A Biden Climate Policy for Agri-Food Systems Must Confound Traditional Policy Categories If It Is Going to Work

The Reset the Table essay series is published weekly, describing today’s challenges to global food security and proposing U.S. government responses.

The malaise wrought by 2020 outmatches any other in recent U.S. history. An ugly, intense election, the festering wounds of systemic racism, a pandemic that to this day runs amok: each of these trials on their own would have defined the American body politic in this opening year of a new decade. Our house is on fire. It is a complex moment of anger, grief, and penitence over the things we both cannot control and have helped bring to life. Amid these national emotions ticks the climate’s time bomb. Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands, one of the most biodiverse places on earth, are a literal inferno, intensified by droughts linked to climate change. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions carry on prolifically, reduced in the short term but hardly abated in the long term by the pandemic’s lockdown measures.

President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement took formal effect on Wednesday, November 4—the day after the American people formally withdrew their support from him. It can be argued the Trump administration was not merely a disinterested bystander to, but an efficient agent in, climate change. Thus, among the most pressing tasks for the United States and President-elect Joe Biden is to mount a rapid, focused, massively ambitious, and deeply pragmatic reengagement in multilateralism with respect to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

As we and many other observers have said in the past, climate change is existential in the near term for billions of people. It “pertains to existence” for the most vulnerable: for them, rising surface and ground air temperatures, intensifying droughts, and increasingly disordered seasonal rainfall patterns are not upsetting “issues.” They are a death sentence. A displacement trigger. A starvation omen.

2021 is an auspicious year for U.S. reengagement in global climate efforts. Biden has already indicated his administration will rapidly rejoin the Paris Agreement. When it does, it can point to many examples of burgeoning climate activism in the United States that have grown during President Trump’s time in office. For example, nearly half of U.S. cities have established greenhouse gas reduction targets. And the #WeAreStillIn movement, which “comprises the largest and most diverse coalition of actors ever established in pursuit of climate action in the United States,” has more than 3,900 signatories.

Beyond Paris, both the 26th UN Climate Change Conference and the UN Food Systems Summit take place in 2021. Each gathering offers a strategic opportunity for the new administration to launch major, highly visible initiatives that explicitly address food production both as a driver of climate change and a vector for its destructiveness. However, because links between agriculture, the environment, food security, and a changing climate are strong, complex, multisectoral, and spatially diffuse, so should be any initiative designed to strengthen them.

Consider one example with five dimensions. Agricultural and food-related GHG emissions, which account for one-quarter of all GHGs, are concentrated in countries such as China, India, Brazil, and United States (Dimension 1). But some of the most consequential effects of climate change to which these emissions contribute are being felt by hungry farmers—dwell on that phrase for a moment—in places like Central America (Dimension 2). The growing rate of outmigration there is helping fuel the so-called U.S. border crisis (Dimension 3). Inside the border one of the most essential—if exploited—elements of the U.S. food supply is migrant labor (Dimension 4). Shocks to food supply chains—stemming from labor shortfalls, for example—often raise prices for urban consumers, who buy virtually all of their food but already find healthy diets unaffordable (Dimension 5).

“Because links between agriculture, the environment, food security, and a changing climate are strong, complex, multisectoral, and spatially diffuse, so should be any initiative designed to strengthen them.”

A Biden climate policy for agri-food systems would be capable of coherently addressing all five dimensions of this scenario: helping U.S. farmers profitably reduce, and even sequester, agricultural GHGs; stabilizing agricultural livelihoods and accelerating climate adaptation in places made vulnerable by climate change; enforcing the maintenance of just, equitable agricultural labor markets; and creating incentives for private sector actors to make food prices both resilient to shocks and more sensitive to consumers with limited income. Such a policy would have domestic and international applications, in other words, just as it would balance both a rural and an urban focus.

This is not entirely a new paradigm. But we can probably count on one hand the number of “whole-of-government” initiatives that have been truly effective. The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the New Deal come to mind. But because it threatens the basic conditions of life, climate change is a much broader challenge than either the AIDS epidemic or the Great Depression. The bureaucratic modalities that predate the emergence of the climate crisis will not be sufficient for its resolution.

We do not only need a better Farm Bill and a more climate-focused State Department. We need a Green New Deal fused with a Green Marshall Plan that Republicans, not just Democrats, can get behind—a “Green New Plan,” so to speak. There has been no shortage of media coverage on a Green New Deal, a lead proponent of which is the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate change initiative. Less attention has been paid to a Green Marshall Plan, of which one sketch has been proposed by the think tank Data for Progress.

Clearly, a Biden-led, bipartisan Green New Plan would not only address climate-related challenges that manifest in and through agri-food systems. But as a group of scientists recently showed, emissions from the global food system alone could preclude achieving the 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius climate change targets. Thus, as the example above suggests, a central emphasis of a Green New Plan should be decarbonizing food production everywhere. The people who produce food—the farmers, ranchers, pickers, packers, shippers, wholesalers, retailers—must be at the center of this process if they are not to be harmed by it. The transition, in other words, must be just. A Green New Plan would use policy to create incentives for farmers and ranchers to shift to sustainable models of agriculture and animal husbandry. It would reward the preservation of agrobiodiversity. It would rigorously enforce dignified labor practices. It would create a lot of green jobs. It would redouble investments in public research that make “environmentally gentle” foods affordable and easy to find, even for cash-strapped households.

2020 was supposed to be the “year of climate action,” but then 2020 happened. By all indications 2021 is the new year of action. But in this partisan moment, climate action will not move forward only by protest or the light of scientific reason; it will require an enlightened politics as well, with legislators willing to find common ground for our shared future.

Christian Man is the deputy coordinator of the Just Rural Transition’s Policy Action Coalition and an adjunct professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the CSIS Global Food Security Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Christian Man
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Global Food Security Program