Is carbon farming the most economically viable way to keep climate catastrophe at bay?
A year ago, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez worked as a bartender in Queens. Now the 29-year old is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, the Democrats’ biggest rising star since Barack Obama. She has pushed a decade-old idea called the Green New Deal to the political fore, which has major implications for the food system.
The overarching goal of the Green New Deal is to develop a carbon-neutral economy. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not coal-fired power plants and automobile tailpipes that emit the majority of greenhouse gases; it’s food production. Tillage, synthetic fertilizer and the manure lagoons of industrial livestock operations emit copious quantities of carbon into the atmosphere. However, agriculture also holds great potential to pull carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in soil and plants, just as natural forests and grasslands do. There are proven techniques to do this, collectively known as carbon farming, though it would take massive government incentives to redesign our agricultural system to become a net absorber of carbon. But there is a growing consensus that, compared to the investments required to transition to 100 percent renewable energy, electric vehicles and the like, an agricultural approach might actually be the fastest, cheapest and most practical way to dial down carbon emissions before it’s too late.
Another goal of the Green New Deal is to create millions of green-collar jobs by incentivizing the sort of economic activity that will put less carbon into the atmosphere instead of more. This means a lot more people working in agriculture. Carbon-friendly farming is, by nature, more labor intensive. It looks less like one guy managing 1,000 acres of corn and soybean on a tractor and more like a patchwork of small, diverse farms where a tightly managed integration of livestock, perennial forages and tree crops is maintained. One possible scenario is a green youth corps that subsidizes young people to spend time working in agriculture after graduation before moving into the broader workforce.
A third tenet of the Green New Deal is social equity. The idea is to not only create a carbon-neutral economy but also address issues of economic and racial justice in the process. In the food arena, this means devising a system where it’s not just the Whole Foods set who has access to low-carbon food. To a large extent, carbon farming practices overlap with other aspects of sustainable agriculture, which generally produces food that is more nutritious but also more expensive. The vision of the Green New Deal is to scale up those forms of agriculture and let carbon-spewing forms of agriculture fall by the wayside so that healthy, responsibly produced food isn’t just a niche trend but standard fare in every grocery store and restaurant, thereby eliminating the price differential.