traditional” farmers as stipulated in the DNC Platform — they will do little to change the status quo system of chemical-intensive, soil-depleting farming.
Corn ethanol and methane digesters are false climate solutions
A cornerstone of the Democratic Platform strategy — echoed in Biden’s Clean Energy Plan — is to generate new “revenue streams for farmers in energy and waste products and grow bio-based manufacturing jobs.” In practice, this would serve to help big, polluting, GHG-intensive factory farms grow larger and become even more profitable by turning their massive and unsustainable waste into biogas through methane digesters. This is a false solution and a step backward toward a clean energy future.
Propping up factory farms disproportionately harms low-income rural communities and people of color. According to the Central Valley California-based Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability, “digesters likely have a deleterious impact on nearby communities and the local environment by encouraging increased herd sizes to generate greater revenue from energy production and by incentivizing greater concentration of dairies around energy infrastructure. Concentrating cows and their waste will only intensify the amount of ammonia, NOx emissions, and water pollution produced by these farms.”
Equally problematic is the DNC and Biden’s focus on expanding existing biofuels, particularly corn ethanol. We need to transition away from this false climate solution that relies on pesticide-intensive monocropping systems that degrade soil and water resources, harm pollinators, and remove valuable farmland from food production.
Support a Just Transition and Stop the Revolving Door
If Biden and the Democratic Party are serious about rapidly reducing climate-harming emissions, revitalizing rural America, and making food production sustainable, they must loosen Big Agriculture’s grip on the farm economy and policy and create a level playing field for all farmers. They can start by endorsing Senator Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren’s Farm System Reform Act (FARM) that would ban construction of new and expanding factory farms, hold big meat companies responsible for the costs of pollution and other harm caused by CAFOs and provide funding to contract growers to transition to more sustainable production systems. They also should bring on agricultural advisors who don’t have vested interests in agribusiness. Take just one example — the DNC Platform’s lead on ag policy, former agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack.
As reported by In These Times, Vilsack has deep ties to industrial agribusiness interests that promote false solutions and staunchly oppose regulatory reform. Just days after leaving his post as agriculture secretary, “Vilsack spun through the revolving door to the U.S. Dairy Export Council, where he now earns nearly US$1 million as the top executive at its parent organization, Dairy Management Inc.” With corporate leadership like this, it’s no wonder that the industrial meat and dairy industries are so far left untouched by the Democrats’ plans.
There is still time for Biden to adopt bolder strategies that are in greater alignment with his aggressive goals of reaching net zero emissions in agriculture and meeting global climate targets. A growing movement across rural and urban America stands ready to support a just transition from highly concentrated factory farming and pesticide-intensive monoculture production to more diversified, regenerative, healthy and just food systems. The need for change is urgent, and the benefits to farmer and worker livelihoods, our climate, natural resources, and public health is immense.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash, Rosan Harmens