Taking Stock And Looking Forward: Climate and Animal Agriculture | Civil Eats

Taking Stock And Looking Forward: Climate and Animal Agriculture

Jonathan Foley and Chellie Pingree on the political and policy solutions needed to address the role of food and farming in the climate crisis.

A farmer stands in his flooded maize field with rubber boots. Extreme weather such as torrential rain, causing more and more crop failures.

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As 2021 comes to an end, we take stock of another momentous year that marked massive upheavals in the food system and across society. To lead us into 2022, we asked some of the leading thinkers and doers working on the frontlines of food, justice, and climate to share their thoughts with us about the most pressing issues, what they’ll be working toward in the new year, and what propels them to keep going.

Today, we hear from Jonathan Foley and Chellie Pingree about the political and policy solutions that are needed to begin to address role of food and farming in the climate crisis.

Jonathan Foley, Executive Director, Project Drawdown

What significant challenges facing food, farming, and climate need to be addressed in 2022?

Jonathan Foley headshot

I think we have to stop playing around the margins. At the end of the day, the biggest aspects of the food system that release greenhouse gases are still, and have been for years: deforestation, methane emissions—largely from livestock—and nitrous oxide from too much fertilizer. And all of these are significantly tied to our current meat production systems.

We have to talk about animal agriculture, we have to talk about food waste, we have to rethink a lot of these systems. And I don’t think we’re having that conversation, honestly. We’re talking about maybe a little less beef and some plant-based burgers, and that’s nice, but it’s not enough. We talk a little bit about food waste, yet the numbers haven’t budged very much at all. We talk about industrial ag and the feedlot systems we have today, but they haven’t changed very much. This is as important as renewable energy and more important than electric cars, from a climate perspective. Not to mention what the food system does to biodiversity, water, and what it’s doing to people all over the world. We need a better system, and we have needed it for a long time.

What do you propose to help move things from the margins to the forefront?

At the U.S. level, we seem to have some real difficulty putting agriculture to the same standard of performance from a climate perspective as we do our electrical grids and our cars. Somehow, we privilege Big Ag each and every time and allow them to make changes that are voluntary or pilot projects—things that feel good but are missing the big opportunities, and that worries me a lot.

Also, I worry about the cover that we give ourselves by calling something “net zero,” instead of actual zero. We can’t just create carbon sinks to get out of this. There’s not enough soil, there aren’t enough trees on the planet to absorb all the emissions that we’re going to have in the meantime. We literally have to cut emissions; that is 95 percent of what we need to do. And in ag, that’s going to mean [producing] a lot less meat, especially beef. And it’s going to be really hard on countries that continue reckless deforestation, like Brazil or Indonesia.

I’d like to know: Where is the U.S. in pressuring Brazil and Indonesia on deforestation? Where’s the E.U.? The U.K.? China? One or two big economic powerhouses could stop deforestation in the Amazon. The opportunities are huge, but it’s the lack of spine in the political world that’s causing this stuff to keep getting kicked down the road.

On the other side of that equation, where do you see some progress happening?

Overall, I’m a fairly optimistic guy. We’re making rapid progress in the electricity sector, we’re making pretty good progress in transportation, and some in industry. But in food and ag, it feels like we’re sliding backwards. We’re getting distracted by boutique things like regenerative ag, which hasn’t really shown if it’s really a carbon sink or how widely applicable it could be. It might be helpful, but in the meantime, we know cutting food waste and reducing beef consumption work. Regenerative ag might be a second-order benefit. We’ll need it all. And yes, plant-based burgers, and maybe cultured meat, might help a bit, but they’re still far off from scaling to the size of the problem we’re addressing.

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What would help more people understand how urgent your work is?

Anybody who thinks they’re a climate activist should spend a few minutes looking at a pie chart, showing where the greenhouse gas emissions actually come from. They’d be shocked to find out that food and agriculture is about a quarter of emissions, and it’s about equal to all the electricity produced in the world. Most people have no idea.

The second thing is the speed that we need. Almost all credible estimates of what we need to do to keep below 2 degrees of warming, or 1.5, if we’re really lucky, say that we basically have to cut emissions in half in the next 10 years. The clock is running, and we need solutions that can turn off emissions today. We need an emergency brake.

Food waste would still be the biggest lever, shifting our diets the second. Carbon removal schemes, whether it’s a machine that doesn’t even exist today, or planting trees or rebuilding soil, we’re going need all of that—but what have we got that can really dramatically cut global emissions right bloody now? The longer we wait, the harsher that transition will to be.

Chellie Pingree, U.S. Representative (D-Maine)

What do you see as our most significant challenges in the food system? What will make a positive difference?

Chellie Pingree headshot

The pandemic continues to be at the forefront of challenges nearly every sector is facing, and the agricultural sector specifically has faced enormous hurdles over the past two years. This is evident in millions of Americans’ daily lives—supply chain issues are straining the food system and making everything more expensive. All the pandemic-related challenges coincide with the impacts of the climate crisis, which is already affecting Maine.

These are some of many reasons we must pass the Build Back Better Act, which demands climate action. The bill would invest over $27 billion in climate-smart agricultural conservation initiatives, the largest investment in conservation since the Dust Bowl. As a member of the House Agriculture Committee and the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, my focus in 2022 and beyond will be on working closely with the USDA to implement the Build Back Better Act and ensure the agriculture research, conservation, and forestry investments have the biggest possible impact for climate change.

You’ve connected a number of important dots in your proposed Agricultural Resilience Act. Are there other aspects of the farm bill negotiation process that you have your eyes on as it starts back up?

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Being part of the congressional delegation that traveled with Speaker Pelosi to Glasgow for COP26 made me take stock of what we as Americans and members of Congress can do right now to stem the effects of climate change. Passing climate- and ag-focused legislation is at the top of the list. Ideas from the Agriculture Resilience Act have already passed the House in appropriations bills and the Build Back Better Act, and I’m hopeful we can count on the Senate to act so they can soon become law. After that, there is still a long list of investments, policies, and programs from my bill that Congress should consider as we start work on the 2023 Farm Bill.

What gives you hope about the food system for the year ahead?

There are always reasons to be hopeful. Without hope, we wouldn’t fight for what we believe in. Between the challenges of the pandemic and the extreme weather faced by our farmers and the nation, the understanding of the challenges we are facing has reached far beyond just policy makers into all corners of our nation. Far more people—of all political beliefs—understand that we need to act with urgency, and we need to take bold action. These are the conditions we need to move forward making the investments and policy changes we desperately need, and our bipartisan effort to pass the historic Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act last month is proof that it’s possible to work together and get things done for the American people, our society, and our environment.

Since 2009, the Civil Eats editorial team has published award-winning and groundbreaking news and commentary about the American food system, and worked to make complicated, underreported stories—on climate change, the environment, social justice, animal welfare, policy, health, nutrition, and the farm bill— more accessible to a mainstream audience. Read more >

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