As the Biden-Harris transition team rapidly fills key cabinet positions and senior leadership, it also is setting priorities for the first 100 days. If the “Build Back Better” mantra is to become reality, particularly in advancing equitable solutions to the climate crisis, the transition team will have to think systemically—not just agency by agency. Systems thinking is especially critical to create a just transition for farming. Our current policy framework supports an industrial system of production that is pushing out farmers while increasing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and climate risk to the food supply. We need a coordinated approach across multiple agencies to support a more resilient farming system.
After four years of climate denial in the executive branch, we need to move quickly. The dramatic Covid-19-related disruptions to meat processing plants and the food supply chain serve as a warning shot for how unprepared the country is for increasingly extreme climate-related events. The massive public payouts to farmers by the Trump administration mask an increasingly vulnerable farm economy where a handful of global players are cashing in while farmers struggle to stay on the land. A just transition for farming must not only consider reforms to farm policy, but also aligned reforms in financial, trade, environmental and competition policy.
With deep ties to natural resource-based economies, farmers and rural communities are on the front lines of the climate crisis. Our experience organizing Rural Climate Dialogues in Minnesota shows there is a growing readiness to take action in rural communities. A Biden-Harris climate policy framework should not be predominantly top-down but should emphasize the importance of community-level, bottom-up solutions and actions.
Here, we propose eight areas of focus for the Biden-Harris administration to transition our farming system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build climate resilience, while responding to the economic challenges facing farmers as part of creating a more equitable economy:
Make deeper public investment in climate-friendly practices
The Biden-Harris initial proposed budgets should include much deeper investments in existing conservation programs, particularly working lands programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) with a greater emphasis on whole farm planning. These under-funded programs support practices like planting cover crops, diversifying crop rotations, well-managed rotational grazing and decreasing tillage, all of which can reduce agriculture’s climate footprint and increase resilience in the face of climate disruptions. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) sets aside marginal farmland and restores natural habitat, but land in CRP has steadily dropped along with price per acre payments and the Trump administration’s removal of important incentives. We now have the fewest acres enrolled in CRP since 1998. IATP is a member of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and fully endorses a detailed set of recommendations sent to the transition team by NSAC on how to use better invest public money to expand sustainable, agroecological systems.
Ensure fairness in agriculture markets
Grain and meat markets are too concentrated, often dominated by a handful of global companies that are driving down prices, while increasing costs, for farmers. When highly concentrated systems of production break down, the damage is spread up and down the supply chain—as we saw during Covid-19 outbreaks that caused disruptions directly affecting farmers, workers and consumers. The Biden-Harris administration should act to address excess corporate concentration in agriculture, which has locked in a high GHG emitting system of agriculture while making us more vulnerable to extreme climate events. More than 200 food and agriculture groups have called for a merger moratorium and an investigation into the impacts of past food and agriculture company mergers, a review of existing laws and recommendations on how to improve competition. The Biden-Harris administration’s Secretary of Agriculture could immediately return the office in charge of enforcing the Packers and Stockyards Act to a standalone agency and advance rules to establish fairer contracts and protections for farmers in a corporate-controlled marketplace.
Reform broken agriculture markets to keep farmers on the land
We need an updated supply management program with price floors to ensure farmers fair compensation in the marketplace, while addressing the core challenge of overproduction plaguing agriculture markets and hurting the climate. The National Family Farm Coalition and the Wisconsin Farmers Union are calling for an updated supply management program for commodity crops and dairy that would better manage the market and ensure a fair (parity) price. A strong supply management program could reduce climate risk and emissions by building up stocks to manage overproduction and placing some limits on production. It could also put more marginal farmland into conservation to sequester carbon and help spur markets for more climate-friendly systems of production such as organic or grass-fed beef and dairy, and pastured pork. An updated program should also address historical harms in past supply management programs where the USDA, with a long history of systemic racism, often excluded Black farmers. The Justice for Black Farmers Act, with support from over 80 organizations, outlines steps for Black farmers to gain access to farmland and addresses civil rights issues within the USDA.
Stop propping up high GHG emitting factory farms
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Increases in agriculture-related emissions in the U.S. mirror the growth in large-scale concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). More than 300 groups are calling for a moratorium on new or expanding CAFOs, with additional funding to transition toward a more climate-friendly, sustainably managed pasture-based systems of production. The Biden-Harris administration could take steps to require CAFOs to report GHG emissions and move toward setting limits for the potent GHG methane. The new Agriculture Secretary could reform two farm programs, EQIP and Farm Service Agency guaranteed loans, that use public dollars to subsidize new and expanding CAFOs. The Trump administration’s late move to weaken the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to exempt CAFOs from environmental review (including impact on the climate) when receiving federal loans should be reversed. Several federal programs also support the false climate solution of methane digestors for large-scale manure lagoons. These programs serve as another form of subsidy for factory farms to produce manure and help greenwash a polluting natural gas industry.
Protect agricultural workers
Agricultural workers are facing rising heat-related threats. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) currently has no federal regulations protecting workers in extreme heat. Several states have stepped in with new workplace protections, including strong new regulations in California. The new head of OSHA under a Biden-Harris administration should set a federal standard to protect agricultural workers from heat-related stress. Of additional concern is that climate change could be a driver of future pandemics. At least 11,000 farmworkers have tested positive for Covid-19 and will likely face similar risks from future pandemics.
Recognize climate risk within financial rules, including agriculture credit
There is rising concern about the degree of financial risk to our economy and to specific corporate actors (including agribusiness) associated with climate change. The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco is exploring this risk within the financial industry. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission recently reported on the risks climate change poses to our financial system. In a report published this fall, IATP outlined how the Biden-Harris administration could integrate climate-related financial risk in five segments of U.S. agricultural and agribusiness finance: taxpayer subsidized private crop and livestock insurance; federally regulated public and private agricultural loans; bond issuance to finance those loans; commodity futures markets whose prices should serve as reliable benchmarks for forwarding contracts of grains and oilseed crops; and the disclosure of corporate climate financial risks, particularly of agribusiness, to investors, lenders, credit rating agencies and other interested parties.
Integrate climate goals into trade policy
The push to expand agricultural trade drives much of U.S. farm policy and an industrial system of production geared towards exports. Trade agreements, including the new NAFTA and at the WTO, constrain congressional power to regulate and raise labor, environmental and other standards. Trade rules grant polluters special legal rights to challenge climate regulations, weaken renewable energy and green jobs programs, and undermine climate-friendly agriculture policy. A new Biden-Harris trade policy should place a moratorium on new trade deals until a review of past trade commitments has been completed and steps taken to reform existing trade rules that undermine responses to the climate crisis. It should also set climate-related goals for future trade deals and ensure consistency with other international environmental treaties and climate commitments. This should include space within trade rules that support supply management policies and other creative approaches that support a transition toward regenerative agriculture. No agreement should be brought for a vote in Congress unless analysis by the International Trade Commission (ITC) and Environmental Protection Agency demonstrate that it makes a positive contribution to reducing GHGs. The ITC/EPA assessment of “likely impacts” of trade agreements should also include how the agreement will facilitate adaptation to climate change in all covered economic sectors and cross-border investments.
Reject carbon markets
Carbon markets worldwide and in the U.S. have failed to directly reduce GHG emissions, and in particular don’t work well for agriculture. The use of offset credits can contribute to environmental injustices by allowing polluters to buy their way out of reducing their own pollution, which often directly effects communities of color. Many of these markets include soil carbon offsets, which have a number of serious problems. Soil carbon storage is extremely impermanent; any carbon sequestered in the soil can be released with a change in land management practices or an extreme climate event like flooding or wildfires. In addition, the science and measurement tools are not advanced enough to precisely quantify the amount of GHGs sequestered over time. Farmers need predictable, public support to respond effectively to climate change, not an uncertain, ineffective and volatile carbon market. The Biden-Harris climate plan announced during the campaign is open to carbon markets, including carbon credits for expensive methane digestors on factory farms. The new administration should shelve these ideas and instead focus on smarter investments in more efficient and proven conservation programs that reduce GHGs and enable the adaptation of agriculture to climate change.
The climate crisis is the challenge of our lifetime and of our children and grandchildren’s lifetimes. This is new territory for the planet and for policy. Countries around the world are grappling with these same climate policy challenges, including for agriculture. The Biden-Harris administration has an opportunity to build a new roadmap for our food system that reduces emissions, increases resilience and promotes economic equity. A low bar return to Obama-era policies won’t be enough.