This story originally appeared in Civil Eats and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
Last fall—in debates, Town Hall meetings, and interviews—nearly every Democratic presidential candidate pointed to connections between food production and the climate crisis.
And the similarities went further than that: a whopping 10 candidates agreed that the next administration should pay farmers to adopt climate-friendly practices. Nearly as many also pointed to the need for regenerative practices that make soil a carbon sink, rather than a source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Now, as the general election looms, the Biden agenda and the Democratic Party’s 2020 platform both include a “zero emissions” goal for agriculture as well as increased investment in conservation practices.
Meanwhile, the climate crisis is front and center like never before, with unprecedented wildfires raging on the West Coast and devastating storms hitting Iowa, Louisiana, and other states. And while Biden has been out in front on linking the current catastrophes to climate, big questions remain about precisely how a potential Biden administration will approach farming for the climate, and farmer groups, agribusiness, and environmental advocates are all jockeying to exert their influence.
“National Farmers Union members have long raised concerns about the fact that the climate is changing, that it’s affecting their operations and their lands, and that there are common-sense ways the government should work with farmers to help provide them with the tools and resources they need to lead on solutions,” said Jenny Hopkinson, senior government relations representative at the National Farmers Union (NFU).
That’s why when NFU members headed (virtually) to Washington, D.C. on September 14, climate change was on the agenda in meetings with legislators—even during a year when, for many farmers, it’s hard to focus on anything beyond the economic challenges caused by the pandemic. However, while Hopkinson calls the strategies NFU lobbied for “common sense,” other groups lobbying Democrats see some of the same policies—such as NFU’s support for methane digesters—short-sighted.
In fact, when it comes to building a resilient agricultural system that can both withstand the effects of the climate crisis and cut emissions, there is significant disagreement among advocacy groups and elected officials within the party as to just how radical the path forward should be.
While representatives of larger commodity agriculture (think industrial dairy) are advising Biden, progressive groups are working to push his campaign toward endorsing bigger systemic changes to agriculture. And those are changes that won’t likely please agribusiness.
At the end of August, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) delivered a letter to Congress that called for climate action on behalf of rural and agricultural communities, signed by more than 2,100 farmers and ranchers from around the country.
“There is a real desire to see transformative change in our agricultural production system,” said NSAC policy director Eric Deeble. “And many of those folks are frustrated by the fact that it does not appear to be a high priority for either potential administration. Within progressive, sustainable agriculture circles, he added, “folks don’t feel that their voices are being heard.”
Consensus on Incentives, Disagreement Elsewhere
When adjusted for inflation, overall spending on U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs has risen only slightly over the past decade. Now, the one realm in which many Democratic lawmakers appear to agree is the need to significantly increase funding and expand programs that incentivize climate-friendly practices including cover cropping and rotational grazing.
In June, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis released its first report, including a section dedicated to agriculture. It lays out plans to expand existing agricultural conservation programs such as the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and to support practices including agroforestry and organic farming.
Many of the recommendations in the report are tied to bills introduced by Democrats, such as the Agriculture Resilience Act introduced by Representative Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and the Climate Stewardship Act introduced by Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey). And when the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis released its own report in August, the first bullet point on what Congress should do for farmers is to “expand existing USDA agricultural conservation programs and include improved soil health and soil carbon storage incentives.”
Another approach to incentivizing carbon storage that the Senate report endorses is establishing carbon markets—a strategy that many powerful voices in the agriculture industry opposed when it was on the table a decade ago. Biden’s plan for rural America also appears to lean toward helping farmers participate in carbon markets. And some environmental organizations and many big food companies and farm groups including the NFU support the bipartisan carbon markets bill that was introduced in June.
“We think that carbon markets are a tool that should be available to farmers and we’re hoping that this bill will lend some legitimacy to the nascent efforts [to develop them],” Hopkinson said.
Some advocacy groups, however, say carbon markets will only benefit the largest farms. Kari Hamerschlag, the deputy director of food and agriculture at Friends of the Earth (FOE) and its related PAC group, Friends of the Earth Action, doesn’t see voluntary markets as a strong enough step considering the urgency of the climate crisis. Instead, she wants to see subsidized crop insurance tied to practices that improve soil health—a tactic that many groups advocated for during the run-up to the 2018 Farm Bill but that didn’t make it into the final draft.
“If we are going to continue to provide subsidies, we need to ask farmers, in return, to implement healthy soil practices,” she says, adding that she sees carbon markets as “another false solution.”
Ethanol and other biofuels are also controversial. At a recent “Farmers and Ranchers Roundtable” hosted by the Biden campaign and moderated by NFU president Rob Larew, farmers brought up support for biofuels repeatedly, and NFU has long advocated for government support for ethanol as a financial boon for farmers and a climate-positive swap for fossil fuels.
But many progressive groups believe government support for ethanol props up the corn-dominated monoculture systems that dominate American farming in the Midwest, leading to depleted soil, polluted waterways, and dead zones in the Gulf. And they point to industry influence as a reason Biden still supports ethanol: The Democratic convention included a “Leaders of American Agriculture” symposium sponsored by a long list of seed and chemical companies that profit off of that system, including Bayer/Monsanto and Corteva, as well as the leading trade association for the ethanol industry. And last week, the Washington Post reported on the Biden campaign’s efforts to woo Iowa farmers by touting Biden’s support for ethanol and other biofuels.
Animal Agriculture’s Climate Impacts
“The biggest thing that is missing from both the Biden plan and the DNC platform is a focus on the role of animal agriculture in generating greenhouse gas emissions and the need to curb those emissions through reducing the overall amount of animals that are produced in this country,” said Hamerschlag.
In July, eight national and state-level groups including Family Farm Action, the Land Stewardship Action Fund, and HEAL Food Action joined Friends of the Earth Action in asking the DNC platform committee to endorse a transition away from industrial-scale animal agriculture “starting with a moratorium on new Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and large-scale food and agriculture mergers.” But the final platform did not include any mention of animal agriculture.
Elected Democrats, however, are increasingly focused on the issue. Last year, Senator Booker introduced a bill to halt mergers and acquisitions in agriculture and the Farm System Reform Act, which would place a moratorium on new large CAFOs and phase out the largest existing CAFOs by 2040. Then, this summer, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) signed on to back the bill, and House Democrats introduced companion legislation. In early September, a coalition of 300 advocacy groups sent a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to pass the bill.
Recent polls show increasing public support for a moratorium on large CAFOs, and progressive Democrats are increasingly focusing on not just the negative environmental impacts, but also on the impact on farmers and rural communities. While NSAC has not endorsed Booker’s bill, Deeble said it was clear that NSAC’s “membership is headed in that direction” in terms of supporting a moratorium.
Despite all this, the Biden campaign has so far stayed away from mentioning emissions from animal agriculture, except in the context of methane digesters, an emissions-reduction strategy that some environmentalists say props up and even incentivizes the growth of large CAFOs, allowing them to continue to pollute in other ways.
Advocates say the Biden campaign’s silence isn’t surprising, since Tom Vilsack—the Agriculture Secretary under Obama, and who now represents a dairy group focused on large-scale exports—is advising the campaign. “There’s no way he’s going to be advocating for regulation of his industry,” Hamerschlag said.
There are also reports that Biden is considering former North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp to lead the USDA. In 2018, Heitkamp ranked number one in Senate campaign donations from the crop production industry. She frequently sided with Republicans on resisting environmental regulations and was a frontrunner to head the USDA under President Trump.
And, instead of a panel that included small, diversified vegetable farms, regenerative ranchers, or organic crop farmers, the farmers given the microphone during the Biden campaign’s Farmers and Ranchers Roundtable were primarily large commodity producers.
“Given the fact that local and regional direct market farmers play such an integral role in resilient local farm systems, that was a missed opportunity,” said Deeble. “But I also think that it’s not the fault of the campaign. We’re looking at the end of maybe a 30, 40, 50-year arc of concentration and consolidation and there’s a notion that not rocking any boats is the right play right now.”
And yet, there’s a real opportunity to talk about what a better system would look like. Biden’s plan, for example, does include a bullet point to make sure “small and medium-sized farms have access to fair markets” by strengthening enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act—something small farm advocates have long been fighting for.
For NSAC members and other groups, a better system would involve policies that drive large scale shifts away from monoculture commodity crops and CAFOs and toward more small, diversified farms that minimize inputs, raise animals on pasture, and sell food directly to their communities—all with an eye towards reducing emissions and building soil that can hold carbon while increasing biodiversity.
A growing number of Democrats are on board with those changes. The Farm System Reform Act includes support for independent livestock producers in the form of payments to help contract farmers transition out of industrial animal agriculture and a restoration of country of origin labeling (COOL) on meat. The House Climate report includes a plan to reduce emissions from livestock operations by significantly increasing support for farmers using rotational grazing and silvopasture.
And Democrats have introduced bills in both the House and Senate that would increase funding for small farms that sell into local markets, many of which were left out of the USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.
But where Biden and his potential administration will land is still unclear. Progressives like Hamerschlag said that if the campaign were bolder on agriculture and climate, it could present a more hopeful path forward for rural America.
For example, the 2020 DNC platform includes a plan to fund research on “low-carbon crops” and organic farming, but Biden’s plan does not mention organics at all.
“Organic is such a bright spot for rural America… there’s just a lot of economic opportunity,” she said. “Big factory farms and big monocultures are not a winning economic development strategy for rural America, and we know that rural communities bear the brunt of the impacts from factory farms.”
Lisa is Civil Eats’ senior policy reporter. Her stories on the food system, sustainable agriculture, and food policy have appeared in Eater, NPR’s The Salt, and Edible Manhattan.