Act: Inspiration

Green New Deal Must Transform Our Food System to Save Our Climate

March 11, 2019

In the face of worsening climate chaos and massive economic inequities wreaking havoc on the nation, a broad coalition of social justice and environmental organizations and visionary politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are building momentum for a Green New Deal. All elected leaders who care about our shared future should support this urgently needed vision for a just transition toward economic and environmental justice.

Importantly, Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a select committee recognizes that “eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural industries” and “investing in local-scale agriculture” must be part of the plan. For too long, governments and many climate advocates have left food and agriculture off the climate policy table. Yet studies show that we cannot avert climate chaos if we don’t support a rapid transition from large-scale, chemical-intensive food production toward healthier, less meat-centric, diversified, organic, and ecologically regenerative agriculture. This transition also requires resilient, fair, local, and regional food systems that ensure good jobs and healthy food for all. It’s a shift that’s essential and achievable—if we put public money and policies behind it.

Here’s what needs to happen:

  • We must rapidly transition away from energy-intensive industrial agriculture, especially massive-scale industrial meat and dairy production that is devastating our planet and fueling the climate crisis.
  • We need a huge expansion of diversified, resilient, organic, and regenerative farming systems. These are based on practices that draw carbon out of the atmosphere, produce more food using less energy and water, and are healthier for people and the planet.
  • Our government must stop subsidizing environmental damage by giving billions of dollars in subsidies, loans, and research to support large-scale industrial agriculture. Instead, it should expand support for resilient, local, and regional agriculture and organic and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers as well as those transitioning to organic and regenerative farming systems.
  • This transition to a healthy, diversified, organic, and regenerative food and agriculture system must be just and equitable and address the exploitation and poverty built into our current food system.

Dramatic shifts in agriculture needed to meet climate targets

With scientists worldwide confirming we have just 12 years to avoid irreversible climate chaos, transforming food and agriculture is central to addressing our climate crisis. The food sector is the single biggest generator of climate-harming greenhouse gases, accounting for nearly one-third of global emissions. Meat and dairy account for nearly half of this amount. Massive meat and dairy factory farms spew immense amounts of climate-harming methane, whose devastating short-term global warming impact is vastly underestimated in climate accounting frameworks. Unless we dramatically change what we eat and how it’s grown, by 2050, emissions from food production and consumption alone are expected to nearly surpass Paris climate targets.

The same industrial food system that is generating so much climate harm is also producing poverty, hunger, and public health crises. Millions of people who harvest our food and make our meals earn the lowest wages, live in or near poverty, and face serious health issues due to our food system’s plethora of highly processed, unhealthy foods. These same communities are on the frontlines of exposure to toxic agrochemicals linked to cancer, infertility, and numerous other serious health concerns. Rural farming communities are hurting economically from policies that are increasing consolidation and inequity in the food sector. Farmworkers live in poverty while farming areas suffer labor shortages.

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As policymakers try to address these issues, it’s critical to realize they stem from the same root cause as food-related climate emissions: a destructive industrial food system driven by corporate greed over all other values.

An “Organic Green New Deal” can be a climate, health, and economic justice solution 

While our highly polluting, fossil fuel-intensive industrial food system is a major part of the problem, food and farming can also be a central part of the solution. A wide range of farming approaches and food businesses—based on organic, diversified, and regenerative farming and just labor practices—provide vital and practicable climate solutions. Project Drawdown—a groundbreaking research initiative, found that eight of the top 20 climate change solutions are in the food and agriculture sector—including food waste reductionplant-rich diets, regenerative agriculture, and managed grazing.

Compared with industrial agriculture, organic and regenerative farming systems are less energy-intensive and sequester more carbon in the soil. Research shows that organic and regenerative practices, like cover cropping, crop rotation, composting, and managed livestock grazing can foster biodiversitynatural soil fertility, and water conservation. These practices also contribute to higher yields and make diversified organic farming systems more resilient in the face of climate-related weather impacts like drought and floods.

As the climate crisis worsens, droughts, extreme heat, floods, and increasing pests and disease will likely lead to the collapse of many large-scale industrial food and farming operations. In contrast, the resiliency inherent in local and regional, decentralized, diverse organic, and regenerative farming and food systems will bolster communities’ access to healthy food as conditions worsen. Organic farming also protects our health by eliminating toxic pesticides.

Expanding organic farming would be an economic and environmental boon for rural communities across the U.S., which continue to struggle with mass farm closures—more than 12,000 a year. As the Organic Farming Research Foundation has shown, organic agriculture improves income for farmers, creates new jobs for rural workers, and stimulates rural economies through associated job creation in farming and retail sectors. Organic farms create more jobs than their “conventional” counterparts and can be a key part of the solution to chronic rural poverty. Research shows that counties with high levels of organic farming and associated businesses are economic “hotspots” that boost household incomes by over US$2,000 and reduce poverty rates even more than major anti-poverty programs. 

We must support solutions—and stop subsidizing climate chaos

Achieving a just transition in food and agriculture will require a massive overhaul of our nation’s food and farming policies and a dramatic shift in how we spend Farm Bill dollars. First and foremost, we must shift policies and the tens of billions of dollars in subsidies that disproportionately benefit large-scale industrial livestock and monoculture production systems that are geared toward animal feed, fuel, and junk food. These policies subsidize damage to our soil, water, and climate, and help mega-farms get even bigger, drive land costs up, push small farmers out, and result in increased agricultural consolidation.

The Green New Deal must replace these costly, destructive policies with expanded public investments, supply management, and parity policies that prioritize fairness and assistance for small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers and related businesses that make up the backbone of rural economies. These include programs for beginning and disadvantaged farmers and farmworkers, and the current under-funded “small but mighty” programs that connect struggling farmers and ranchers with higher paying local and regional markets and create new value-added local food businesses and jobs.

The Green New Deal must help conventional farm and ranch operators make the transition to organic and ecologically regenerative agriculture through expanded research, conservation, technical assistance, and extension programs. We also need greater investments in research, marketing, and other support for healthy, low-carbon, plant-based crop production (e.g., fruits, nuts, legumes, vegetables). Also critical from a land use perspective, the Farm Bill’s conservation compliance provisions must be strengthened. All farms that receive public monies must be required to invest in conservation practices that increase carbon sequestration and build soil health and resiliency to contend with climate change. Otherwise, taxpayers will be forced to foot the bill when farmers suffer massive losses that could be reduced with better farming techniques.

Beyond this shift away from destructive Farm Bill spending, we need a multi-pronged approach that greatly reduces food emissions while also transforming the sector into a force for health, sustainability, and economic equity for farmers, eaters, and workers. Essential policies include:

  • New regulations to restrict methane emissions and other air pollution from concentrated animal feeding operations.
  • Anti-trust enforcement to prevent unfair pricing and consolidation throughout the food supply chain.
  • Living wages and strengthened labor laws to protect agricultural workers, particularly women and farmworkers.
  • Nutrition, school food, and public procurement policies that promote greater consumption of organic and sustainably produced plant-based foods and less of carbon-intensive industrial meat and dairy. 
  • Reductions in the use of toxic chemical inputs such as pesticides and synthetic fertilizers that are harming our health, pollinators, and climate.

There is no shortage of important ideas—and communities—that need to be at the Green New Deal table. As organic farmer Elizabeth Henderson reminds us, frontline communities must be a central voice in these reforms and we can look to the original New Deal for inspiration, such as “parity pricing” to ensure farmers got a fair price (akin to a guaranteed minimum wage) for their crops.

This kind of “just transition” is essential. Beyond cutting emissions, a Green New Deal must address the exploitation and poverty built into our food system. As Food First Director Eric Holt-Gimenez puts it, “This will require a major government effort with massive social investment and bold economic policies to correct inequalities.”

With the Green New Deal, social movements and our representatives in Congress have the chance to transition away from our harmful and polluting industrial agriculture model to a system that is healthy, just, and works for everyone. Our current industrial food system, and the policies that prop it up, are a central part of the climate crisis, and transforming them must be a central part of the Green New Deal solution.

Kari Hamerschlag

Kari Hamerschlag is a Deputy Director for Friends of the Earth’s Food and Agriculture Program. Previously she worked for five years as a Senior Analyst for Environmental Working Group, and as a sustainable food policy consultant in the Bay Area, including a year-long stint running a Farm Bill campaign for the California Coalition for Food and Farming.

Tags: agriculture greenhouse gas emissions, Building resilient food and farming systems, Green New Deal