Why Sustainable Agriculture Should Support A Green New Deal
Above Photo: Andrew Asper/Flickr
“For Sale” signs have replaced “Dairy of Distinction” on the last two dairy farms on the road I drive to town. The farm crisis of the 1980’s that never really went away has resurfaced with a vengeance. In 2013, aggregate farm earnings were half of what they were in 2012. Farm income has continued to decline ever since. The moment is ripe for the movement for a sustainable agriculture to address the root causes.
Just as in the 80’s, a brief period of high commodity prices and cheap credit in the 2010’s resulted in a debt and asset bubble. Then prices collapsed. Meanwhile, ever larger corporations have consolidated their dominance in the food sector resulting in shoppers paying more, and a shrinking portion of what they pay going to farmers. At first this mainly hit conventional farms, but in 2017, processors started limiting the amount of milk they purchased from organic dairies and cut the price paid below the cost of production. As a result, family-scale farms of all kinds are going out of business. Reports of farmer suicides are increasing dramatically. Despite the shortage of farm workers, their wages remain below the poverty line. People of color and women are often trapped in the lowest paying food system jobs and many are forced to survive on SNAP payments. The tariff game of #45 is only making things worse. The farm consolidation that has taken place has grave consequences for the environment and for climate change as well. The newly passed Farm Bill barely touches the structural and fairness issues that led to this on-going disaster for family-scale farms and the food security of this country.
An alliance of social movements and members of Congress led by newly elected Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) are proposing a Green New Deal that would initiate an emergency mobilization to address economic inequities and reverse our blind march toward catastrophic climate change, attracting much more attention than the Green Party version. In a draft resolution, Ocasio Cortez proposes the formation of a Select Committee to develop a plan to transition the US to a carbon neutral economy within ten years, together with a comprehensive package including guaranteed living wage jobs, public banks, and a “Just Transition” for all workers. As of this writing, 43 members of the House have signed on to the concept.
The sustainable agriculture movement with our many organizations and individuals – farmers, foodies, ngos, faith groups and enviros together with farmworkers, food chain workers and their advocates – should become active shapers of the food and agriculture aspects of the Green New Deal. Frontline communities that bear the brunt of the negative impacts of climate chaos and food and economic system breakdown often have the most penetrating insights into pathways forward and real solutions. For this reason, in addition to the ethical imperatives, fair representation of frontline communities at decision-making tables (of the Select Committee and beyond) is essential. As a white woman wanting to be the best ally I can, I hope to warmly encourage white people in the food movement to un-learn racism and use privilege to acknowledge and overcome our history of oppression.
What was the New Deal and What Did it Do for Agriculture?
Under tremendous pressure from the social movements in the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, “U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the New Deal—a set of government programs to provide employment and social security, reform tax policies and business practices, and stimulate the economy. It included the building of homes, hospitals, school, roads, dams and electrical grids. The New Deal put millions of people to work and created a new policy framework for American democracy. New Deal programs included public employment (Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps); farm price supports (Agricultural Adjustment Act); environmental restoration (reforestation and land conservation); labor rights (Wagner Act); minimum wages and standards (National Recovery Act and Fair Labor Standards Act); cooperative enterprises (Works Progress Administration support for self-help); public infrastructure development (TVA and rural electrification); subsidized basic necessities (food commodity programs and Federal Housing Act); construction of schools, parks, and housing (Civil Works Administration); and income maintenance (Social Security Act).”[i]
Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace fashioned the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), introducing supply management together with parity pricing, a national policy of price supports that functioned from 1933 – 53. In effect, parity provided a minimum wage for farms. In “A brief history of Parity Pricing and the present day ramifications of the abandonment of a Par Economy,” Kevin Engelbert, NY’s first certified organic dairy farmer, explains how it established “commodity prices that would give farmers the purchasing power, with respect to items they buy, equivalent to the purchasing power of agricultural commodities in a ‘base’ period.” [ii]
In “Crisis by Design: A Brief Review of US Farm Policy,” Mark Ritchie and Kevin Ristau describe the parity system in more detail:
The parity program had thee central features:
(1) It established the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), which made loans to farmers whenever prices offered by the food processors or grain corporations fell below the cost of production. This allowed farmers to hold their crops off the market, eventually forcing prices back up. Once prices returned to fair levels, farmers sold their crops and repaid the CCC with interest. By allowing farmers to control their marketing, the CCC loan program made it possible for them to receive a fair price from the marketplace without relying on subsidies.
(2) It regulated farm production in order to balance supply with demand, thereby preventing surpluses. Since government storage of surpluses was expensive, this feature was crucial to reducing government costs.
(3) It created a national grain reserve to prevent consumer prices from skyrocketing in times of drought or other natural disasters. When prices rose above a predetermined level, grain was released from government reserves onto the market, driving prices back down to normal levels.
From 1933 to 1953 this parity legislation remained in effect and was extremely successful. Farmers received fair prices for their crops, production was controlled to prevent costly surpluses, and consumer prices remained low and stable. At the same time, the number of new farmers increased, soil and water conservation practices expanded dramatically, and overall farm debt declined. What is even more important is that this parity program was not a burden to the taxpayers. The CCC, by charging interest on its storable commodity loans, made nearly $13 million between 1933 and 1952. [iii]
What Could a Green New Deal (GND) Do for Agriculture?
First of all, instead of current subsidies that purportedly compensate for constantly falling farm prices, but really only subsidize the big processors, vertically integrated livestock factories, and international traders, family-scale farms need a system of fair pricing, that is, prices that cover the real costs of living and farming, including conservation practices that regenerate natural resources. We need to dust off and refresh the concept of parity to create a just transition out of our calamitous current conditions. Twenty-first century parity should provide price supports and supply management for the basic commodities – “wheat, cotton, field corn, hogs, rice, tobacco, and milk and its products”[iv] – as described by Ritchie and Ristau, and reestablish farmer held reserves for grains as buffer stocks in case of poor harvests or climate disasters that also protect farmers against price volatility.
Parity pricing and supply management should also be extended to other crops, what Farm Bill language calls “specialty crops.” Since fruit and vegetables are perishable, the GND should invest in value-added enterprises that could be farmer or worker-owned coops in every county where these crops are grown. If excess supply of fresh produce threatened to lower prices, the fruit and vegetables would be frozen, canned or dried, or made into products that can be stored for use year round. Investing in local and regional processing would stimulate local economies and provide many jobs. The GND would return livestock onto family farms, in place of large-scale Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that have eliminated the need for diverse crop rotations. Family farm livestock production integrates crops and livestock for a much more flexible and resilient system that reduces the pressure for routine antibiotic use. This system also increases the biodiversity on these farms thus strengthening their economic viability adding opportunities for new farmers while improving the quality of the meat, milk, and eggs.
Next, farmers need contract reform. Farmers that sell to bigger entities need legislation to protect their rights to freedom of association so that they can form groups or cooperatives to strengthen their bargaining position in negotiating fair contracts without threat of retaliation. In addition, a limit must be set on the middlemen’s share of the final shopper dollar: if prices go up, middlemen must pay farmers more; if the prices processors pay to farmers go down, the final point of purchase price for shoppers should also go down. With control by mega-corporations an ever greater threat to family-scale farming, the GND must be linked with anti-trust measures like the Booker bill that calls for a moratorium on mergers (S.3404, The Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act of 2018).
All farmers should be eligible for GND programs whether they own land, rent it with cash payments or through share cropping.
The GND should include measures that are essential to establishing farm work as a respected and fairly remunerated profession. Ocasio-Cortez wants to guarantee living wages and green jobs – that must include the jobs on farms. Since farm worker advocates and department of labor staff agree that over 60% of farm workers on US crop farms are undocumented, immigration reform based on human rights needs to accompany the GND. Human rights based immigration reform would prevent the separation of families and include a path to legal status. Farm workers should have the option of a path to citizenship if they want to remain in the US or freedom to come and go across the border to visit their families back home.
Like farmers, farmworkers need freedom of association so that they can form groups or unions to negotiate fair pay and working conditions. If farms are guaranteed prices that cover their costs of production, farm earnings will be high enough to pay farm workers time and a half for overtime over 40 hours a week like workers in almost every other sector of the economy.
In writing about parity, Ritchie and Ristau make a very important additional point: “Paying farmers a fair price would result in a one-time increase in food prices of only 3 to 5 percent, less than a nickel on a loaf of bread. Since the supply management proposal also contains provisions for doubling the funds available for food assistance, the poor would not be hurt by this small increase in food prices.” [v]
Investment in Regenerative Farming Practices
To invest effectively in “drawdown” of greenhouse gases (GHG), the GND must include incentives and training for farmers to become the true managers of solar power that photosynthesis makes possible. The largest, and only remaining, “sink” for carbon on earth is the soil and regenerative farming practices increase soil carbon. The more fertile the soil, the more carbon it holds. The same practices that improve soil health, such as planting cover crops, recycling crop residues, and reducing tillage, the basic practices of organic agriculture grounded in agroecology, build soil carbon. In a win-win-win combination, building the health of soil improves farm viability, increasing farm resiliency to extreme weather events, and improving food quality and surrounding water quality.
Since 1/3 of the GHG emissions from agriculture come from the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers which are natural gas derivatives, farms under the GND will reestablish the importance of natural nitrogen creation by legumes and compost.
Confining cattle, hogs and poultry in huge structures turns manure from a valuable soil nutrient into a big storage problem, with lagoons that overflow during extreme rainfall events with large, negative environmental impacts. Ending the confinement of livestock will also lead to better manure management. Raising livestock on pasture turns manure back into a benefit. Especially when combined with skillful rotations, integrating livestock with crops builds soil carbon. Planting trees in pastures (silvoculture) builds carbon even faster. The GND should invest in training and incentives for farmers to make these changes in their practices. Farmers will be able to afford to farm more ecologically, if we push for the structural changes that will be part of the GND and will revitalize farms and rural areas.
The GND should preserve farmland and discourage sprawl. Research in California and New York led by UC Davis and American Farmland Trust show that the conversion of agricultural land to development, particularly low-density real estate development, increases GHG emissions. Farms emit fewer greenhouse gases than the homes that often replace them. Tax and other incentives can make preserved farmland available to new farmers.
The GND should also ban speculation on agricultural commodities and farmland since this drives up the price of land and food. Strict regulations should control investors who are not producers or final users. Food derivatives markets should not be used as investment vehicles by banks and investment funds.
A Just Transition for Farming
Ocasio Cortez calls for a “Just Transition” for all workers. In agriculture, a just transition would mean providing access to farmland to those from whom it has been unjustly taken, the reparations called for by farmers of color and Native Americans (http://www.soulfirefarm.org/support/reparations/).
Farmworkers should have the opportunity to become farmers. The GND should include training for farmworkers who have been trapped in repetitive, body-taxing jobs so that they can become farm managers themselves.
It should also include retraining for the farmers who now farm thousands of acres using heavy equipment, chemical fertilizers and pesticides to use regenerative practices with a buy-out scheme for CAFOs. Once these farmers give up the heavy use of chemicals, parity pricing and supply management will free them from needing so many acres for the economic viability of their farms. GND incentives could encourage them to sell excess land to new farmers and to retrained farm workers. Thousands of acres could become available for smaller scale farms and also for wildlife. Increasing the social diversity of farmers will at the same time promote biodiversity, since they will grow a greater variety of crops and livestock breeds, which also increases sustainability. As La Via Campesina and others note, small farmers cool the planet.[vi]
A Just Transition would provide incentives to farmers to reduce their production of bio-fuels that take land out of food production. Instead, farms could receive payment for other kinds of renewable energy production that makes use of marginal land, sun, wind and the heat of the earth.
With the goals of food, fiber and energy self-sufficiency and the elimination of hunger at the local, regional, or national level, farmers should be weaned from the current focus on an export economy. Thus, changes in trade policies will also have to accompany the GND.
Why Sustainable Agriculture Should Participate in Creating a Green New Deal
Everyone eats. To “eliminate poverty in the United States and to make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone participating in the transformation,” as called for in the draft resolution for the GND, means that everyone will have access to good food, fair food, food they can afford without impoverishing themselves or the world’s farmers. That has to be part of the GND. For the food system to be sustainable, we must balance the interests of farmers and farmworkers while constantly expanding access to local high quality organic foods for more and more people of all income levels, comprehensive domestic fair trade by definition.
When the 17% of all workers who are food workers earn living wages of $15 an hour or more, they will get off food stamps (a savings for tax payers) and be able to afford to buy high quality, locally grown food from their own earnings. The billions of dollars that currently go into subsidizing crop insurance could be reallocated to increase funding for SNAP and other nutrition programs so that low-income people can afford the higher prices that would be needed to fully cover farm production costs for fair, regenerative, ecological practices.
A recent article by Whitney Webb, “Corporations see a Different Kind of “Green” in Ocasio Cortez’s Green New Deal,” [vii] accuses the newly elected Representative of moving to the right and opening the door for corporate takeover: “Despite its pretty, progressive-sounding banner, Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal — in its current form — will continue to perpetuate gross distributive injustice by ensuring that the side with the most “green” keeps winning as the world continues to seek solutions to climate change.” This will only happen if social movements like the sustainable agriculture movement hang back and allow neo-liberalism which is dominant in both mainstream parties, to continue the cheap food policies that have put farms in crisis.
In “The Green New Deal: Fulcrum for the farm and food justice movement?” Eric Holt-Gimenez writes: “Social movements have an opportunity to join together as never before—not just to get behind the Green New Deal—but to form a broad-based, multi-racial, working class movement to build political power. Visionary leaders from these movements are already knitting together strategies for solidarity, education and action…The Green New Deal just might be the fulcrum upon which the farm, food and climate movements can pivot our society towards the just transition we all urgently need and desire.”[viii]
By not merely endorsing the Green New Deal, but insisting on a place at the table when the program is written, the sustainable and organic agriculture movement will open the path to the ecological, equitable and fair food system we dream about. And while we are in visionary mode, funding for the GND could come from taxing polluters.
[i] 12 Reasons Labor Should Demand a Green New Deal by Jeremy Brecher and Joe Uehlein, In These Times. Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018, 6:20 pm.
[ii] Kevin Engelbert, “A brief history of Parity Pricing and the present day ramifications of the abandonment of a Par Economy” https://www.cornucopia.org/2013/01/a-brief-history-of-parity-pricing-and-the-present-day-ramifications-of-the-abandonment-of-a-par-economy/
[iii] CRISIS BY DESIGN: A BRIEF REVIEW OF U.S. FARM POLICY Mark Ritchie & Kevin Ristau, League of Rural Voters Education Project 1987, pp. 2 – 3. Also see “Parity and Profits” by Charles Walters. Posted on July 30, 2001 on Weston C. Price website. Remarks of Charles Walters, Executive Editor, Acres USA Given at the Acres USA Conference December 1999, Minneapolis, MN
[iv] P. 8,The Agricultural Adjustment Act, PUBLIC—No. 10—73D CONGRESS, H.R. 3835
[v] Ritchie and Ristau, op. cit., p. 14.Food First, 12.17.2018: https://foodfirst.org/the-green-new-deal-fulcrum-for-the-food-justice-movement/