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Can Biden Keep His Promise to Make Farms Climate Friendly?

The president-elect will have to overcome major obstacles, including some of his own advisers and campaign proposals.

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Joe Biden at the Polk County Democrats’ 2019 Steak Fry in Iowa

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.

For the Biden administration to tackle these problems and achieve the goal he laid out on the podcast, it will have to veer sharply away from the plans his campaign laid out. His agriculture policy, which appears primarily in his rural and climate plans, was influenced heavily by fellow Obama administration alum Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor who served as secretary of agriculture from 2009 to 2017. After Vilsack left that post, he immediately took a million-dollar salary lobbying for the dairy industry, and since the Iowa caucuses, he’s been moonlighting as Biden’s rural campaign adviser and surrogate. As a result, portions of Biden’s farm plans—particularly those that offer solutions to climate change—traffic in false solutions advanced by corporate interests. The premier example of this is ethanol, a climate and policy disaster that Democrats have nonetheless refused to renounce.   

This year, 30 million acres of corn—over a third of the U.S. corn crop—is expected to be refined into ethanol and blended into gasoline, as required by the EPA. And though using a plant-based fuel sounded like a good alternative to oil 20 years ago, scientists regard biofuel projects, including the “net zero” practice of harvesting forested land for fuel, to be a “catastrophic mistake” in climate accounting, in the words of Timothy Searchinger, a research scholar at Princeton University and senior fellow at the World Resources Institute. “Plants are so inefficient at meeting our energy needs. It takes a huge amount of land, and therefore sacrifices a huge amount of carbon,” he said. 

Yet in a failing effort to compete with Republicans in the Corn Belt, moderate Democrats insist on singing ethanol’s praises; in September, Biden even ripped Trump for being insufficiently pro-ethanol. If a Biden administration promotes biofuels over other programs, serious progress on agricultural emissions will be dead on arrival.  

Biden’s policy proposals include appending digesters to factory farms and making biogas out of their methane-heavy manure (which still emits carbon dioxide when burned)—a failing technology that accommodates rather than regulates the most pollutive farms. He backs the corporate campaign to create a market for carbon sequestered in farmland. “We could be spending billions of dollars paying farmers to do pretty much what they’re doing now, and the carbon sequestration benefits of that will be pretty minimal,” said Ken Cook, co-founder and president of the Environmental Working Group. Big Ag is smart enough to create excitement over solutions that never deliver—ethanol being one such boondoggle that haunts us today. There’s a gauntlet of others waiting down the line. 

Biden’s farm policy plans may seem bleak to climate hawks, but they were not a surprise, given concerns about who the president-elect might appoint as secretary of agriculture. Heidi Heitkamp, Trump’s rumored top choice for the job in 2016, has been the most talked-about candidate on Biden’s list. The one-term North Dakota senator has taken millions in corporate money, notably large handfuls from the oil and gas industry and agribusiness; she supported the Keystone Pipeline and Dakota Access Pipeline and fought to roll back farm regulations, overall earning an abysmal environmental rating from conservation groups. “Her background … should be disqualifying for her to run a major agency that has to help Biden achieve his climate goals,” said Kari Hammerschlag, the deputy director of the Food and Environment program and Friends of the Earth. 

For many climate and sustainable farm advocates (as well as the Congressional Black Caucus), the preferred choice for agriculture secretary is Marcia Fudge, a Black congresswoman representing Ohio’s 11th district in Cleveland and the subcommittee chair for nutrition and oversight on the House Agriculture Committee. Fudge could pivot the USDA’s focus from the agribusiness lobby toward the well-being of the broader public, dislodging a crucial roadblock to progress on climate through agriculture. She’s fought for smarter and increased investment in conservation before, which is what environmental advocates are prioritizing. “The only way that we are going to change the USDA is to bring in leadership that is not beholden to the corporate interests,” Hammerschlag said.  

Cook agrees that a nutrition and conservation advocate such as Fudge would improve the climate position in Farm Bill negotiations, which take place every five years and are the Olympics of farm policy, where deliberation on subsidies for crops, technology, conservation, and feeding programs all take place at once. During the negotiations, set to start back up in 2022, Republicans routinely attack access and funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in the name of minimizing federal spending. The offensive forces Democrats to spend limited political capital defending the vital program and relegating farm programs—where most of the climate opportunity is—to the back burner.

If Democrats could instead focus on farm policy, there are many ways to reduce emissions. For one, an audit of how USDA allocates its subsidies to farmers is badly needed. The government has spent $425 billion in farm support since 1995, with the portion going to conservation funding limited and broadly misused: Half of the funds from the Farm Bill’s most generous conservation grants essentially subsidize very polluting factory farms. A defunct antitrust office lets the major players consolidate and leverage their monopoly power—just four companies slaughter 74 percent of beef in the United States—and work exclusively with large, environmentally harmful operations.

The farm system has been transformed by deregulation and flouting of simple antitrust laws. As an enforcer, USDA and the EPA could substantially reverse these harmful trends, mitigating pollution on factory farms and halting the construction of new ones. USDA’s purchasing power and generous grantmaking gives it additional influence: Tens of billions are spent every year on school lunches and breakfasts, and the all-important SNAP program provides extra money for groceries to around 40 million Americans. All of these programs could be leveraged in the name of climate to dramatic effect. School districts all over the country have introduced food-purchasing requirements related to sustainability, local economies, and nutrition; these could be scaled nationally to rebuild a climate-friendly food chain. 

There’s another reason to be hopeful. As bad as the congressional elections were for Democrats, they removed an obstacle to progress on farm policy. Collin Peterson, a corporate darling of a Democrat who dutifully guarded subsidies for the sugar industry and others as chair of the House Ag Committee for the past 30 years, was toppled by a Republican challenger last week. Though that reduces Democrats’ House majority, it also means the party can install a new chair on that vital but under-the-radar committee. “Peterson has stood in the way of progress for many, many Farm Bill seasons,” Hammerschlag said. “It will be wonderful not to have him at the head [of House Ag].” Farm Bills run through this committee, a key checkpoint where, time and again, “a good idea will be stretched out of shape and turned into an income transfer that does nothing for the environment,” Cook warned. 

The two candidates in the running so far are marginal improvements on the corporate status quo. Georgia Representative David Scott, who has received Peterson’s endorsement, made a passionate appeal to the need to address rural economies, racial inequity, climate change, and food security in an announcement that he was seeking the position that his office posted last week. His chief competition is California Representative Jim Costa, a fellow moderate who would at least be better than Peterson.

Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, calls it “nonnegotiable” that a new USDA secretary “commit to taking every possible action to combat climate change on U.S. farms.” With bipartisan affinity for the status quo, it will take an explosion of public interest in agriculture policy to hope for sweeping change. Two Black leaders—Fudge and Scott—taking premier leadership positions as congresspeople from agricultural states but urban districts, and pledging to work for all of America, would be unprecedented—and far from “boring as hell.”