The president-elect will have to overcome major obstacles, including some of his own advisers and campaign proposals.
Last month, when asked on Pod Save America to name three or four things atop his first-term agenda, Joe Biden mentioned a surprising topic: farm policy. “I know it’s boring as hell, but it’s consequential,” he said, adding that agriculture could be “the first net-zero industry in America” when it comes to carbon emissions. The president-elect is right—it could be. But that would require Biden and the Democrats to commit to that goal and to pick leaders who will guide agriculture policy away from the pro-corporate swamp it has been stuck in for years. It’s far from clear they have the vision to do that.
If the country is serious about reducing carbon emissions, farm policy must play an essential role. As a recent blockbuster study in Science made clear, even if we had the zero-emissions energy grid of our fantasies, greenhouse gases expelled during food production would still warm the planet past two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the Paris Agreement goal. Livestock—mostly cows—belch a lot of methane, and manure emits noxious greenhouse gases. Fertilizers and other crop chemicals require copious fossil fuels to produce, and when they get overused, nitrogen suffocates waterways and pumps the atmosphere with nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.