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The U.S. food system is dominated by intensive agriculture. What would a more sustainable one look like? Biden just took a big step in the right direction.
Words by Jennifer Mishler
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has unveiled a $1 billion funding program intended to support environmental initiatives in farming, ranching, and forestry. Announced on February 7, the Partnership for Climate Smart Commodities will “provide targeted funding” to aid practices that decrease greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or store carbon from the atmosphere. Both of these measures are key steps in the administration’s effort to curb emissions in industries that are a big part of the problem.
The U.S. food industry is dominated by intensive agriculture operations that take a heavy toll on the planet. Factory farming, the method by which nearly all U.S. farmed animals are raised, is especially destructive, as a major driver of global warming, air and water pollution, land and water usage, and other environmental harms. Agriculture and the use of forests are inextricably linked, as the expansion of ranching and factory farming leads to the removal and/or desertification of forestland.
The USDA’s new initiative is an encouraging step forward. Despite the devastating impacts of animal agriculture, the federal government has done little to address these harms and continues to dump billions of dollars into some of the most environmentally destructive corners of the industry.
“This initiative will amass more information than has ever before been available regarding the climate benefits that the U.S.’s agricultural and forestry sectors can generate,” writes the White House, summing up the take of its National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy, who called the program a “game changer.”
According to the agency’s announcement, in order to receive funding for their pilot projects, applicants must specify how they will monitor and report the effects of these practices on GHG and carbon emissions, and describe plans to “develop markets and promote climate-smart commodities generated as a result of project activities.” Funding, which will come from the USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation, will be provided in two pools, the first requiring applications by April 8 and open to proposals ranging from $5-$100 million.
“We want a broad array of agriculture and forestry to see themselves in this effort, including small and historically underserved producers as well as early adopters,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement issued earlier this week by the USDA.
The USDA opened public comments on this proposed initiative in September 2021, receiving hundreds of responses. POLITICO reports that the outcome of pilot projects could influence USDA policy and the 2023 Farm Bill, calling the new program “a major step in the Biden administration’s push to leverage agriculture as part of the solution on climate change.”
Applause for the program has also come from farming interest groups, hopeful that the USDA will ensure that funded projects will remain feasible and profitable for farmers. The U.S. meat industry has become increasingly consolidated, with much of the control–and profits–in the hands of a few large corporations. This not only means more suffering for animals, but it has also left farmers who supply these companies struggling with debt. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem, disrupting supply chains and operations.
With animal agriculture’s environmental impact largely left out of international climate discussions, realistic efforts to address this issue while offering farmers the necessary support are urgently needed. This is especially true of wealthy nations such as the U.S., where meat consumption is soaring. Yet, industrial animal agriculture is on the rise, and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) recently repeated his call for an end to the expansion of factory farming, warning that “we are past a national emergency.”
Shoppers, though, are increasing their demand for eco-friendly foods. “We think there is an emerging opportunity here, as consumers demand more sustainably produced food here in the United States and certainly in the export market,” Secretary Vilsack told Reuters. The outlet also reports that some farmers have been unable to implement climate practices on a larger scale. “This program… can essentially reduce the risk to farmers so that they can learn how to do it and see the positive results,” said Vilsack.
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