A Green New Deal Must Prioritize Regenerative Agriculture

We are at a radically new stage in our fight for the planet. The Green New Deal proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youth-led Sunrise Movement, and hundreds of other climate justice leaders and organizations has given us a new holistic framework for tackling both the climate crisis and structural inequality.

This bold vision for the future has, in a matter of months, radically expanded what is politically possible and clarified what is morally required of us as a society. Just a year ago, the progressive movement was struggling to articulate climate solutions that were capable of meeting the severity and scale of the problem, relying instead on piecemeal reforms.

With any luck, those days are decisively behind us. The goal is no longer to slow the bleeding; it’s to heal the wound. The Green New Deal is about utilizing the full power and resources of the federal government to transform U.S. society so that we can rapidly achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, create millions of good jobs, and bring justice and equity to our economy.

If we are serious about reaching those goals, then we need to make sure overhauling U.S. agriculture is at the center of the Green New Deal. Creating a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to regenerative farming represents our best chance to drawdown massive amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while at the same time addressing urgent environmental, public health and social justice issues embedded in our corporate food system.

Carbon Farming

Industrial agriculture is premised on exploiting land and labor while releasing enormous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Massive monocultures are continuously tilled and maintained by huge diesel-burning tractors, sprayed with petroleum-derived pesticides and amended with synthetic fertilizers that release nitrous oxide — a potent greenhouse gas — into the atmosphere.

Worldwide, about one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions come from the food system, with about a quarter coming directly from agriculture and agriculture-related deforestation. In the U.S., the share of emissions coming from agriculture is about 9 percent, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, a virtually certain and dramatic underestimate, given the meat industry’s copious unreported methane emissions.

But the fact that farming has become a major source of emissions actually belies an important truth that sets agriculture apart from every other major economic sector: It has the natural potential to become a massive carbon sink, rather than a carbon emitter. Photosynthesis, the biological engine that drives plant growth, functions in part by taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and converting it into carbohydrates, some of which are used to build plant bodies, while others are exuded into the soil through plant roots. If more carbon is stored in the soil and in plant biomass than is released through agricultural practices and plant decomposition, then you create a net-negative, “carbon farming” system.

The problem with industrial agriculture is that it proactively destroys the soil health needed to reliably sequester carbon. By continually tilling and eroding soils, spraying them with chemical pesticides and inundating them with synthetic fertilizers, we have essentially been waging a nonstop war against the soil organic matter and soil biology that together form the basis of long-term carbon capture and storage.

A shift to established regenerative and agroecological practices like no-till farming, diverse cover crop plantings and crop rotations, compost application, rotational grazing, agroforestry, and forgoing the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers would quickly and dramatically restore the potential of the land to sequester enormous quantities of carbon.

Multiplied across the totality of U.S. farmland — more than 900 million acres — and we are talking about a radical change in the climate math. To get some sense of the numbers, the Marin Carbon Project found that a single application of compost on half of California’s rangeland would increase its carbon sequestration capacity by 42 million metric tons, which is roughly equivalent to the annual emissions of the state’s commercial and residential energy sectors combined.

Global calculations based on existing trials are even more stunning. According to a 2014 report released by the Rodale Institute, “Recent data from farming systems and pasture trials show that we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive [regenerative] management practices.”

Many Problems, One Solution

A Green New Deal that makes regenerative carbon farming the new normal for U.S. agriculture would not only draw down massive amounts of carbon dioxide, it would also simultaneously work at solving a number of other urgent environmental, public health and social justice problems endemic to our system of corporate-controlled, industrial agriculture.

Environmentally, the most alarming feature of our present system is that it’s rapidly depleting the planet’s topsoil. About one-third of global soils have been severely degraded by farming and about a billion acres have been abandoned outright. It’s estimated that we if continue our business-as-usual model of extractive agriculture, we can expect just 60 more years before we exhaust the world’s topsoil.

On top of soil depletion, heavy agrochemical use and contained animal feeding operations have dramatically degraded U.S. watersheds, contaminating rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands and ultimately creating toxic dead zones off our coasts.

The effects on public health are similarly stark. Globally, the U.N. estimates about 200,000 people die each year due to pesticide exposure. In the U.S., traces of glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup, which the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” is being found by the Food and Drug Administration in a wide array of everyday grocery items.

Industrial overproduction of commodities like corn, soy and wheat directly facilitate the explosion of diet-related illnesses like heart disease, diabetes and certain forms of cancer taking place in the U.S., where processed foods (composed primarily of these three crops) now constitute about half of the average American’s diet.

Moreover, industrial agriculture is anything but fair or just for farmworkers, farmers or consumers. The average U.S. farmworker makes somewhere between $10.60 and $12.47 per hour while enduring grueling physical labor, pesticide exposure, wage theft, job insecurity, and for women, rampant sexual harassment and assault.

The average U.S. farmer actually loses money every year, trapped in an economic cycle of chronic overproduction, which then drives down crop prices and requires farmers to take on massive debts to buy expensive inputs and equipment to further boost yields (which then only exacerbates overproduction, rebooting the cycle).

Overhauling the way we farm from an industrial model that seeks to extract as much short-term value as possible from land and labor in order to maximize agribusiness profits, to a regenerative model that aligns with ecological and ethical principles to benefit all life, would address all of these problems simultaneously.

Most obviously, regenerative agriculture is primarily defined by a set of farming practices designed to continually build healthy soils, not deplete them. Regenerative farming is predominantly organic, meaning it would vastly diminish (if not eliminate) the use of agrochemicals that are poisoning workers, consumers and watersheds. Regenerative practices lend themselves to smaller-scale, diversified production, increasing food nutrition and local access. Critically, that change in scale requires a democratization of farming as an occupation, providing millions of new good jobs growing food, caring for the land and revitalizing the U.S. landscape.

As Severine von Tscharner Fleming, a young regenerative farmer, agroecologist and organizer succinctly describes, “We are creating a balanced system that mimics nature, where nature is our measure … there is plenty of room for more people to get out on this landscape and the landscape is calling for those people.”

Paradigm Shift

This transformative vision for the future of agriculture is possible, but only within the context of a national paradigm shift with the full backing and resources of the state. We don’t have time for individual farmers to adopt regenerative practices on a case-by-case basis. The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is very clear: In order to keep the consequences of global warming from becoming irrevocably cataclysmic, we need to reduce emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050. That will be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, without converting our country’s nearly 1 billion acres of farmland into a deep carbon sink.

In short, we need a Green New Deal for farming. Much more work needs to be done to determine its details, but we can start to sketch its broad contours. Fundamentally, a national paradigm shift to regenerative agriculture will require two related structural transformations: 1) a breaking up of our huge input-intensive, carbon-emitting monocultures in favor of much smaller labor-intensive, carbon-sequestering farms; and 2) the deployment of millions of new farmers to manage these millions of new small and diverse farms.

A federal jobs guarantee will be essential. We could provide good-paying union jobs growing food and tending the land to millions of new farmers, who would need to be recruited, trained, equipped, and thoroughly supported to repopulate and remake the U.S. countryside.

College graduates and other young people could be offered a socially meaningful, personally rewarding career healing the land and feeding their communities, instead of being funneled into an alienating gig economy. The 42 percent of U.S. workers currently making less than $15 an hour could give themselves both a raise and fresh start by starting a small family farm or joining or forming a worker-owned cooperative, reclaiming agency in their work. People of color, immigrants and the rural poor whose labor has been historically exploited by the U.S. agricultural system for centuries could obtain the dignity and well-being that comes with a farm of one’s own.

While this new generation of farmers comes into being, a jobs guarantee will also help raise wages for up to 1.5 million existing farmworkers in the immediate-term by putting their employers in direct competition with the federal government. Since many of those employers will themselves be struggling farmers, we need to be prepared to make a just transition that retrains, re-equips, and fully supports conventional farmers to stay in their communities and continue to work the land within a new regenerative framework.

Accomplishing all this will require massive direct federal investments in ecologically informed technical training, modern hand tools, measurement devices, heavy equipment, distribution and sales infrastructure, and perhaps most importantly, farmland, which would need to be made widely available to new farmers.

Ensuring reliable, long-term land access is a critical piece of the puzzle that requires fresh thinking, given the extreme consolidation of land ownership in the U.S. and the inflated costs of buying land due to development-driven and financial speculation.

Agrarian Trust, a nonprofit committed to supporting land access for the next generation of farmers, is experimenting with community-controlled land commons to collectively and democratically own the land, while giving 99-year leases to regenerative farmers. This model prioritizes broader community involvement and investment in local farms, while giving farmers long-term land security and equity interests so that they can fully commit to restoring the land over many decades.

“What would it look like to have a commons of permanent organic farming?” Asks Fleming, who is also on the board of Agrarian Trust. “In France now they have a 6,000-acre commons, of permanently affordable, permanently organic farmland … and I think we need one here.”

Whether or not a land commons model could quickly and effectively be brought to a regional, state or national scale is an open and urgent question. It is likely that we will need multiple approaches to overcome the central challenge of land access, including a strong backstop of public land ownership, with long-term or lifelong leases that include equity-building opportunities given to new regenerative farmers.

The fact that the age of the average U.S. farmer is around 60 years old and that about 400 million acres of farmland are already expected to change hands in the next 20 years only reinforces the importance of getting this transition right.

While we need to ensure minimal barriers to entry for new farmers getting their hands dirty growing food and healing the land, we will also need to legislate new universal regenerative farming standards relative to a core set of priorities, including ecological restoration and resiliency, soil health, carbon sequestration, animal welfare and productivity.

In terms of policy, we need to flesh out this outline in far greater detail, proposing and debating policy mechanisms based on the best available data, models and thinking. Important work has already been started on this front, perhaps most notably by the Agroecology Research Collective, whose recommendations for policymakers provide a strong initial framework for thinking about the wide-scale implementation of regenerative farming as part of the Green New Deal.

In terms of politics, it is critical that as many people as possible understand and can advocate for the centrality of regenerative agriculture within the Green New Deal, so that it can actually live up to its promises of halting catastrophic warming, generating millions of good jobs and combating systemic injustices.

Winning Through Struggle

Of course, this will not be easy. Just like the push for 100 percent renewable energy has been ruthlessly combated by the fossil fuel industry, so too will a regenerative revolution be vehemently opposed by the giant agrochemical seed companies, commodity traders and corporate retailers that make billions from the industrial status quo.

We have two things in our favor: existential necessity and growing popularity for bold democratic socialist policies.

At the end of the day, our solutions to the climate crisis must match the demands of physics, in addition to politics. We have a very limited amount of time to radically change our society’s relationship with the Earth and with itself. Understanding that we can not only reduce but actually draw down massive amount of greenhouse gas emissions by changing the way we farm — while at the same time growing abundant food, jobs and justice — is both necessary and tremendously hopeful.

We have an enormous opportunity and moral responsibility to seize this moment and make the Green New Deal the defining political framework for decades to come. But as we wage this struggle, we need to make sure to remember the vast open lands that fill the spaces between our cities and communities. They will either be forgotten and neglected at our own extreme peril, or they will be revitalized and redeemed to the benefit of all.