A Green New Deal for global agriculture could accomplish carbon neutrality

In a recent THE WEEK article Ryan Cooper argues that, “A Green New Deal for cars would be easier than you think.”

Electric cars and buses are now cost-competitive, and they are getting cheaper and better every month. Cooper says that “China has been building them like crazy.” Much of the technology and infrastructure already exists, but to get the job done fast, government needs to heavily subsidize electric vehicles and/or tax gas and diesel ones, just like Norway.

For agriculture a focus on soil carbon pulls planet-warming gases out of the atmosphere while also reducing the need for fertilizer and providing other ecological benefits. Farmers could implement a win-win set of measures, if they receive the incentives. Farmers and food companies could be heroes on climate.

This is a big deal. Only rapid societal reorganization will keep global temperatures within the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold that is the conservative safety-conscious goal.

The agriculture system would need to focus on building soil organic matter as a centerpiece, along with energy efficiencies and preserving forests and grasslands. Farming would NOT need to shift to only small organic farms, and consumers would NOT need to quit eating meat. Farmers would only need to do what many already want to do. Iowa farmer Jeremy Gustafson reduced his GHG emissions to two-thirds of the state average by using an oats and legume cover crop between corn and soybeans, but he told a recent group of food company representatives that he couldn’t afford to take the risk on all his acreage. Just as with transportation, a widescale shift to soil-building practices will require public investment in transition costs and market pull for rotation crops.

Companies can play a role, beginning with ambitious goals for their own supply chains and partnering with one another and government to achieve those goals. Unfortunately, most companies focus ONLY on their own supply chains and ONLY on pushing practices for those specific crops. That’s not enough. Farmers don’t produce single crops; they produce multiple products, and shifts in farming systems require incentives for whole farming systems. Agriculture faces a leadership vacuum at the level of impacts of the whole system.

Think of the US Midwest Corn Belt, or the grain belts in Argentina, Ukraine or Australia. All of these systems are highly productive and efficient within the metrics of an old paradigm: production per cost of inputs with relatively predictable weather. To produce good yields into the future, farmers are now going to need soils that hold more moisture and fertility. Higher temperatures and volatile rainfall are unavoidable.

Fortunately, weather resilient farming is also ecologically beneficial. For example, when soils contain more organic matter from complex rotations, farmers need to apply less fertilizer, and water quality improves. Also, because high-organic-matter soil holds more water, less irrigation in dry regions leads to healthier aquifers and less energy needed for pumping water.

Who are the leaders to analyze and adjust the whole system? Even if some corporate VPs have carbon sequestration in scope of their jobs, they only focus on their own raw materials. Who focuses on the whole Corn Belt or all of the wheat/barley/canola rotation of New South Wales? Those systems desperately need soil building rotations. Period. Simple as that. We know the best varieties of cover crops, small grains and legumes. We know what sort of technical assistance and peer learning best support farmers. We know that farmers can’t bear the costs and risks alone. We don’t yet have leadership with enough influence to pull together the necessary market and public incentives for farmers to shift.

That’s the leadership charge. The clock is ticking. Companies and government are both needed.

Collaboration on climate change is not a new idea. France and Australia have made public commitments. Many companies have their own commitments. Key players at the World Economic Forum and the COP gatherings have developed coalitions.

Agriculture is still marginal in these fora, although interest is growing. California and France have launched a Global Soil Heath Challenge, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has a Global Soil Partnership.

The moment is ripe for more cross-sector commitments to keep and build carbon in soil, trees and grasslands while supporting the viability of farming. This would be a Green New Deal for agriculture, operationalized in each key farming system around the world. We know how. We need courageous leadership to get it done.

-This reflection was written in collaboration by the Sustainable Food Lab team.

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