The Agriculture Fairness Alliance aims to nudge the federal government toward climate-friendly food policy. So it’s good news that the 117th Congress and new leadership at USDA have set goals toward ‘climate-smart’ food production. For example, returning Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack reiterated this phrase often in his Senate confirmation hearing.1
However, old thinking may prevent policymakers from envisioning new ideas that could get us to a sustainable food system quickly. Furthermore, the administration lacks a key tool necessary to meeting these lofty objectives, thus, AFA offers a fresh idea.
Embracing New Thinking for Climate-Friendly Food Policy
Current USDA programs help some farmers – especially socially disadvantaged, military veterans, and beginning farmers – by offering education programs, loans, and grants. However, these programs are inaccessible to most livestock farmers.2 Moreover, they do not fund farm transitions, and lacking such programs unnecessarily hampers the wider effort to transform America’s food system.
The new administration needs tools to create a climate-smart agriculture system. AFA proposes one such tool that would fill this apparent gap at USDA. AFA proposes the FARMS Act
The FARMS pilot program will fund farm transitions. It provides producers with options to transition to producing fiber-rich foods that, in and of themselves, bring positive environmental benefits. For example, this program could help a dairy farmer transition to produce climate-friendly hazelnuts.3
Aligning Action with Intention for Climate-Smart Food Policy
The USDA MyPlate4 committee recommends that grains, vegetables, beans, legumes and fruits comprise 80-100% of our meals. Yet, AFA estimates that 72% of recent COVID Relief payments5 6 supported animal-based protein food production.
Given this administration’s new goals, it would be wise to shift subsidies away from making environmentally-expensive foods artificially cheap. Instead, subsidies could support the production of climate-friendly foods that are recommended in national nutrition guidelines.
Many plant foods, especially when produced using organic or holistic farm practices, impose a low environmental load compared to raising animals for food. So why not provide options for livestock farmers to shift to producing fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes?
In other words, let’s not limit ourselves to changing how we produce food. Rather, let’s be sure to include options for changing what foods we produce. Transition programs can enable huge strides toward climate-friendly food policy.
Meeting the nation’s top-down climate goals isn’t the only motivating force bearing down on American farmers today. Livestock farmers, in particular, find themselves in an industry undergoing existential disruption from the growth of substitute products like cultivated meat[efn_note]https://www.politico.com/newsletters/the-long-game[/efn_note] and plant-based foods.8
Livestock Farmers need Transition Options for More Reasons than Climate Alone
The industrial livestock production model has all but reached its limits in terms of scale, reach, and efficiency. As the most inefficient and economically vulnerable part of this system, cow products will be the first to feel the full force of modern food’s disruptive power. Modern alternatives will be up to 100 times more land efficient, 10-25 times more feedstock efficient, 20 times more time efficient, and 10 times more water efficient. They will also produce an order of magnitude less waste.
Modern foods have already started disrupting the ground meat market, but once cost parity is reached, we believe in 2021-23, adoption will tip and accelerate exponentially. The disruption will play out in a number of ways and does not rely solely on the direct, one-for-one substitution of end products. In some markets, only a small percentage of the ingredients need to be replaced for an entire product to be disrupted. The whole of the cow milk industry, for example, will start to collapse once modern food technologies have replaced the proteins in a bottle of milk – just 3.3% of its content.
“The industry, which is already balancing on a knife edge, will thus be all but bankrupt by 2030.”
This is not, therefore, one disruption but many in parallel, with each overlapping, reinforcing, and accelerating one another. Product after product that we extract from the cow will be replaced by superior, cheaper, modern alternatives, triggering a death spiral of increasing prices, decreasing demand, and reversing economies of scale for the industrial cattle farming industry, which will collapse long before we see modern technologies produce the perfect, cellular steak.
We have extrapolated our findings to cover all livestock. Given the magnitude of the disruption, society should be prepared for the dramatic changes to an industry that has not seen this scale of disruption in thousands of years.Rethink X U.S Food and Agriculture Report
Farmers Producing Climate-expensive Foods Don’t Deserve Blame, They Deserve Options
It’s not American farmers’ fault that industrial livestock production has reached its limits. It’s not their fault that US farm policy over the past century has driven us to this brink by encouraging farmers to ‘get big or get out‘.9 So farmers who find themselves producing climate-expensive foods into a disrupted market don’t deserve blame, they deserve options.
If America’s food producers are going to be part of a new movement toward organic, regenerative, and holistic ‘climate-smart’ production, they’re going to need every possible tool and option at their disposal. Transition programs must be one such tool. Not all farmers will make use of them, but some will find transition to be their best hope.
Between climate goals demanded by humanity, industry disruptions arising from alternative protein products, and policymakers who aim to align subsidies with USDA nutritional recommendations, farmers need options.
The FARMS Act will provide the new administration with a handy tool for meeting lofty objectives and may prove indispensable for many farmers looking to a brighter future producing America’s food.