A Green New Deal Must Offer Farmers a Way to Transition to Regenerative Agriculture

Mackenzie Feldman and John Ikerd February 7, 2020

Floodwaters surround a farm on March 22 near Craig, Mo. Many farmers in the Midwest were unable to plant crops last year because of the floods and Farm Aid’s hotline call volume increased 109% from 2017. Around 75% of the calls were because of natural disasters.

Last year, Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D‑Mass.) intro­duced a res­o­lu­tion to Con­gress call­ing for an ambi­tious re-imag­in­ing of the U.S. economy―one that would tack­le both cli­mate change and inequality.

Now with broad sup­port among demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls, the Green New Deal res­o­lu­tion high­lights the trans­for­ma­tion of ener­gy, trans­porta­tion, health care and employ­ment sys­tems in our coun­try, while briefly men­tion­ing food and agriculture. 

We believe, how­ev­er, that since agri­cul­ture is both a major con­trib­u­tor to cli­mate change and one of the key solu­tions, it should be a major part of the Green New Deal. In a new report by Data for Progress, titled Regen­er­a­tive Farm­ing and the Green New Deal,” we pro­pose address­ing cli­mate change, and the eco­nom­ic hard­ship faced by small farm­ers, by pro­vid­ing a sup­port­ive tran­si­tion from unhealthy soil prac­tices to regen­er­a­tive farm­ing systems.

Right now, soil health is declin­ing because inten­sive farm­ing prac­tices, includ­ing mono­cul­tures, deplete soil organ­ic mat­ter, destroy the bio­log­i­cal health of soil, and increase the soil’s vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to ero­sion. Con­cur­rent­ly, floods dis­perse prime top­soil from high­ly erodi­ble monocrop oper­a­tions while pes­ti­cides and com­mer­cial fer­til­iz­ers kill the ben­e­fi­cial insects and microor­gan­isms that cre­ate and sup­port healthy soils. 

As the land is being degrad­ed, farm­ers increas­ing­ly feel the effects of unsus­tain­able farm­ing prac­tices and cli­mate change. For exam­ple, many farm­ers in the Mid­west were unable to plant crops last year because of the floods. Farm debt has now reached lev­els not seen since 1980, and last year, Farm Aid’s hot­line call vol­ume increased 109% from 2017. Around 75% of the calls were because of nat­ur­al disasters. 

It is esti­mat­ed that the total cost of ero­sion from agri­cul­ture in the U.S. is as high as $44 bil­lion per year. But the fact is, soci­ety” is not the one being asked to make the tan­gi­ble change on the ground. The farm­ers are. In addi­tion, the eco­nom­ic ben­e­fit to farm­ers of ero­sion con­trol is far less than the costs of soil ero­sion to soci­ety. If we are to resolve this dilem­ma, we can­not rely on the moral soci­ety ver­sus self-inter­est­ed farmer argu­ment and assume that con­ven­tion­al farm­ers do not also feel a deep sense of respon­si­bil­i­ty to care for the land. To make trans­for­ma­tion­al change in farm poli­cies, we must make this change eco­nom­i­cal­ly fea­si­ble for farm­ers and assist them through the tran­si­tion by reward­ing farm­ers for eco­log­i­cal ser­vices and invest­ing in healthy soils train­ing for farmers.

The Data for Progress report argues that com­bat­ing soil ero­sion and restor­ing soil health through thought­ful and sus­tain­able farm­ing prac­tices can be eco­nom­i­cal­ly viable solu­tions to the cur­rent farm­ing mod­els. The top pro­pos­als include:

  • Tran­si­tion­ing from cur­rent crop insur­ance pro­grams, which incen­tivize unhealthy soil prac­tices, to basic farm income insur­ance pro­grams, which could make it eco­nom­i­cal­ly fea­si­ble for farm­ers to tran­si­tion to regen­er­a­tive farm­ing systems.

  • Train­ing and incen­tiviz­ing farm­ers to tran­si­tion to regen­er­a­tive farm­ing through pro­grams such as Con­ser­va­tion Stew­ard Pro­grams (CSP) and the USDA’s Nation­al Resource Con­ser­va­tion Ser­vice (NRCS), which teach­es farm­ers to build soil, sequester car­bon, and prac­tice regen­er­a­tive agriculture.

Right now, the gov­ern­ment incen­tivizes mono­cul­ture farms over diver­si­fied farm­ing sys­tems and active­ly does not sup­port farm­ers engaged, or who want to engage, in diver­si­fied farm­ing sys­tems. As a result, our cur­rent farm­ing meth­ods hurt soci­ety and cost Amer­i­cans their money. 

With­out prop­er train­ing, these farm­ers are not ade­quate­ly pre­pared to make the nec­es­sary changes. And by not pro­vid­ing edu­ca­tion, the U.S. gov­ern­ment direct­ly pre­vents pro­gres­sive farm­ing prac­tices in the areas that need it most. This lack of sup­port has con­se­quences: The per­va­sive soil ero­sion across the U.S. lim­its pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, kills microor­gan­isms, and costs Americans―especially farmers―their livelihoods.

Because we rely on our farm­ers to be on the fore­front of the fight to mit­i­gate cli­mate change, we need to find a way to make this change eco­nom­i­cal­ly fea­si­ble for farm­ers. That’s exact­ly what a Green New Deal should be all about.

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