Incentivize carbon farming
The agricultural industry is a leading source of greenhouse-gas emissions globally. Practices that improve soil health will play a critical role in our efforts to combat climate change by reducing the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and states can help by passing legislation that incentivizes carbon farming.
Carbon-farming strategies include planting cover crops that increase water retention and soil nutrients and keep weeds down; using no-till approaches that limit aeration of surface soils and reduce erosion; and planting diverse perennial forages with deeper root systems for grazing animals. Longer root systems increase organic matter (carbon-based molecules) in the soil. These practices could have a huge impact on our emissions: Project Drawdown estimates that widespread adoption of these types of practices could reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 23.2 gigatons by 2050.
In New York, I introduced the Carbon Farming Act, a first-of-its-kind bill that would give farmers a financial incentive for implementing climate-smart practices. This legislation creates a tax credit for farmers to continue these practices and to encourage others to begin them, because policies that reward — rather than punish through carbon penalties, for example — will ultimately be more effective and equitable.
Farmers, who are responsible for producing the fresh food we put on our tables and depend on weather for their livelihoods, could make significant contributions to helping us reach emission reduction goals. Incentivizing carbon-farming practices will ensure that agriculture’s future is both economically and environmentally sustainable.
Curb CAFOs and the effects of meat and dairy
We must begin regulating the factory-farm model of livestock production to step up the fight on climate change. A 2018 report from the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy and GRAIN analyzed the greenhouse-gas emissions of the world’s 35 biggest meat and dairy conglomerates and found that the top 20 emitted more greenhouse gases in 2016 than several Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member countries did.
Now is the time to call the meat and dairy conglomerates to account. Let’s start by curbing both over-production and emissions by securing a moratorium on new factory farms, a.k.a. CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). Predominantly located in low-income communities and, often, communities of color, these major polluters of air and water are already facing tenacious public opposition. From North Carolina, to Wisconsin and Iowa, to California and Oregon, communities are calling on their local and state governments to step up and better regulate these polluters.
Then, let’s stop funneling taxpayer money to these big corporations through various farm-bill programs, such as the guaranteed loan program that often backs the construction and expansion of CAFOs. Instead, we should start investing in a just transition to agricultural systems that lift up rural communities by supporting farmers practicing sustainable grazing practices, expanding the infrastructure for the growing grass-fed beef and dairy markets, and enforcing fair market and fair contract rules for the livestock industry. That will improve the quality of our food, air, soil, water and climate.
Prevent wasted food — the right way
When Project Drawdown ranked the 80 most impactful climate change solutions, No. 3 was addressing waste of food. In the United States, we waste up to 40 percent of our food supply — enough nutritional value to feed millions. The United Nations estimates that if wasted food was a country, its greenhouse-gas emissions would rank third globally. That’s in part because of the food system’s outsize climate impact: It accounts for an estimated 19 percent to 29 percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions.
These policies can lead to increased food recycling (composting or anaerobic digestion) and related infrastructure. But while preferable to leaving food to release methane in landfills, recycling can’t make up for the emissions that went into the food’s production, processing, distribution, heating and cooling. Recycling can even be perceived as a justification for discarding good food.
Among food waste mitigation strategies, by far, the greater climate benefit per ton comes from avoiding unnecessary food production. Accordingly, waste-ban policies should be considered incomplete unless they promote waste prevention and donation as the preferred approaches. California, for instance, has passed a bill requiring that, by 2025, at least 20 percent of edible food that would otherwise be disposed instead be recovered to eat.
Halving waste of food is an audacious target, but it’s achievable. Food waste bans can dramatically ramp up the prevention, recovery and recycling of food. Most ban policies are fairly new, and more research is needed, but thus far it appears that, approached right, they can be a win-win-win-win-win for waste mitigation, jobs, economic activity, food insecurity and, of course, the climate.