To pay workers well, to grow a polyculture of crops that can help sequester carbon and battle the sixth extinction, to farm without chemicals that poison workers, air, and water – all are militated against by the arrangements of payments that currently prevail. It’s rarely profitable to farm agroecologically when the rules of the game reward ecological devastation, worker exploitation, and monoculture."
Patel and Goodman, 2020
Green New Deal /
The Green New Deal & Agriculture: Organising for a new vision of the food system
As the concept of a Green New Deal—a progressive framework to transform society and address the climate crisis—gains traction around the world, a new article authored by Raj Patel and Jim Goodman takes a closer look at its implications for the food system, and how initial resistance among the farming sector might be overcome.
Among the many demands of the US version of the Green New Deal proposed by Congressional Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey in 2019 is the call for ‘a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food’. Another priority is to work ‘collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector.’
Despite the potential of a Green New Deal to help end poverty in rural America by prioritising healthy food and redirecting government spending in support of farmers who can produce it sustainably, Patel and Goodman highlight how negatively the proposal was initially received by the agricultural sector, with the National Farmers Union arguing that the proposed deal fails to recognise ‘the essential contribution of rural America‘ and members of the American Farm Bureau calling it ‘totally unrealistic’.
In reflecting on the historical context in which the original, Great Depression-era New Deal was instituted, and comparing it to the current climate, the authors explore some of the reasons behind this opposition from the agricultural sector.
Patel and Goodman suggest that one such reason may have been the failure of those behind the proposed deal to adequately seek perspectives from food system stakeholders.
“…it became easier for farmers to feel characteristically alienated from national politics. In the silence from a food movement that has demonstrated a bias towards urban consumers about their ongoing work around climate and sustainability, rural Americans could insert a familiar refrain: that farmers—particularly those involved with livestock—are agents of ecological destruction and, as such, the enemy of a sustainable future.”
The authors argue that prevailing ideas about 'what’s socially acceptable and what’s unthinkable', which have been purposefully shaped by existing power structures, will require reimagining and that organising against the ‘state-industrial food system complex’ will be crucial if broad support of the Green New Deal among the farming community is ever to be achieved.
A completely new vision of farming in America is necessary, they argue, one that isn’t dominated by large, corporate farms that possess ‘more credit, capital, insurance, relief, and government favor’; one where farmers do not increasingly rent their land from out-of-state owners, one where 56% of American farms aren’t making a loss, and one where 49% of American farm workers aren’t undocumented.
“The financial arithmetic of a modern food system—from land ownership to insurance to the futures market—depends on a permanent exploitation of soil, atmosphere, and labor. At the moment, those who want to farm with dignity in the web of life plead a case for which there is no business logic. To pay workers well, to grow a polyculture of crops that can help sequester carbon and battle the sixth extinction, to farm without chemicals that poison workers, air, and water—all are militated against by the arrangements of payments that currently prevail. It’s rarely profitable to farm agroecologically when the rules of the game reward ecological devastation, worker exploitation, and monoculture.”
In order to succeed in transforming the food system, Patel and Goodman argue that existing monopolies, food habits, and pricing mechanisms will need to be challenged, while important equity considerations, such as ‘land reform, international reparation, and a just transition for agricultural workers’ must also be addressed.
Concentrated animal feeding operations, for instance, are only viable, the authors argue, because of ‘abundantly unfair’ subsidies that offer them cheap feed-crops like corn and soy. Restructuring pricing mechanisms to be more equitable would likely make such operations uneconomical and this would, in turn, encourage a dietary transition away from climate-intensive, chronic disease-promoting ‘cheap meat’.
If we are to afford the true cost of our food, including the additional costs of farming it in a way that does not exacerbate the climate or biodiversity crises and that fairly compensates workers, most people’s incomes will also need to increase.
“For a Green New Deal to work in the twenty-first century, everyone’s incomes need to increase. Growing food justly and sustainably is expensive. Instead of driving down the costs of farming to make food cheap enough for urban workers to buy on stagnating wages, all workers must make enough to afford food that’s produced sustainably. Consumers must be able to pay for the knowledge embedded in, and carbon sequestered through, sustainable agriculture: through low-input, sophisticated agroecological farming, renewable energy, unprocessed fresh food, and farms run by all those who want to work the land. And of course, farmers and farm workers, too, must be paid fairly and appreciated for their work."
The solutions are not easy, and Patel and Goodman make no great attempt at providing them. They do, however, recognise that deep structural change will only be made possible by inclusive organizing and rallying against the status-quo.
"One of the most widely circulated critiques of the Green New Deal will be that it’s anti-American. True – such a movement ranges itself against American capital and a white supremacist tradition of colonial expansion. But, as we’ve suggested, there has been little that unites this part of the planet more – in art, action, organizing, lived experience and thought – than a deep and sustained resistance to the destruction wrought by US settler colonial capitalism. The fate of the planet hinges on the triumph of this resistance."
April 16, 2019
Jono Drew & Anna de Mello