The Green New Deal and the Future of Farming

Written by Ashley Maiolatesi, student in the Food Law and Policy Clinic. Originally published on The Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group’s blog.

On April 18th , Harvard Law School hosted a panel entitled “The Green New Deal and the Future of Food,” with members of the law school and surrounding community were invited to listen to and discuss the options for our food system within Green New Deal discussions. Coordinated by Nate Rosenberg, an alumnus of the school and current visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law, the panel featured three outstanding individuals who have devoted their careers to fighting for equality within the food system. Among them were Peter Lehner, Connor Stedman, and Ladonna Redmond. Each of the three panelists approached food with a different lens, leading to a riveting conversation following their initial presentations.

Peter Lehner, creator of Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food and Farming Program and prior director of Natural Resources Defense Council, kicked off the talk by outlining industrial agriculture’s enormous effects on climate change and the gaping holes in U.S. environmental law that make change it difficult to affect change. He explained that agriculture dominates land use in the United States, with the industry taking up 80% of the countries water use and 62% of land use. Lehner further focused his discussion to the meat production sector of agriculture, which is very resource and emission heavy. He closed by speaking about the enormous impact simple dietary changes could have on stabilizing the world’s climate.

Connor Stedman next spoke about three paradigms of agricultural business modeling in order to add context to the role farming plays in the Green New Deal. The three main paradigms Stedman explained were extractive, conservative, and restorative. Currently, the vast majority of U.S. agriculture operates with an extractive model, where the goal is to gain as much value from natural resources as possible regardless of the potential or actual impacts. In the past several decades, smaller farms across the U.S. have begun to switch to a conservative or conservation model of farming—this model aims to reduce the damage caused by extraction, but only as much as is economically feasible. The goal of conservative farming is not to stop harm, but to minimize it to acceptable levels. The third and most novel approach to farming is restorative farming. This model aims to actively rebuild degraded natural capital while redressing forms of historical harm. Stedman also touched on the use of carbon farming, as agriculture is responsible for nine percent of total green-house gases. Carbon farming is a little-used technique that actually sequesters carbon into the ground. Even without moving to more radical carbon farming and implementing existing conversation practices, agricultural could move from a net carbon emitter to a net sequesterer—a huge step for the future of farming. Reaching these kinds of sweeping changes can be achieved through several means. Of them, Stedman spoke about direct regulation of economic activity, an incentive or market-based approach, or payment for verified services. The first, direct regulation, has been used successfully in mitigating other pollutants, such as chloroflorocarbons, the chemical responsible for depleting the ozone layer. An incentive based approach has been used in the Farm Bill. The third option, payment for verified services, involves measuring and documenting sequestered carbon and receiving a payment for the amount successfully captured. All of these options have advantages and disadvantages, but could lead farmers on the path of carbon farming. Stedman then focused on systemic change, discussing five big (or big-ish, as he would say) ideas to reshape policy. These ideas include fully funding the USDA’s National Resource Conservation Service, which currently has around half the funding that it would need to meet all of the requests it fields from farmers across the United States. In addition to funding this service, the mission should also change to include carbon farming and climate adaptation. Second on Stedman’s list is to scale eligibility for commodity crop subsidies and insurance in the Farm Bill in order to address conservation practices and climate impacts. Third, Stedman advocates for the creation of federal grants for climate or carbon adaptation. Fourth, Stedman spoke about property partition sales reform, which has roots in Jim Crow and Native American land management that led to a dramatic reduction in black farm ownership. Stedman conveyed an array of important ideas that created great fodder for later discussion and very likely later thought from many of the events’ attendees.

LaDonna Redmond closed the presentation portion of the evening with a powerful talk on the future of food and its ties to ending white supremacy. A founding member of the
National Black Food Justice Alliance, Redmond initially became interested in food and food justice due to lack of access to fresh and affordable food for her son in her hometown of Chicago. She spoke about the Green New Deal as a way to undo errors of the past, largely through land reform. Similar to Stedman’s discussion of the extraction model of farming, this model wasn’t only extractive for the land, but for Native Americans and African Americans working the land. Redmond explained that the extraction model was built in large part on free labor and free land, which means that in order to change the food system, we have to change not only systems of agriculture, but also the underlying systems of business in order to decolonize wealth. Redmond continued to lay out the history of America as it impacted farmers, touching on Native American removal, barriers to citizenship, the 1862 Homestead Act, the original New Deal, and others; all of these measures took people off the land in order to make way for extractive farming that continues to be harmful today. In discussing the Green New Deal today, Redmond cautioned that we have to be careful not to repeat mistakes of the past. The New Deal of the 1930’s didn’t include African American sharecroppers or address racism in the South, affectively leaving many out of the deal entirely. Subsequent policy has continued to fail to adequately address issues of housing, fair labor practices, and others in African American communities. The history Redmond recounted is one often overlooked and clearly left an impact on the audience.

Following the three speakers, the audience was eager to ask the panelists question. Members of the Cambridge and greater Boston area community, as well as students, were in attendance. Many of the questions centered around how to effectively push for sustainable change, a topic each speaker had clearly given much thought. Among their answers, the theme that reoccurred most often was conversation, coalition building, and trusting communities to make decisions. Overall, the Green New Deal has started a policy discussion that wasn’t happening before. Many groups have been considering how to bring diverse stakeholders together, especially those that have not traditionally rallied around the environment. Although many questions remain as to what the Green New Deal will look like, all three panelists gave an excellent glimpse into what a cohesive, inclusive plan could do for the future of farming and the future of the United States.

Watch the recording of The Green New Deal and the Future of Farming