Unconventional Farmers: Farmers as Climate Change Heroes?

Photo by Lisa M. Hamilton

As I type, the Waxman-Markey energy bill is being batted around on the floor of the House. In the world of sustainable food systems, the big gripe is that big ag seems to have more or less wriggled its way out of being held accountable for its significant GHG emissions. Tom Philpott at Grist has been covering the issue well, and no matter what happens with the bill, the conversation about ag’s emissions should continue.

But in tandem with that debate, we should be calling equal attention to the tremendous capacity that farmers and ranchers have to actually combat climate change through practices that reduce emissions and lead to carbon sequestration. I wrote about this yesterday in a post about grass-fed meat, and there’s another interesting model in the beef ranchers behind the Marin Carbon Project. But grazing is just one example of many ways that farming can actually be part of a solution. The Rodale Institute is leading the way with this topic, particularly in establishing how farmers can do this in a practical way. (I liked the title of a recent campaign they sponsored: “Farmers Can Be Heroes.”)

Along these lines, I recently heard Michael Pollan put forth an intriguing idea: replace our current farm subsidy system with one that rewards people in agriculture for practices that address climate change and fines those who pollute with gross emissions. Of course a working solution would be more complex than that, but it’s a good start. I’d add just one corollary:

In a letter I sent to President Obama and USDA Secretary Vilsack earlier this week, I wrote:

Sustainable agriculture is founded on the principle of farmer leadership. The first step to creating a sustainable food system is restoring stewardship, that elemental relationship in which a farmer balances food production with ecological health and social well-being. That is possible only when farmers are empowered: trusted to lead, respected financially, and encouraged—indeed, allowed—to be independent and free.

Farmers and ranchers can be central to our solution to climate change—they can be heroes—but only when we support them in doing so. This means paying a fair price for food, funding research on sustainable agriculture, and, in our communities and our government, inviting farmers back to the table.

Lisa M. Hamilton is the author of the recent Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness (Counterpoint).

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