A New Political Climate: Biden’s Bold Stance on Agriculture

Policy: Less than a week after the US officially withdrew from the Paris Agreement on climate change, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden defeated incumbent President Donald Trump in a contentious election. In contrast to the Trump administration, which downplayed global warming while reversing more than 100 environmental regulations, Biden has proposed a $2 trillion climate plan that calls for the conservation of 30 percent of the US lands and water by 2030 and a carbon-free electric grid by 2035. Biden’s plan for rural America recognizes the critical role that agriculture must play in combating our climate crisis and reaching net-zero emission across the entire economy by 2050. Though control of the Senate comes down to two January runoffs in Georgia, the new administration’s platform calls for:

  • Increasing investments in conservation – Biden proposes a dramatic expansion of the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which pays farmers to adopt practices that improve soil health and help sequester excess carbon from the atmosphere. The new administration will ensure that the program can participate in carbon markets with the goal of creating new revenue opportunities for farmers at a time when many are struggling to stay afloat. 
  • Incentivizing the adoption of climate-friendly practices – Biden hopes to expand the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a program that offers farmers and ranchers financial cost-share and technical assistance to implement eco-friendly practices – including no-till farming, agroforestry, and cover-cropping. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) Platform goes one step by funding research on “low-carbon crops” and organic practices and calling for a reduction in the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, including a ban on chlorpyrifos. 
  • Promoting the purchase of local food products – Biden has pledged to advance local production for farmers’ markets and foster the development of resilient, regional food systems. To ensure that producers have access to fair markets, Biden has promised to strengthen the enforcement of existing antitrust laws, such as the Packers and Stockyards Act, which protects small stakeholders from monopolistic practices. 

While a majority of the policies outlined in Biden’s plan are spot on, others negate the smooth transition away from a highly concentrated food system by: 

  • Propping up controversial climate solutions – A cornerstone of Biden’s Clean Energy Plan is to reduce emissions and generate new revenue streams through the use of methane digesters. In reality, this is a false solution that will allow centralized animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to become more profitable by turning their massive waste streams into biogas. Equally problematic is Biden’s focus on expanding existing biofuels – especially corn ethanol. Government support for ethanol will do little more than increase emissions and prop up the corn-dominated monocultures that dominate US farming. 
  • Failing to crack down on “Big Ag” – Even though Biden has vowed to protect small farmers, his plan does not speak to halting large-scale food and agriculture mergers. The new administration’s weak stance on breaking up “Big Ag” could be due to its advisors political alignment with agribusiness. The DNC Platform’s lead on ag policy, Tom Vilsack, has deep ties to the dairy industry and Heidi Heitkamp, who in 2018 ranked number one in Senate campaign donations from the crop industry, has been floated as a leading choice to run the USDA. With leadership like this, it is no surprise that Biden’s plans fail to mention regulatory action on industrial animal agriculture.

Overall, it is clear that the Biden administration views global warming as an opportunity to set the agricultural industry on course for a more sustainable future. Though we must remain attentive to his plan’s shortcomings, the shift to more regenerative practices is urgent, and the benefits to consumers, producers, and our planet are huge.

Watch: The 25-minute documentary, Unbroken Ground, tells the story of four organizations with innovative solutions to agricultural problems: The Bread Lab, a think-tank and baking lab that produces grain varieties for small US farmers; The Land Institute, a nonprofit that advances perennial grain crops; Cheyenne River Ranch, a family-owned business that raises bison in regenerative grazing systems; and Lummi Island Wild, a salmon company that uses reef netting to catch fish in a more eco-friendly way. Through this film, the pro-surfer-turned-documentarian, Chis Malloy, succeeds at showcasing the outsized role food production can play in our efforts to solve the climate crisis – planted, grown, and harvested in ways that restore land, water, and wildlife.