The Green New Deal (GND) twin resolutions, introduced February 7, 2019, call for all Americans to have access to healthy food, clean water and clean air. The GND also proposes to provide “economic security,” jobs and good wages to all who want to participate in the new green economy.
For farmers, any promise of “economic security” must include the return to an economic agriculture model based on providing farmers a fair price for the products they produce—or as the agriculture industry calls it, “parity pricing.” Only then, will the GND fulfill its promise to clean up our food system, clean up our environment and provide a “fair and just transition for all communities and workers.”
How farm economics used to work
The three most basic priorities of any food system should be to:
• Grow health-promoting food for people
• Grow food through consistent, ecologically sound methods that use (and renew) limited earthly resources wisely, rather than squandering or depleting them
• Fairly compensate food growers and producers to assure their financial sustainability so they can continue to grow food and care for the land.
Farmers received fair prices for their crops, production was controlled to prevent costly surpluses, and consumer prices remained low and stable. At the same time, the number of new farmers increased, soil and water conservation practices expanded dramatically, and overall farm debt declined. What is even more important is that this parity program was not a burden to the taxpayers…by charging interest on its storable commodity loans, made nearly $13 million between 1933 and 1952.
Under this model, it was possible for farmers to:
• Calculate the costs of growing, for example, five bushels of wheat
• Extrapolate with slight margins for contingencies (like weather) how much wheat would be grown and required
• Determine a fair baseline price
• Manage surpluses and shortfalls
This was a better way to compensate farmers for excess production or shortfalls. Farmers could deposit into and manage stored surpluses during times of excess production, and the public could withdraw from those surpluses in times of scarcity. There is no real rationale for paying farmers less for shelf-stable foods simply because that food was grown during a period of high yields.
The long unwinding of the parity model
Unfortunately, beginning nearly 70 years ago, the agro-industry started disrupting this economic model. It began in the early 1950s, with a corporate takeover of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that resulted in government policies that promoted the use of toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers in agriculture, and the corporations that sell them. Over time, policy changes led to increased industry consolidation and the concentration of power—and profits—in the hands of a shrinking number of dominant corporations.
This shifting economic model creates an uneven playing field for many of today’s farmers who come from multi-generational farming families that passed down their farmlands to successive generations. Some of these descendants—people the public knows as “organic farmers”—carried forward the centuries-old farming traditions that the policy takeover of the 1950s sought to displace. Their long-established cultivation practices (along with many new regenerative practices innovated over the last 40 years) have a dual purpose: to raise the food and to tend the land.
Organic regenerative farming practices accord with both nature and common sense—because if you grow food without tending the land, you will ultimately degrade the land until it can no longer grow food. It only makes sense, then, that organic farmers should receive a fair price for the goods—and ecosystem services—they provide. Charles Walters, founder of Acres USA sums it up this way:
Bring back parity and farm organically—that’s the double recipe for bringing prosperity back to the farm.
For more on the history of parity price, read this article by organic dairy farmer Kevin Engelbert, or this interview with George Naylor, family farm advocate and past president of the National Family Farm Coalition.
How today’s system fails farmers
How exactly does the economic model of today’s industrial agriculture system predictably fail to deliver on the three baseline priorities of a healthy food system?
One of the most basic tenets of a sound business model is to cover costs and provide adequate returns. Investing returns back into a business produces steady and sustainable growth. Failure to cover costs and reinvest leads to corner cutting, products of lesser quality, diminishing returns and debt.
Instead of giving those who supply one of humankind’s most baseline needs—food—a fair and stable price for what they grow, based on the actual costs (supplies, equipment, labor, land acquisition and management, processing, shipping, taxes, and more) the industrial agricultural system takes an undue share of the profits and entraps growers into working harder and harder, and growing more and more for less and less.
Here’s what happens: If farmers grow too little wheat, wheat prices go up. If they grow too much, prices go down. Instead of basing prices on the costs of production, under today’s agriculture economic model, costs are pegged to output levels. In other words, farmers are punished for producing too much food, and rewarded for producing too little.
If the goal of farming is to feed people, and provide a decent living for food producers, this makes no sense.
Today’s agricultural economic model not only fails farmers, it fails consumers and the environment.
Today’s model a disaster for consumers and the environment, too
Today’s USDA policies keep healthy food less affordable than junk food. Despite exhortations to consume more fruits and vegetables, food deserts and higher costs force many people to subsist on nutrient-poor packaged junk foods, such as chips, canned food and soda.
The disparity and injustice of our two-tiered food system allows those of means to consume healthy fruits, vegetables and grass-fed meat, while those of lesser income must survive on repurposed corn and GMO soy products, and “cheap” meat produced on industrial factory farms, or Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), where animals are treated inhumanely, and fed GMO feed laced with antibiotics, growth hormones and other drugs, including some that have been banned from animal production.
In order to compete under today’s model, many farmers find themselves forced into the commodity system, growing monoculture crops like corn and soy which require the use of expensive and toxic pesticides and herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers—all of which pollute waterways, deplete soil organic matter and fertility, degrade the land’s ability to absorb and hold water, kill off biodiversity and contribute to global warming and desertification.
Green New Deal has potential to fix our broken farming system
A major feature of the proposed Green New Deal is the creation of a new energy economy, with new jobs. But the GND also promises the opportunity to shift to a new food and farming economy that would:
• Help farmers caught up in the existing system to transition to regenerative methods
• Facilitate the entrée of new, younger and more diverse populations into a more economically fair and rewarding model for food farming with mentorship from veteran farmers
• Scale up climate mitigation to meaningful levels more successfully than possible through any other means
• Increase the availability of healthy foods for all
By giving farmers a fair price through the GND, farmers will be recruited to the frontlines of the climate emergency—reinvesting in the land, rebuilding the soil, increasing biodiversity and growing varied types of crops, such as fruits and vegetables, and not merely commodity crops like corn and soy.
This is why numerous environmental, food and climate organizations support the inclusion of regenerative agriculture in the GND.
The GND outlines ambitious and much-needed climate goals. Those goals are attainable—but only if the final plan includes policies and programs that will promote a transition from our dominant degenerative industrial agriculture system toward an organic regenerative alternative that provides access to healthy food for all, while at the same ending farming-related soil, air and water pollution, and moving us toward net zero emissions by drawing down and sequestering carbon in healthy soil.
Above all, the GND’s promise of “economic security” for all must include fair prices for farmers who farm in ways that produce healthy food, heal the earth and cool the planet.