In an unprecedented media event spanning seven hours of CNN airtime, 10 of the leading Democratic presidential candidates last night answered questions one by one from journalists and engaged citizens about how they, as president, would tackle the climate crisis. The candidates, all 10 of whom will also be appearing in the next debate, each spent about 40 minutes at the front of a small room with a modest crowd in conversation with a CNN host, taking questions from workers and advocates in the room and from people conferenced in from around the world via video. While the town hall-style conversation mostly discussed plans to power the electric grid sustainably and address climate-fueled disasters, politicians also had the opportunity to discuss their proposals to feed humanity sustainably.
Last month, a landmark report from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made clear that without a revolutionary transition in humanity’s approaches to land use and agriculture, it will be impossible to avoid the 1.5 degree Celsius warming benchmark outlined by the Paris Agreement. And although climate change has become a top issue in the campaign already, the Democratic Party declined to include a climate-focused debate as part of the 2020 presidential primary. This led to CNN’s seven-hour marathon of climate policies last night, as well as a two-night climate forum on MSNBC later this month.
In recent weeks, most candidates have released climate plans of varying scope and detail, many of which address the role of farming and agriculture. But during this climate town hall, candidates discussed issues that have spent much less time in the spotlight: the role of our diet in health and greenhouse gas emissions, how farmers might sequester carbon, and how Big Ag might be held accountable. It was a rare moment that food and farm policy was discussed on the national stage in significant detail. Below are the food and ag highlights from each candidate’s time.
Farming and food didn’t come up directly in Castro’s session, but Iowa did. He brought up a former appliance manufacturer that was now building wind turbines as a way of highlighting Iowa’s investments in wind and solar. Given the agriculture-related emissions that share soil with those turbines—85 percent of Iowa is farmland—food was a clear elephant in the room.
He was asked directly how he would hold polluters accountable, and which corporations he was referring to. Castro pledged to appoint EPA officials committed to enforcement of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, but declined to name corporations, or even types of corporations, that might be polluting the planet.
Castro also brought up his plan for animal welfare and protection, although it was solely in the context of endangered wildlife; his full plan also outlines strict regulation of minimum animal welfare standards and greater transparency for factory farms.
In the early minutes of the marathon event, Andrew Yang fielded a direct question from a native Iowan: “What is your plan to protect farming communities in the Midwest while at the same time addressing how our food systems contribute to climate change?” Yang responded, “We need to help farmers modernize their land use in terms of their environmental impact,” offering “economic incentives and resources” to do so. “Right now, all the mom and pop farms are getting gobbled up by these conglomerates,” Yang said, describing “automated tractors as far as the eye can see.” “If you are farming in a sustainable way,” Yang promised, “we can actually make family businesses possible by supporting a food ecosystem that supports farm-to-table dining.”
CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Yang if Americans should eat less beef, given its hefty contribution to climate change, which prompted Yang to discuss the bigger picture: “It would be healthy for us on an individual and societal level for us to move in [a vegetarian] direction,” he said, but “you can’t force people’s choices on them, all you can do is try and shape our system so that over time we evolve in a productive way.”
Noting that livestock accounts for nearly 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, CNN’s Erin Burnett asked Kamala Harris if, as president, she would amend the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines to discourage the consumption of red meat, given that it’s also implicated in diet-related health problems. Harris answered in the affirmative, saying, “We have to have a priority at the highest level of government around what we eat and healthy eating, because we have a problem in America.” She also added, referring to the fact that diet-related disease kills more Americans than anything else, that “We could talk about the amount of sugar in everything, we could talk about soda, we could go on and on.” (She did add, “I love cheeseburgers from time to time, I just do.”)
Harris made promises that went beyond just amending the Dietary Guidelines, a shift that would be significant in itself. She also advocated for a healthy food policy that “creat[es] incentives that we will eat in a healthy way, that we will encourage moderation, and that we will be educated about the effect of our eating habits on the environment.” She also proposed a food label that includes its health and environmental impact. Her website and policy proposals to date have made no mention of such a policy.
As a senator from a heavily agricultural state, a climate activist in CNN’s audience bluntly asked Amy Klobuchar if she would stand up to beef and dairy interests in order to combat climate change, noting the role that livestock and animal feed production has played in deforesting the Amazon and the ongoing wildfires there. Klobuchar pivoted to global issues, emphasizing that rejoining the Paris Agreements would “make a difference in putting pressure” on other governments, emphasizing that “everything is interrelated. There’s a reason we have subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa that are migrating as refugees. This is all one big ecosystem we have to deal with.”
She took the opportunity to nod to American farmers as a possible solution to climate problems through conservation programs, specifically the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Instead of saying she’d take on agribusiness as the questioner hoped she would, she discussed how government might help farmers take responsibility for mitigating climate change.
When asked about whether or not she would amend USDA Dietary Guidelines as Harris pledged, she answered, “I would do what the science tells us. We all know there’s an issue with obesity in this country, and I’ve been a strong supporter of calories on [restaurant] menus, so people can make decisions on their own.”
When pressed about the Guidelines specifically, she said, “I think you can look at that, of course,” and then directed the conversation to other places America needs to decarbonize—transit, energy, and buildings.
Food and agriculture didn’t come up during Joe Biden’s town hall, which instead focused on a controversial fundraiser with apparent fossil fuel interests scheduled for September 5, among other non-agricultural topics.
“We’re going to end factory farming, because it’s a danger to the environment,” Bernie Sanders told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “We’re going to put money into protecting family-based agriculture, where instead of having food products transported all over the world, as much as we can, you can get it locally.”
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was asked whether it was okay for government to tell Americans what light bulbs they should be able to use—she scoffed. “This is exactly what the fossil fuel industry hopes we’re all talking about,” she told the crowd, and noted that fear-mongering about “lightbulbs, straws, and cheeseburgers” distracts from the corruption that is most responsible for driving the climate crisis.
An oyster farmer asked her what role oceans could have in a Green New Deal (which she supports), saying that given that the ocean holds 25 percent of the world’s carbon and acidification is disastrous, a “Blue New Deal” is in order, too. Warren didn’t offer specifics on oceans, but discussed the way that global warming is heavily disturbing fisheries.
The veteran and mayor got a question from a dairy farmer describing the environmental and economic hardship faced by Midwestern dairies. Buttigieg lamented that climatic and economic forces threatened American farmers’ “entire way of life,” saying, “uncertainty is one of the biggest enemies that a farmer has, and we’re adding a lot [more] of it with climate change.”
He turned that around to emphasize that those rural communities and farmers could be “a huge part of the solution.” He focused on the idea of a “net zero emissions cattle farm,” calling it “one of the most exciting things we might undertake as a country.” He said that the problem wasn’t a scientific one, but economic—but then proposed USDA investment in research and development along with conservation programs.
“There is the potential of our soil to take in as much carbon as our transportation sector puts out,” Buttigieg said. “We’ve got to unlock that.” He re-emphasized that “green agriculture” could be a source of American pride just as “as a country, we are rightly proud of Norman Borlaug, and the Green Revolution that fed a billion people.” And he said, “Imagine what it would mean if a net zero emissions cattle farm were as big a symbol of American achievement in fighting the climate crisis as an electric vehicle.”
After receiving a question about the negative environmental impacts of corn-based ethanol ( which Buttigieg supports), he turned reticent, and said a carbon tax would steer economic activity into renewable directions.
Buttigieg was also asked to address the fact that Americans may have to eat less beef to make adjustments in land use, which he rejected as an “easy Republican talking point” and responded that a carbon tax to reset “economic signals” would help markets “bring it into balance.”
In response to a general question about Trump’s regulatory rollbacks, former U.S. Representative O’Rourke vowed to “put farmers in the drivers seat” and “pay them for the environmental services that they want to provide.” “[Farmers] want to lead the way. They just need a government that reflects that,” he said. He continued by decrying the current administration’s trade war, which he said has taken soy markets from American farmers and resulted in deforestation of the Amazon. “We must be an international leader on these issues.”
CNN’s Don Lemon offered O’Rourke a question about cattle ranching, pointing out that “to grow one pound of beef, it takes 20 times the land and creates 20 times the carbon pollution as one pound of plant protein,” asking, “Can [Americans] have their steak and eat it too?”
“What we eat, what we consume, how we live, is all going to have to reflect the true cost of carbon and climate change and pollution,” O’Rourke said. “And I’m confident that those ranchers . . . are going to be able to meet the targets that we set. I believe in the ingenuity of the American rancher and farmer.”
“I reject any notion that we have to radically or fundamentally change how we eat or what we eat, I think we just have to be more responsible in the way that we do it,” O’Rourke declared, adding his view that setting a price on carbon could accomplish this.
A native Iowan asked Cory Booker how he would support agriculture-dependent Iowans in a green economy that might leave them behind. “I’ve already put in legislation to help farmers and ranchers,” he began, going on to condemn “corporate consolidation” and “the monopolization of our society, which must be stopped.” This doesn’t just hurt independent farmers, Booker said, “it also has powerful impacts on our climate.” “We have to understand that farmers are a necessary, indispensable part of the solution,” Booker said, referring to conservation programs and wind power in Iowa.
Booker’s veganism prompted a question about whether or not his dietary choices would be foisted on the American people should he become president. He said he doesn’t want to take anyone’s hamburgers away, condemning such “lies and fear-mongering.” He launched into how industrial agriculture begets environmental injustice from both farming and food: “Farming practices are becoming so perverse,” he said, “farmers are living like sharecroppers, deeply in debt.”
Booker specifically called out Smithfield, which was purchased by the Chinese meat process WH Group in 2013, when describing in detail how pig feces from CAFOs contribute to horrible air conditions, poor health, and asthma in Black communities in rural North Carolina. “There’s not a person in our country seeing that misery that wants to take part in that,” he said, but “thanks to the corporate lobbying … we’re incentivizing those kinds of farm practices … I’m not going to be the President that’s giving tax breaks to people who are polluting folks, causing cancers, destroying our environment as well,” adding that freedom is a central American value and “whatever you want to eat, go ahead and eat it.”
Booker described the “low-income, Black-and-brown neighborhood” he lives in, where “we don’t have access to fresh and healthy food,” arguing that fast food corporations like McDonald’s “will press their workers … not pay them living wages, feeding them things that are making them ill—that is not a healthy food system.”
“When we talk about healthcare, let’s not just talk about doctors and nurses—let’s talk about healthy food systems, and the toxins that are in our community,” he continued.
“I will always be about the freedom to eat what you want,” Booker told the audience at the end of his time. “But we have to make sure our government is not subsidizing the things that us sick and unhealthy and hurt our environment.”
Read more about all the 2020 presidential candidates’ positions on food and agriculture in Civil Eats’ regularly updated tracker