Democratic presidential candidate Jay Inslee is a man of many climate plans, and he dropped his last one on Wednesday. The plan gets down and dirty (no, not that way, get your mind out of the gutter) by radically rethinking the agriculture system from production to consumption.
It’s a plan that could resonate in Iowa, the all-important first state on the presidential primary calendar. But it also has huge ramifications for Americans everywhere, and the effects could well ripple around the world.
From the get-go, the Washington governor has been the climate candidate putting forth plans on climate justice, winding down the fossil fuel industry, and even viewing the refugee crisis through the lens of climate change. The sixth and final installment of his platform focuses on rural America and agriculture in particular, which is a cause of climate change, heavily impacted by it, and a potential solution. That makes it a fitting final addition to the 200-plus pages of his climate platform.
“The plan covers wide range of issues that address climate challenge to agriculture sustainability and environmental health by covering actual farming practices and research that will help implement best management practices,” Mahdi Al-Kaisi, a soil management expert at Iowa State, told Earther. “It seems comprehensive in addressing the research, implementation, funding, and social needs in agriculture production systems that can mitigate climate change and its impact on food security and the environment.”
Agriculture accounts for about 9 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Some of that is due to farming practices like tilling that literally release carbon dioxide from the soil into the atmosphere. Other sources include fertilizer and yes, cow burps. Those two things release substantial amounts of nitrous oxide and methane, both greenhouse gases that are much more potent than carbon dioxide. In short, if you want to address climate change holistically, you have to get real about how we farm.
To do that, Inslee’s plan calls for increasing funding and support for carbon farming, a practice of planting certain types of cover crops that pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and stash it in the soil where it can, in turn, help more crops grow. It’s a win-win solution that has yet to fully catch on due to a lack of incentives and the way industrial agriculture is structured around heavy fertilizer use with little regard for the soil.
As part of a realignment, Inslee’s plan calls for paying farmers for the carbon they store on the farm instead of just the crops their land produces. To do that, his administration would first have to develop standardized metrics to gauge how much carbon is getting stashed away in soil. The plan also calls for “climate-smart crop insurance” that would provide farmers who store carbon with lower rates since they’re, you know, actively saving the planet and the soil.
Speaking of the soil, conserving it is also becoming much more important in the face of climate change. This spring’s Midwest floods were a prime reminder of just how fragile soil is in the face of climate change. Heavy downpours are increasing across the country, and they can strip soil away when they fall on exposed fields as well as wash fertilizer and other runoff into waterways. The recent massive Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate change and land found that erosion is outpacing soil replacement by at least 10-20 times globally. If the soil disappears, so too does the ability to grow crops.
Cover crops are one way to protect soil from erosion. Inslee’s plan also calls for expanding funding for the Natural Resources Conservation Service and tripling its staff from 12,000 to 30,000 to help farmers better care for their land. And it would also implement a nitrous oxide management strategy to help deal with all the emissions and runoff tied with the over-application of fertilizer. That would also have a huge impact in places like the Gulf of Mexico where suffocating algae blooms pop up as a result of the excess fertilizer that ends up there.
All these measures would shore up the production side of agriculture system to reduce its impact on the climate and get it ready for the climate change already in the pipeline. But there’s also a demand-side part of Inslee’s proposal that would help educate Americans about the emissions on their plate (or worse, the emissions that end up in the trash). Research published earlier this year showed that to really tackle food-related emissions, addressing diets and food waste have to be part of the solution. The Inslee plan takes a small step toward doing that in the U.S. by educating consumers with updated dietary guidelines that reflect the carbon footprint of the different food groups.
Inslee’s plan also includes a host of other benefits like ensuring farmers can join unions and creating easier paths for underrepresented groups to take over farms. It would also offer protections for immigrant farmworkers, all steps similar to what we’ve seen in Inslee’s plans for the fossil fuel and other industries. At the end of the day, this and his other plans taken together offer a sharp, clear vision of what the U.S. could look like if it got serious about combatting climate change and protecting citizens. Now, if only CNN would’ve invited him to its climate crisis town hall to talk about it.