The global food system is responsible for more emissions than previously thought, according to a new United Nations report. It may also hold a key to reversing climate change.
Agriculture as usual is putting the climate at risk as “unprecedented rates” of land and freshwater resources are used to fuel a global food system that wastes one-third of everything it produces, the new report finds.
What we need now are policies, many of which could be packaged in a revised Green New Deal, to direct our resources into climate-smart practices and technologies for agriculture and land management. When it was first released, the Green New Deal resolution presented a sweeping vision for decarbonizing our economy and getting to net-zero emissions within a decade. Since then, Democratic presidential hopefuls have been releasing plans that riff on its framework, translating its vision into policy.
As the UN report makes clear, we need a plan that fuses climate policy with farm policy. We can’t get to net-zero without preserving farmland, restoring degraded lands, and supporting rural economies in a just transition. Every hour, we lose 175 acres of farmland to real estate development. Fertile soil is a national treasure and an endangered resource as much in need of protection as Yosemite or the Great Smoky Mountains.
A successful Green New Deal must integrate what we know about carbon, emissions, and pollution into policies related to agriculture and land use. In short, maintaining a livable climate depends on transforming the food system.
Part of the problem
Whether food travels from factory to fridge or from farm to fork, it often leaves behind a carbon-laden trail. Global food production is now thought to be responsible for up to 37% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to more than 100 scientists who serve on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change convened by the United Nations. By itself, and not accounting for post-harvest processing or transportation, agriculture is the second largest emitter after the energy sector.
Let’s imagine for a moment that we eliminate our use of fossil fuels. We overhaul our transportation and energy sectors. Electric vehicles and public transit replace every vehicle on the road. Renewable energy becomes the norm, complete with wind turbines in every wind-rich region. We switch to atmosphere-friendly chemicals in air conditioning and refrigeration. Let’s say all buildings are built or retrofitted to be LEED certified, for good measure.
Even in this best-case scenario, researchers have found that the combination of increasing global meat production and agriculture-related deforestation are on track to cause emissions to rise significantly and could trigger an increase in global temperature of 2 degrees Celsius.
If cattle were their own nation, they would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions, after China and the United States. At the same time, it’s imperative not to lump all cattle producers together. For example, recent research shows that cattle can be raised with grazing methods that sequester a significant amount of the emissions that they produce.
As they weigh the complex risks and benefits of growing livestock production, policymakers should develop antitrust measures and environmental regulations that target large-scale concentrated animal feeding operations, which, aside from emissions, are major sources of air and water pollution. This issue is vital to consider as our industrial model of agriculture is increasingly exported around the world.
Part of the solution
Agriculture is unique among industries in its ability to act as a massive carbon sink. As previous reports have shown, switching to renewable energy is insufficient to solve the climate crisis. Carbon removal from the atmosphere is necessary for climate stability. More research is needed on the carbon sequestration potential of agricultural soils, but the early results are impressive. Carbon farming is also among the cheapest and most immediately available strategies we have to draw down CO2 from the atmosphere.
On Project Drawdown’s list of 100 solutions for reversing climate change, 26 relate to food and land use. Of their top five, three directly connect to food, agriculture, and land. These include cutting down on food waste, eating more plants and less meat, and restoring tropical forests. A Green New Deal should take this into account to help determine research priorities and design incentives that will support a climate-smart food system.
In one of the most comprehensive assessments thus far, scientists made the stunning discovery that improved agricultural land management—paired with conserving and restoring forests, grasslands, and wetlands—can provide more than one-third of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius.
Consider also the extraordinary findings of soil scientist Rattan Lal and his colleagues, whose recent research has shown that improved soil conservation practices on 70% of U.S. cropland could cut current agricultural emissions in half.
Sound proposals for Green New Deal policies include rewarding activities that sequester carbon through existing agricultural and conservation programs, a farmer-friendly approach supported by several 2020 Democratic presidential contenders. Increasing support for the USDA’s Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry initiative is another good place to start.
The success of these policies ultimately hinges on having enough farmers to carry them out. Under the last administration, the former USDA secretary set a goal to bring at least 100,000 new farmers into business. Instead, we lost more than 90,000. Today, an estimated 400 million acres of farmland has begun to change hands as a generation of farmers and other agricultural landowners enters retirement. As a matter of both farm and climate policy, the U.S. needs a Green New Deal that will build national capacity to assist with this seismic transition and support secure tenure for the next generation of farmers and land stewards. Partnerships between the USDA, local land trusts, and land linking organizations could help facilitate this shift.
In the United States, more than 21 million people are employed in food production, processing, distribution, retail, or service. One in 7 employees’ livelihoods are connected to the food system, making it the largest sector of employment.
A Green New Deal can support the transformation underway in agriculture by embracing policies to promote green jobs in the agricultural sector. By including farmers in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, the government can attract a new generation to farming by forgiving federal student loans and reducing a major financial barrier. In addition, the U.S. must invest heavily in training climate-smart, regenerative farmers. To create a sustainable pipeline of new farmers will also require the reversal of the decades-long trend in declining farm incomes. A Green New Deal with a strong antitrust component can combat extreme corporate consolidation, leveling the playing field and creating more income-generating opportunities for family farmers and food industry entrepreneurs.
Our next president must present us with a plan for reversing climate change that recognizes the threat agriculture poses to the climate and vice versa. It’s up to us to make sure our candidates have a road map that reflects the full reality of climate change and where we can find the most promising solutions.