What the New Green Deal Means for the Food on Your Plate

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originally posted on civileats.com

BY CHRISTOPHER D. COOK

Today, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) released their much-anticipated Green New Deal with the goal of creating millions of jobs by expanding renewable energy and de-carbonizing the economy over the next 10 years.

It’s a sweeping attempt to reorient energy production and shift public resources in an urgent bid to make the U.S. carbon-neutral by 2030. And it comes at a crucial moment, as dire scientific evidence shows the world needs to act fast over the next 12 years to avert the worst impacts of climate change.

Food and agriculture, which is responsible for 9 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, is included in several aspects of the 14-page House Resolution released by Ocasio-Cortez today. Primarily, the resolution notes the importance of “working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector” through  supporting family farming; “investing in sustainable farming and land use practices that increase soil health”; and “building a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food.”

The need for a food-system overhaul also gets a shout-out in the closing line of the resolution, which notes that the projects required by a Green New Deal will include “providing all people of the United States with … access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and nature.”

Agriculture’s presence in the Green New Deal is the result of a palpable urgency that has emerged in food and farming movements to make sure that the effort not only reduces industrial agriculture’s massive carbon emissions, but also transforms a host of environmental problems and inequities embedded in how America’s food is produced.

“The Green New Deal sets a bold vision for dealing with the climate change crisis, which will soon escalate into a full-blown disaster if we don’t make the kinds of changes outlined in this plan. There are many good ideas in this resolution, but this is just the first step in the process,” Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) said in a statement to Civil Eats. “There is a lot of work to be done in the days ahead to iron out the details, like opportunities to work with farmers to trap more carbon in the soil. But I’m confident that we can pass something in the House and send it to the Senate, because the American people have demanded action.”

Sustainable agriculture advocates have been urging the food movement to “get behind the Green New Deal” and support major reforms of America’s food and farming system. Over 100 scientists, researchers, and other food systems experts have also signed onto a letter to that effect penned by the Agroecology Research-Action Collective. The future they envision puts U.S. agriculture at the center of the action on climate.

“We need stop the industrial overproduction of food—the root cause of agricultural pollution, food waste and greenhouse gas emissions,” argues Eric Holt-Giménez, executive director of Food First. One step in this direction would be supply management and guaranteed minimum prices for farmers, Holt-Giménez says—what’s known in the farming world as “parity” pricing. He says this type of minimum wage for farmers could stabilize many struggling small growers while discouraging the culture of “get big or get out.” “This way, we eliminate food waste and resource waste at the point of production, capture carbon, and ensure decent livelihoods for farmers and farm workers,” he adds.

 

Why Include Food?

Many advocates argue that America’s food system is ripe for a comprehensive overhaul toward sustainability and equity. Today’s meat and dairy operations emit millions of tons of climate-altering methane and nitrous oxide gases, while vast corn and soy farms rely on fossil fuel-based pesticides and synthetic fertilizers to grow livestock feed and auto fuel. This system is propped up by more than $13 billion a year in subsidies and crop insurance, while small farmers receive minimal support and no guarantee of a fair price in an increasingly concentrated, anti-competitive market; more than 12,000 farmers go out of business each year. Large-scale farms receive ample backing, while public monies for organic, regenerative, and small-scale diversified farming are minimal. This food chain depends on low-wage, often undocumented workers.

“There is a renewed energy to think big, and we need to apply this thinking to reforming our food system.” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Civil Eats by email. A Green New Deal, he added, “could implement some incredibly common-sense provisions to reduce the climate impacts of farming, like improving and doubling the funding for existing conservation programs.”

The resolution introduced on February 7th certainly describes a revolution in how the economy operates, and whom it benefits. But in order for that vision to become reality, the legislation that follows will need to be equally ambitious, if it’s to begin turning the ship around on our nation’s approach agriculture.

To that end, Rep. Blumenauer plans to reintroduce his Food and Farm Act, a sweeping alternative farm bill that proposes, among other things, to “help producers adapt to a changing and unpredictable climate and increase resiliency to climate change impacts, including rising temperatures and extreme weather events, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) is also preparing Green New Deal legislation, according to spokesperson Martina McLennan. Merkley plans to fight for a measure that “provides incentives, technical assistance, and funding to support low-carbon farming, water and soil conservation, and sustainable agriculture.” Despite ample scientific literature showing that producing less meat and dairy is central to tackling carbon emissions, any congressional challenge to the meat and dairy industries—powerful groups with massive lobbying might—will undoubtedly see pushback. The EPA has been prevented from reporting livestock emissions since 2008.

“I want to talk about the impact that concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have on the environment and what we can do to mitigate it,” said Blumenauer. “We shouldn’t be incentivizing them through programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program; we should be forcing them to pay for the damage they cause to the environment and public health.”

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