We Need a Green New Deal for Farmland
By Liz Carlisle
This opinion piece was originally published by Yes! Magazine on March 30, 2020.
As the coronavirus crisis has laid bare, the U.S. urgently needs a strategic plan for farmland. The very lands we need to ensure community food security and resilience in the face of crises like this pandemic and climate change are currently being paved over, planted to chemically raised feed grains for factory farm animals, and acquired by institutional investors and speculators. For far too long, the fate of farmlands has flown under the radar of public dialogue—but a powerful new proposal from think tank Data for Progress lays out how a national strategic plan for farmland could help boost economic recovery while putting the U.S. on a path to carbon neutrality.
The new Data For Progress memo builds on the Green New Deal resolution—a sweeping proposal to build out a carbon neutral economy, inspired by the package of Roosevelt administration social policy that lifted the United States out of the 1930s Depression and created the largest middle class in history. The Green New Deal, advocates say, would mobilize similar infrastructure and jobs programs, but with a focus on climate mitigation and resilience, and a more broadly construed focus on equity. (While the original New Deal met many goals expressed by organized labor, it failed to address racial inequality).
Yet this latest Data for Progress memo, published today, hearkens back several decades before Roosevelt's presidency. Reopening conversations that were front and center during Abraham Lincoln's time in the White House, the memo proposes one of the most promising strategies yet offered for meeting climate targets while building broad-based economic prosperity: a systematic national policy to facilitate land access for small farmers.
Lincoln’s Unfinished Business
Farmland ownership has not followed the path that President Lincoln envisioned, explains the memo's co-lead author Meleiza Figueroa, a Ph.D. candidate in geography at University of California, Berkeley and faculty-owner of the Birmingham-based Cooperative New School for Urban Studies and Environmental Justice. When Lincoln signed the Homestead Act in 1862, he promised small tracts of land to family farmers. Following emancipation, the Lincoln administration also promised "40 acres and a mule" to formerly enslaved Africans.
However, land speculators cheated from the beginning of the homestead era, gobbling up multiple claims under different names. And "40 acres and a mule" were never provided to emancipated slaves, as President Andrew Johnson rescinded the promise after Lincoln's assassination. Homestead claims trickled to a close in the early 1900s, and the federal government backed out of land policy, letting the market take its course. "When you look at the history of injustice in this country," Figueroa says, "it's all about land."
In the century-long absence of a coherent U.S. policy framework for farmland, Figueroa and her coauthors point out, several worrying trends have developed. For one, prime farmland has been paved over. According to the American Farmland Trust, 25.1 million acres of U.S. agricultural land—nearly the size of the state of Ohio—was converted to developed uses between 1982 and 2015.
Such land use change has significant climate implications. A 2012 University of California, Davis study that compared an acre of urban land to an acre of irrigated cropland found that the urban land generated 70 times as many greenhouse gas emissions. There's also an opportunity cost: Land-based carbon sequestration strategies like agroforestry and cover cropping can't be adopted if the land is under concrete.
Second, the memo points out, what farmland remains has become ever more concentrated in the hands of large farms and institutional investors. A mere 3.2% of U.S. farms account for 51% of the total value of the nation's agricultural production. Forty percent of U.S. farmland is rented, discouraging sustainable agricultural practices that require long-term management and secure land tenure. And farmers make up just 1.3% of the U.S. workforce.
"There's an assumption out there that this is just the forward march of progress," Figueroa says. " 'Who wants to be a farmer anymore?' Actually, a lot of people want to be farmers now—especially young people who are aware of the effects of climate change and also not satisfied by alienating office labor. Why not offer the opportunity for meaningful and gainful work that is beneficial to everybody, to people and planet?"
Racial Injustice Plays Out on the Land
The absence of a coherent U.S. land policy can be blamed for some of the current problems with farmland concentration, say the authors of the Data for Progress memo. But co-lead author Leah Penniman, founding co-director of Soul Fire Farm in Upstate New York, argues that the U.S. government has had a very influential de facto land policy over the past century, even if it wasn't articulated as such. "The very basis of U.S. land policy is rooted in the theft of land and the exclusion of people of color from land," Penniman explains. "This, of course, started with the genocidal stealing of almost the entire continent from the stewardship of Indigenous people … [and] throughout much of our history, there have been various state-level property ownership requirements that excluded people of color from being able to own property."
When people of color did amass property, Penniman says, they were targeted with violence.
"The Ku Klux Klan, the White Caps, and the White Citizens Council were responsible for lynching almost 4,500 people, many of whom were landowners, who they saw as having the audacity to get off the plantation and to want to stop sharecropping." The federal government also discriminated against black farmers through USDA programs, Penniman explains, resulting in a rapid decline of black farmers from 14% of the nation's farmers in 1910 to approximately 1% today.
Given that the average age of the American farmer is 57, and a significant share of the nation's farmland will soon change hands, Penniman and her co-authors argue, Americans have a short window of opportunity to rectify this unjust history while ensuring that farmland is conserved and that farmers have opportunities to combat climate change.
A Diverse Coalition for Reform
The diverse coalition mobilizing around these shifts to farm policy is notable: Contributors to the Data for Progress memo range from staffers at predominantly white farm state groups like National Family Farm Coalition and Family Farm Defenders to racial justice leaders like Penniman and Figueroa to academics focused on economic policy.
What these diverse constituencies share, the memo's authors explain, is that they've all gotten the short end of the stick of land consolidation and are struggling to survive. Ironically, many family farmers have accumulated significant land over the past generation or two but are less economically secure, as they've taken on debt to keep up with the treadmill of overproduction stimulated by current agriculture policy.
"We need to give current family farmers, who are mostly white, a lot of credit," Penniman says. "Nobody wants to be complicit in racism and in that kind of harm and exclusion. I think it's in our best interest as a nation not to pretend that we're all the same or that we all need the same policies, but to really look truthfully at what needs to change. And we've found that having these honest conversations in our communities often leads to common ground."
As for how to turn this common ground into policy change, the memo's authors outline a couple different pathways. The 'low hanging fruit' option, explains contributor Adam Calo, a researcher at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland, would be to expand three separate kinds of existing policies. For one, Calo believes, the U.S. should ramp up efforts to conserve farmland and protect it from development while limiting land investment by large corporations. Second, programs that incentivize farmers to use regenerative agricultural practices that combat climate change should be dramatically scaled up. The third and critical piece of this policy triad, Calo emphasizes, is equity: the U.S. must strengthen and enforce policies that ensure "Socially Disadvantaged Farmers" (the USDA's term for farmers subjected to racial discrimination) have equal access to all farm programs and particular set-asides to redress historic injustices.
More ambitious and transformative, the memo's authors suggest, would be to combine these objectives with a fully integrated land policy. Such a policy would include public land banks that could acquire land from retiring farmers and provide affordable access for farmers of color, new farmers, and farm cooperatives who pledged to use sustainable practices. It would also include a land commission, anchored by community-based institutions led by people of color, that would periodically assess that state of farmland access and make policy recommendations.
Good Stewardship at Scale
Figueroa is excited about these more far-reaching approaches, which she sees as opportunities to mobilize the underutilized climate response potential in Black and brown communities. "How many Oaxacan farmers are in apartment buildings right now?," Figueroa asks. "If you gave them land, they know what to do with it. It's not like they forgot what to do with it once they crossed the border."
But getting farmers on land isn't enough, Figueroa and her coauthors emphasize. A successful Green New Deal for farmland must help ecological farmers stay on the land—and thrive. Penniman points to the success of payment for ecosystem services policies like those in Costa Rica, where farmers are compensated for providing environmental benefits on behalf of society—benefits like maintaining pollinator habitat, preventing soil erosion, and sequestering carbon. We already have such programs in the U.S., including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program, but they are funded at much lower levels than other farm programs that predominantly support industrial agriculture.
Overhauling farm programs by shifting current subsidies to instead compensate farmers for climate-beneficial practices—and establishing public procurement and supply management—would allow current family farmers to earn more money on fewer acres. At the same time, it would enable farmers to produce more human food (rather than biofuels and feed grain for factory farms) and provide more public benefits (such as drawing down emissions and improving watershed health). Remaining and degraded acres no longer needed by these now much more viable farms could be transitioned into land banks like those envisioned by the Data for Progress team, offering a just transition for both existing family farmers and landless farmers looking to contribute to climate mitigation and community food security by stewarding land.
"It's a win-win," Figueroa says. "People who want to put their labor into agriculture and struggling farmers who want support can actually join together as a community."
Reposted with permission from YES! Magazine.
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By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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