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The Green New Deal Is Here. And It's Great for Food & Farming!

The Green New Deal (GND) has arrived! You can read the inspiring resolution here.

The GND is so good it speaks for itself. Among the several goals and projects deemed necessary to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, the GND includes:

(J) removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and reducing pollution, including by restoring natural ecosystems through proven low-tech solutions that increase soil carbon storage, such as preservation and afforestation

Now that we’ve passed the dangerous tipping point of 350 parts per million (ppm) carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (we’re at 410 ppm), we have to figure out a way to draw down that CO2—or we will continue to suffer the cascading impacts of global warming even after we’ve eliminated greenhouse gas emissions.

The safest and most effective way we have of doing this is to increase the carbon content of our soils in farmland, pasture land, forests, wetlands and coastal marine ecosystems. This can be done on working lands through regenerative organic agriculture techniques that increase fertility and control pests by replacing chemicals with management practices. These include holistic planned grazing, composting, no-till, cover cropping, diverse crop mixes and rotations, and the incorporation of crops that return nutrients and organic matter to the soil.

This is the piece of the puzzle that most climate activists and legislators are unaware of. That’s why it’s so important that this is included in the GND, and why we need to get Congress to support it!

But wait—there’s more! The GND also calls for:

(G) 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—
(i) by supporting family farming;
(ii) by investing in sustainable farming and land use practices that increase soil health; and
(iii) by building a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food

This is a plan for food and farming that could solve the economic crisis facing family farmers, the diet-driven health crisis, and the climate crisis—while also addressing the pollution and soil loss caused by industrial agriculture! 

‘Supporting family farming’

We’re encouraged that “supporting family farming” is at the center of the GND’s plan to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. 

With farm prices where they are now, family farms lose money with every bite of food we take. Thousands of farms are lost each year, and the situation is probably worse than reported. 

As 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. As the National Farmers Union describes it, a fair price is “a return of the cost of production plus an opportunity for reasonable profit.” (For more on what “supporting family farming” could mean, read Elizabeth Henderson’s “Why Sustainable Agriculture Should Support a Green New Deal.”)

In addition to the sections of the resolution that are specific to agriculture and land use, the GND contains a number of mechanisms that would be useful in the transition from greenhouse gas- polluting industrial agriculture to climate-beneficial regenerative organic food and farming.

‘Millions of jobs’

The GND aims “to create millions of good, high-wage jobs and ensure prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States.”

How many of these jobs will be in agriculture? Eliminating pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture means farming without fossil fuels on smaller farms that send food shorter distances. It means replacing off-farm inputs (pesticides, synthetic fertilizers) with management-intensive practices for fertility and pest-control. It means replacing patented seeds from companies like Monsanto with locally adapted seeds from local breeders. It means getting animals out of factory farms and onto pasture. It means trading massive gas-guzzling tractors for vehicles powered by on-farm electricity and biofuels. 

Each of these shifts will require more hands and, more importantly, more brains. Richard Heinberg estimates the shift might require as many as 50 million U.S. farmers.

Jobs, unionization & employment rights for all workers

The GND calls for treating workers right, including all workers in the food chain, by:

(H) guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States;
(I) strengthening and protecting the right of all workers to organize, unionize, and collectively bargain free of coercion, intimidation, and harassment;
(J) strengthening and enforcing labor, workplace health and safety, anti-discrimination, and wage and hour standards across all employers, industries, and sectors

It’s easy to see how this would make a difference for farm workers who are left out of many important labor protections enjoyed by most other workers in this country.

Did you know that the food system is our country’s largest—and worst—employer? According to the Food Chain Workers Alliance 2016 report:  

The U.S. food system has grown by 1.5 million more workers in the past five years and continues to be the largest employer in the country–employing a total of 21.5 million workers. That’s 14 percent, or 1 out of every 7 workers, of the nation’s workforce. At the same time, the U.S. food system is the worst employer in the country in terms of wages and working conditions, paying the lowest hourly median wage of $10. This leads to a higher rate of food insecurity for food workers compared to workers in all other industries. In fact, food workers use food stamps (SNAP benefits) at over the double the rate of all other US workers.

While most food system workers are U.S. born, a substantial number are immigrants, some of whom lack legal status. As Farm Aid reports:

Farmworker Justice estimates that 70-80 percent of farmworkers are immigrants (between half and three-quarters of whom are undocumented). The USDA however, has a slightly lower number, citing that about 60 percent of all agriculture workers are foreign born. These discrepancies speak to the veiled nature of the work, number of undocumented workers, and power inequities embedded in the industry. Crop production employs the most immigrants, as 85% of fruits and vegetables are harvested by hand.

Repairing ‘historic oppression’

The GND aims to: 

(E) to promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous communities, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth (referred to in this resolution as ‘‘frontline and vulnerable communities’’)

The “historic oppression” caused by the U.S. food system is well known. It begins with the Europeans’ theft of Western Hemisphere lands from Indigenous Nations and their enslavement of African Americans. As the Union of Concerned Scientists recently pointed out:  

The Europeans who colonized North America stole land from a tremendous diversity of peoples and communities, each with their own sophisticated understanding of how to grow food and manage landscapes that, with few exceptions, allowed them to provide for their needs without degrading the soils, rivers, and forests on which they depended.

Beginning in the 1600s, [destructive European-style agriculture] was powered by forced labor: first with indentured servants from Europe, then increasingly with the labor of enslaved African people. … Following the abolition of slavery in 1865, sharecropping kept profits flowing while prolonging the servitude of many formerly enslaved people. At the same time, the footprint of colonial agriculture spread west along with a flood of settlers, enabled by the violent displacement of indigenous people, and extending the footprint of destructive agricultural practices.

The U.S. has never compensated Native Americans or African Americans for these crimes, and the impact has only been exacerbated. As Leah Penniman writes in “Farming While Black” (you can read a free excerpt here):

About 24 million Americans live under food apartheid, in which it’s difficult to impossible to access affordable, healthy food. This trend is not race-neutral. White neighborhoods have an average of four times as many supermarkets as predominantly Black communities. This lack of access to nutritious food has dire consequences for our communities. Incidences of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease are on the rise in all populations, but the greatest increases have occurred among people of color, especially African Americans and Native Americans. 

Brutal racism—maiming, lynching, burning, deportation, economic violence, legal violence— ensured that our roots would not spread deeply and securely. In 1910, at the height of Black land ownership, 16 million acres of farmland—14 percent of the total—was owned and cultivated by Black families. Now less than 1 percent of farms are Black-owned.

Our Black ancestors were forced, tricked, and scared off land until 6.5 million of them migrated to the urban North in the largest migration in US history. This was no accident. Just as the US government sanctioned the slaughter of buffalo to drive Native Americans off their land, so did the United States Department of Agriculture and the Federal Housing Administration deny access to farm credit and other resources to any Black person who joined the NAACP, registered to vote, or signed any petition pertaining to civil rights. When Carver’s methods helped Black farmers be successful enough to pay off their debts, their white landlords responded by beating them almost to death, burning down their houses, and driving them off their land.

In her book, Penniman lists a number of policies the Northeast Farmers of Color Network has proposed to end racism in the food system. The policies serve five goals: 1) Real Food for Our People; 2) Dignity for Farm Workers; 3) Community-Based Farmer Training; 4) Economic Viability for Farmers; and 5) Reparations for Stolen Land and Wealth.

The GND resolution lays out a plan that has the potential to accomplish all of the these goals. But it’s success ultimately depends on us. Without a social movement to give it power and direction, the GND will fail. Please check out these actions you can take to help garner support for the GND.

Alexis Baden-Mayer is political director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). To keep up with OCA news and alerts, sign up for our newsletter.