Fern.org: In Democrats’ Green New Deal, a nod to sustainable agriculture

by Leah Douglas

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey on Thursday introduced a Green New Deal, offering a sweeping framework for eliminating U.S. carbon emissions to combat global warming and supporting sustainable farming practices along the way. The nod to agriculture was appreciated by some advocates, since food and farming accounts for an estimated quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The Green New Deal proposes a series of steps to reach zero greenhouse gas emissions within 10 years, creating what it says are millions of jobs along the way. It has been supported by several prospective frontrunners for the Democratic presidential nomination, including Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. The framework is a non-binding resolution, meaning that even if it passes, it wouldn’t create new programs without further legislating. Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, joined New York Democrat Ocasio-Cortez in introducing the package.

“If we want the United States to continue to be a global leader, then that means we have to lead on the solution of this issue,” Ocasio-Cortez said on NPR’s Morning Edition, referring to climate change’s already disastrous impacts.

One section of the resolution addresses agricultural production, calling for “working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible,” including by “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.”

Food and agriculture advocates have been pushing hard for inclusion of their issues in the landmark proposal and many responded positively to the announcement.

“American family farmers are primary stakeholders in the battle against climate change, as they’ve been withstanding increasingly devastating natural disasters, including floods, drought, wildfires and hurricanes,” said National Farmers Union senior vice president Rob Larew in a statement. “The impacts on not only their individual bottom lines, but also on their communities, have already been significant, and they will be exacerbated by more severe disasters.”

Others noted that farmers will need additional support to transition to more climate-friendly growing methods.

“We’re encouraged that ‘supporting family farming’ is at the center of the [Green New Deal’s] plan to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture,” wrote Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association, on the organization’s website. Yet, Baden-Meyer adds, “[a]s long as our country’s struggling family farmers teeter on the edge of foreclosure and bankruptcy, it’s going to be very difficult to prevent them from selling their land to developers or factory farms, or to get them to adopt climate-beneficial farming practices. Any future legislation that attempts to implement the GND must begin with a program to end the loss of family farms by guaranteeing farmers fair prices from their buyers.”

The goal of “supporting family farming” will also require further discussion with farming and ranching groups, since what constitutes a “family farm” has long been debated in agriculture. The vast majority of farms in the U.S. are family-owned; a small percentage are corporate-owned. But many of those farms do not participate in sustainable agriculture as described in the Green New Deal, despite the popular imagination of the family farmer.

And reducing greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture may also present a challenge for advocates, as the agriculture industry has long worked to overturn local and state regulations that monitor emissions resulting from livestock farming and other forms of agriculture. As FERN reported at the end of last year, there are no longer federal or state regulations requiring large-scale livestock farms to report air emissions to state and federal authorities — and livestock emissions represent the majority of greenhouse gases produced by agriculture.