The Farm Bill’s Outsized Role in Scientific Research in Agriculture
Craig M. Pease - Former Law School Professor
Former Law School Professor
Current Issue
Craig M. Pease

Of the 3 million square miles of land in the lower 48 states, an astonishing 85 percent is used for farming, grazing, or forestry. The Farm Bill, and federal agricultural law and policy more generally, shape the environmental consequences of agriculture.

The Farm Bill is reenacted every five years, and its current renewal builds on a lineage going back to the Great Depression. It primarily funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commodity price supports, and agricultural conservation. A small slice funds scientific research.

Even so, scientific research has long had a preeminent role in federal agricultural law and policy. Its funding comes from the Farm Bill, from annual discretionary appropriations, and from a robust public institutional infrastructure for agricultural research. That infrastructure includes about a hundred agricultural research stations under the Agriculture Department’s Research Service and Forest Service. It also includes the land grant colleges, established by the 1862 Morrill Act, making grants of federal land to the states to establish agricultural education and research programs.

Total federal funding of agricultural scientific research is roughly $5 billion annually. The USDA Economic Research Service summary of agricultural scientific research through 2019 asserts that private agricultural research funding is now over $10 billion annually. Without question, it is substantial and has increased in recent years. That said, direct comparison of public versus private research funding is unfruitful, because those data derive from qualitatively different sources, methodologies, and economic interests.

Public agricultural research ranges broadly, from animal and plant breeding, genetic engineering, integration of computers and satellite and soil data into tractors, sustainable farming practices, and college student diets. Recent Farm Bill hearings had a substantial focus on agricultural applications of artificial intelligence.

Federal agricultural research policy is incoherent, irrational, and schizophrenic. For example, many would not regard the USDA funding for research on genetic engineering, and computer-enhanced tractors for commodity production of grains, as being environmentally unfriendly. Others would vehemently disagree, whilst making good-faith arguments that USDA funding for biocontrol of pests and sustainable farming practices serves only boutique political interests.

Many federal research grants in agriculture are let through a scientific peer review process. But that is deceptive. At the broadest level, agricultural scientific research priorities are not set by scientists. In the private realm, they are set by corporate economic interests, and in the public realm by politicians.

As one exemplar of the politics inherent in setting federal agricultural research policy, the website of the chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry refers to “historic investments in land and water conservation, local food systems, and specialty crops,” while the ranking member refers to “rice, soybeans, cotton, poultry, cattle, and timber” and “commodities.” Such political tension permeates federal agricultural scientific research funding, arguably driving it.

The importance of federal agricultural research policy is easy to both overstate, and to understate. Overstated, because scientific research is not the sine qua non of most all modern technology. The sine qua non is coal and oil. Yes, federal funding of science spurred everything from rural electrification in the first half of the 20th century, to the dramatic increase in farm size since the 1970s, to the technology de jure of artificial intelligence. But without fossil fuels, essentially all that technology, and the benefits society derives from it, would evaporate.

Overstated, also because in agriculture there is a reduced role for science in setting performance-based standards, as compared to its role in the 1970s’ federal air, water, and endangered species statutes. This is sensible. Agriculture is both widespread and spread thin, so science-based performance standards would typically be prohibitively costly to administer and enforce.

The importance of the federal role is understated, because though agriculture is now only a small part of the economy, it remains by far the dominant land use. Understated also because of the imponderably immense environmental, social, and demographic consequences of the almost two-century transformation of the United States from an agricultural economy often powered by slaves to today’s manufacturing, information, and services economy based on fossil fuels.

There is virtue in an agricultural research policy that emanates not from scientists, but elected officials, accounting for diverse political ideologies, regional differences in climate, economy and crops, and the power the Constitution grants rural states in the Senate.

The Farm Bill’s Outsized Role in Scientific Research in Agriculture.

The Stakeholders in Agricultural Policy
Peter H. Lehner - Earthjustice
Nathan A. Rosenberg - Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic
Bryce Wilson Stucki - Writer and Researcher
Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic
Writer and Researcher
Current Issue
a barn and silos behind a row of crops

Our society cannot implement effective policies to reduce agricultural emissions without an accurate understanding of the primary constituencies. While analysts often make broad statements about “farmers,” “ranchers,” and “rural communities,” careful analysis of who actually produces our food, where and how they live, and how they are doing is much more rare. For example, while mainstream news reports suggested that 2019 was yet another crisis year for farmers, “when farm families wondered how they were going to keep the farm afloat,”1 farmers overall, in fact, saw their 11th highest per farm profits since 1929. Many of these commentators do not include in their assessment the profound impact on producer income of federal counter-cyclical subsidies, favorable tax treatment, and exports supported or even mandated by trade agreements. These programs can even make the costs of climate change harder to discern, as relief programs often ensure that the costs of increased weather variability or extreme weather events do not fall on farmers. And, over and above the established farm bill conservation, commodity, and crop insurance programs, the president can, and often does, provide significant additional assistance through the Commodity Credit Corporation—in 2019 the Trump administration doubled government direct payments to farmers up to almost $24 billion.2 Without this full picture, policymaking is hobbled.

Unfortunately, very few journalists have the time or expertise to assess the actual contours of farm economics or to examine in detail who these producers are and what they are doing. The number of reporters in rural America has rapidly declined and fewer and fewer reporters live in farm regions or have a background in agriculture.3 Without experience, it is hard to disentangle the interplay of weather, markets, and government programs that affect farmers.

And who does the work on farms? Again, writers will often make broad references to farmers and sometimes to farmworkers, but rarely do they distinguish among different farm actors or rigorously analyze the lives and work of people in the different groups. In fact, lawmakers have excluded the agricultural industry from many labor and environmental regulations,4 which makes the distinctions between employers and employees, producers and their neighbors, starker than in almost any other context in the United States.

Policymakers created the foundations of modern farm policy at a time when a substantial portion of the American population lived on farms and the average farm family was more likely to be poor than the average non-farm family. But that is not the case today, and modern agriculture policy should be revised to reflect our current reality. As it exists now, U.S. farm policy largely benefits a small number of almost entirely white producers who are substantially wealthier than the average American, and who are required to do little to protect the health and environmental concerns of their workers and neighbors or to address climate change.

Sound, sustainable, and fair agriculture policy should be built on an accurate understanding of the affected constituencies, rather than on assumed and outdated images and narratives. Here, we try to provide this foundation, looking not only to the “farmer” and agribusiness, but also to other larger rural constituencies. These include farm laborers, who do most of the work on farms and outnumber farmers by a wide margin, and rural residents, who, according to numerous polls, support environmental reforms by substantial margins. These other constituencies, of course, should also include those who consume our food and all those affected by climate change.

To achieve climate-neutral agriculture in the United States, as well as to make it more just and sustainable, we must engage all these groups. They are the ones who will live with—and see through—these policies.

Farmers and the Farm Economy

The answer to the question “who farms?” for most people is simple: farmers. But it is hired farmworkers who do most of the work on American farms.5 Farmers are better understood as business owners or managers who hire or employ their own labor to turn a profit. We discuss the characteristics of farmworkers in a later section, but here we clarify who farmers are, including their economic positions. This discussion will inform the recommended policies set out later in the book.

We first provide a brief overview of the farm economy since the New Deal. We then analyze U.S. Department of Agriculture data to disaggregate different groups of “farmers” and “ranchers,” thus providing a clearer picture of the farm community and economy. We show that more than half of those whom USDA includes as “farmers” are actually retirees, hobbyists, and taxpayers with “paper farms” (so-classified for tax purposes), whose economic output distorts general, commonly reported statistics on actual farm businesses. The last subsection explains the origins, extent, and significance of the modern agricultural “safety net” that supports farmers and informs their politics. After our discussion of farmers, we turn to the rural constituencies that current farm policy largely ignores—workers, non-white farmers, and rural people in general—who are already pressing for many of the environmental reforms proposed in this book.

Transformations in the Farm Economy

Writers who discuss farm policy tend to rely on images and conceptions from the 1930s. At that time, almost a fifth of the population farmed, farms produced a fraction of what they do today, and farm household incomes were less than half that of non-farm households.6 The Great Depression caused widespread foreclosures and tax sales, which the government stopped with massive New Deal spending programs.7 These programs inaugurated a new regime in the farm economy.8 From 1929 to 1940, government payments increased from 3 percent of net farm income to 29 percent.9 Most of these funds went to large farms, a trend that has continued and intensified to the present day.10 Between 1930 and 1992, the number of white farmers fell by 65 percent and Black farmers by 98 percent,11 while the average farm size more than doubled from 199 to 464 acres.

As a result of these broad historical trends, the average farm household now has a higher annual income and more non-farm wealth than the average household. There are very few farm households below the poverty level, and the majority of the remaining ones are composed of elderly people who sell little to no agricultural products.12 The farm operations that produce the vast majority of our food now more closely resemble small factories. The operator is often dependent on the modern financial system for both loans and current and future sales, and manages their operation from an office while hired labor works the land or livestock. These businesses rely heavily on a seasonal work force, assisted by heavy machinery, to produce a huge amount of standardized product for minimal cost. Our discussion below distinguishes between farm businesses and nonbusinesses, and examines the implications for farm policy and analysis.

Overstatements in USDA Census of Agriculture Data

USDA reports many commonly cited statistics about farms and farm income that are distorted by the way the department’s Census of Agriculture counts farms. For example, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2019 that “more than half of U.S. farms lost money farming in recent years.”13 But statistics like median farm income are skewed by the huge number of retirement, “lifestyle,” paper farms created for tax purposes, and other “farms” that raise very little or no agricultural products that USDA nonetheless counts as farms.

Many of these problems relate to the Census of Agriculture’s methodology. Even as fewer farms came to control more and more acreage, the agricultural census began to register a sharp increase in farms after USDA took over the survey in 1997. At that time, the department introduced a series of methodological changes designed to increase the survey’s counts.14 By 2017, these changes had brought the total count of farms back to roughly the same level as 1987, even as other sources of data on farms continued to show a decline. The number of households filing Schedule F forms with the Internal Revenue Service, which are used to report farm income and expenses, declined by 34 percent between 1978 and 2017, and the number of farm households identified by the Current Population Survey, a federal survey conducted by the Census Bureau that is the source of national employment statistics, declined by 35 percent. Meanwhile, the agricultural census showed a decline of only 17 percent during this period. All three data sources showed similar trends until 1997. Today, the agriculture census shows twice as many “farms” as the CPS.15

USDA changed the agricultural census, at least in part, to address its historic undercounts of small-scale and non-white farmers—especially Black and indigenous farmers. But the department overcorrected and now counts a large number of non-farms as farms. One major source of this overcorrection comes from USDA’s definition of “farm,” which has not changed since 1974: “A farm is defined in the census as any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the census year.”16 Had USDA adjusted the $1,000 income threshold for inflation, that alone would have excluded almost half of all “farms” in the 2017 Census of Agriculture.17

Not only did USDA not adjust the income threshold, it also broadened its interpretation of “normally would have been sold.” The department devised a point system to estimate how much income a plot of land could produce if it were used to raise or grow agricultural products—even if the operator had never used the land as agricultural land and the owners had no intention of using it that way.18 Rural homes with berry bushes (at least one-fifth of an acre), vegetables (one-fifth an acre), horses (10 acres of pasture), cattle (one acre), or other potential “agricultural products” all count as farms under the official definition.19

Since 1997, the agricultural census has included a greater and greater share of “point farms”: properties that met the definition of “farm” because USDA estimated that they could have sold, but did not sell, $1,000 of agricultural products.20 By 2017, almost 30 percent of farms in the agricultural census were point farms21 and more than 20 percent of census “farms” did not sell any agricultural products whatsoever.22 In fact, well over half of all farms reported in the agricultural census are, by the department’s own definitions,23 not farm businesses, but retirement or “lifestyle” farms; this latter category was so-named “because many of the operators on these farms view their farms largely as an avocation or a place to live where they can enjoy a rural lifestyle.”24 As one journalist put it, most small farmers in the census “aren’t the farms of the poor; they’re the yards of the upper-middle-class.”25

Another important, but harder to quantify source of overstatement of the number of farms comes from people who define their property as a farm for tax purposes. Farm operations receive numerous tax benefits, notably lower property taxes, which encourage property owners to classify their land as “agricultural.” All 50 states offer “use-value assessment” for agricultural land, which allows owners to assess their property at rates well below market value, often by 90 percent or more.26 Many states have extraordinarily broad definitions of “agricultural land” that make it easy for non-farms to qualify, and state and local governments often do not enforce the few restrictions that do exist or check if former agricultural operations are active.27 Rural property owners can count their land as “farmland” with nominal, and sometimes less than nominal, gestures at agricultural production. In Florida, landowners can take advantage of the state’s greenbelt law, designed to protect grassy, forested, and farming land, through a variety of well-known and inexpensive strategies, some as simple as renting cows.28 New Jersey requires that landowners have five acres and sell $500 of goods a year.29 In South Carolina, property owners only need five acres of trees to qualify for the agricultural land use benefit.30 While there is no comprehensive study on how many landowners create paper farms for tax purposes, federal tax data suggest the number is considerable. Almost 75 percent of the 1.8 million taxpayers filing IRS Schedule F forms in 2017 reported net losses from their agricultural business, allowing them to collectively deduct $30 billion from their taxes.31 More than 150,000 taxpayers submitted a Schedule F form despite not receiving any gross income at all from agricultural products, allowing them to collectively deduct $6.8 billion from their returns.32

As a result of these and other factors, Census of Agriculture data overstate the number of actual farms. At the same time, the data largely ignore many other aspects of the farm economy such as farmworkers, consumers, and residents affected by neighboring farms. This not only distorts economic data such as average income, but it also distorts politics and policymaking. A critical first step in more effective policymaking is the development of a more accurate assessment of actual farm businesses. The Economic Research Service has produced reports on these entities, but the department should make the distinction between business and nonbusiness farms central to its census reports.

We can develop a far more accurate understanding of farm businesses if we use multiple data sources—including the CPS, IRS tax data, and detailed census statistics—rather than relying only on summary agricultural census numbers. In 2017, the USDA census reported more than 2 million “farms” but around 950,000 “farm businesses”33 and between 1 and 1.4 million operators who said their primary occupation was farming.34 Almost 1.8 million households filed Schedule F forms in 2017, but only about 1 million farms reported gross sales over $50,000. The CPS reported around 900,000 farm households and around 1 million farmers—or people who said their longest job in the previous year was as a farmer—in 2017.35 These three sources all show that there are about half as many farms and farmers as generally reported by USDA and in most press accounts.36

A More Accurate Assessment of Farm Income and Wealth

People who work on and write about farm policy are heavily influenced by the widespread belief, noted above, that farmers face an almost continuous financial crisis. In fact, recent years have, by and large, been lucrative for farmers. None of this is to say that there are not farmers who struggle, including many small-scale and sustainable farmers. But even when their incomes vary, farmers’ substantial wealth helps get them through. This more accurate understanding suggests that many farmers have some or all of the resources needed to shift agricultural practices, so that regulatory, educational, and outreach programs could be effective tools for accelerating climate-friendly farming, even if not linked to changes in subsidies.

First, it is critical to look at recent farm income data in context. From 2011 to 2013, farmers saw some of their highest total profits since 1929,37 so comparisons of current incomes against this peak can be misleading.38 Viewed more broadly, farmers’ total profits are projected to be at their 24th and 23rd highest ever in 2019 and 2020, far above average.

Second, it is important to look to income figures based on the number of actual farm businesses. Standard USDA annual ranking figures of total incomes understate the incomes of individual farmers, since almost all of the most profitable farm income years were in the 1940s, when there were two to three times as many farms sharing these profits. Using USDA’s figures for the number of farms, 2019 and 2020 are projected to be the 11th and 9th most profitable years ever. Measured by net income per farm, five of the best ten years happened in the past decade. And in absolute terms, these figures translated to a net median income of $195,000 for commercial farms in 2017. Using the more accurate figure of about one million farms, the net income per farm—of active farms—in recent years would be about double that shown using USDA’s official tally, and the rankings of the years’ profitability would go even higher.

Third, farm policy must reflect an accurate understanding of farm wealth. The median farm household, which includes retirement and lifestyle farms, had a total net worth of $1 million in 2019 according to USDA, about eight times median household wealth, and of that total their non-farm net wealth is about $370,000, which alone is three times median household wealth.39 Moreover, “intermediate” farm businesses (gross sales less than $350,000) had a median net worth around $1 million and commercial farms had a median net worth around $2 million.40 Farm owners also benefit from land appreciation, which has been positive in every year since 1990 and which has had a greater rate of return than the S&P 500 since the post-war period.41 As a result of these trends, farm wealth significantly exceeds that of non-farm households in every decile. See Figure 1 on page 53.

The Legacy of Discriminatory Agricultural Policy

Almost all farmers are old (66 percent 55 or older; 83 percent 45 or older), white (95 percent) men (76 percent) who live in rural areas.42 But while the popular press and general political conversation tends to conflate these farmers with the entire rural community, in fact there are many other farm constituencies. Farmworkers, non-white and female farmers, and the many millions of non-farmworkers who live near farms are all critical parts of rural communities. Whereas farm owners enjoy federal subsidy payments and tax exemptions, these other groups largely do not. And while farm owners benefit from the exemption for farms from most environmental, antitrust, child labor, overtime, workplace safety, minimum wage, bankruptcy, motor carrier, and animal welfare laws, these other rural constituencies are often harmed by these same exemptions. As a result of these differences, these other constituencies have proven to be more open to changes to agricultural policy.

This stark contrast in attitudes among different rural groups is in part the result of a long and consistent history of farm policy that has favored white landowning farmers over others. The first Civil War Congress in 1861 created USDA, passed the Morrill Act—which provided funding for a nationwide system of colleges for “the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts”—and enacted the Homestead Act. The federal government eventually granted 246 million acres to 1.5 million families through the Homestead Act and its successors.43 Effectively closed off to most Blacks and other minorities, homesteading gave European immigrants and other white families an opportunity to acquire considerable property and assets.44

In the first decades of the 1900s, Congress expanded the land-grant university system and federal funding for agricultural research, extension, and education. The New Deal increased assistance for large-scale, capital-intensive farms through an array of ambitious new subsidies and federal credit, crop insurance, and technical assistance programs.

The New Deal coalition that passed these new farm laws was heavily reliant on Jim Crow legislators. These legislators killed programs for and research on small farmers and sharecroppers, and ensured federal funds remained under “local control,” by which they meant white landowners. These same legislators also excluded domestic workers and farmworkers, the two most common occupations for Black people, from key statutory benefits and labor protections.45 (Congress extended minimum wage requirements to farmworkers—with some important exceptions—in 1966, but federal law still denies farmworkers the right to unionize or earn overtime pay.) This political alliance of big money agriculture and white supremacy enacted policies that pushed hundreds of thousands of Black tenants and sharecroppers off the farm and into cities, in what one historian called one of the “largest government-impelled population movements in all our history.”46

New Constituencies 47

While farmers have a cabinet-level agency devoted to their interests, there are also millions of other people affected by farm policy who generally have little to no say in it and receive few benefits. Indeed, all too often current farm policy acts against the interests of farmworkers, non-white farmers, and rural people. As a result, these farm policy stakeholders are open to changes to agricultural policy, and many have already been advocating for reforms along the lines of those urged here.

Part of the outsized influence that the small group of farmers has on policy is the belief that they dominate rural economies. A close look shows that is not the case, and that instead most farm income goes elsewhere. The concern for food security also underlies part of the influence on policy of farm owners, but again, the evidence makes clear that employed farmworkers do most of the work on American farms and ensure our food supply. Despite this, they are often denied basic rights by federal policy. Black, indigenous, and Hispanic farm groups have also largely been denied the benefits of farm programs, resulting in most being driven out of farming, and yet they have a history of interest in more sustainable approaches. Finally, farm policy largely ignores the actual expressed interests of rural communities, who, contrary to assumptions, consistently list clean air and water as among their top priorities. All of these constituencies, in addition to farmers and food consumers, must be active and empowered stakeholders to design and implement effective, just, and climate-friendly farm policy reform.

Farms in the Rural Economy

Many commentators argue that farmers are central to the rural economy, or conflate the farm economy with the rural economy in general.48 And this leads many of them to wonder why, with “more farming wealth than ever, farming communities are poorer.”49 The typical answer is that monopolies and financial interests have siphoned off farm wealth. However, as discussed above, farmer income and wealth are far above the median. In fact, farmers play less of a role in the rural economy than is generally assumed.

Today, a small number of capital-intensive farms manage hundreds of millions of acres and produce a tremendous amount of commodity calories with a relatively small number of workers. From 1991 to 2015, farms with at least $1 million in sales (adjusted for inflation) increased their share of total production from 31 percent to 51 percent.50 This increasing dominance of large, industrialized operations has been a major long-term factor in rural depopulation,51 and researchers have associated the arrival of large-scale industrialized farms with increases in local income inequality and community conflict, as well as pollution.52 A study on midwestern counties in the late 2000s found almost no relationship between farm revenues and the non-farm economy.53 A USDA analysis also found that operators on larger farms are more likely to bypass local towns to acquire machinery, farm inputs, and credit.54

Not only do most farms appear to have a limited relationship with their surrounding community, their own role in the rural economy is very small. In 2018, farmers made up about 2 percent of the rural population,55 agricultural jobs—including both jobs on farms and those providing goods and services to farms—accounted for less than 6 percent of all jobs in rural counties, and farm jobs produced only about 3 percent of personal earnings.56 The number of counties defined as “farming dependent” by USDA fell about 10 percent during the 2000s, and the number of farm jobs fell by 14 percent.57

In contrast to the relatively small role that commercial farms and farmers play in rural communities, farmworkers play a larger one. Yet mainstream news reports tend to ignore farmworkers and their challenges.58 For example, in 2018, news outlets ran hundreds of articles about a suicide crisis among farmers, relying on a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found that “farming, fishing, and forestry” workers had the highest suicide rate of any occupational group.59 Journalists and the CDC assumed that this category included farmers, even though in fact it is composed predominantly of farmworkers. As a result, Congress set up a program to address the “farmer suicide crisis,” complete with grant applications that do not mention or otherwise include farmworkers, denying them the opportunity for relief.

There are about 2.5 million farmworkers—about twice as many as active farmers.60 Farmworkers do two-thirds of the work on commercial farms, where almost all production happens, but receive only a quarter of the wages. Crop workers reported a median annual income between only $17,500 and $20,000 in 2015-2016—a third with family incomes below the poverty line.61 USDA data suggest that the farmworker’s share of the food dollar is about a tenth of the farmer’s. Since there are more farmworkers than farmers, this money gets split up more for the former group, so that their incomes wind up an even smaller fraction than those of farmers.

Farmworkers also see little future under current farm policies. Even though the average farmworker is 41 and has been in farm work for more than 10 years, and though half of crop workers say they want to remain in agriculture until they retire, land is far too expensive and the threshold acreage for commercial agriculture far too high for them to have a realistic chance of becoming operators in the United States. Farmworkers face other barriers as well. About 83 percent of farmworkers are Hispanic, the average crop worker has only an eighth grade education, and almost two-thirds of crop workers say they cannot even “somewhat” speak English.

These workers are critical stakeholders and their greater involvement in farm policy would likely support more climate-friendly approaches. Farmworker groups have led campaigns for clean water, pesticide protections, and other environmental reforms since the 1960s and they are now at serious risk from climate change, with heat stress as the deadliest threat for farmworkers.62 Farmworkers are also vulnerable to wildfires due to the physically demanding outdoor nature of their work,63 and the fact that they often cannot afford to stop working.64 In 2018, wildfires burned 1.8 million acres in California, dispersing unsafe levels of smoke for hundreds of miles,65 and 2020 was vastly worse. Their interests must be reflected in effective climate-friendly farm policies, and their support will be critical to achieving those policies.

Non-White Farmers

The modern farm system also excludes almost anyone who is not a landowning white farmer. European settlers took land from the Native Americans and eventually forced them onto reservations. Even after that, the federal government mandated the sale of reservation land to non-Native Americans when tribal lands were deemed to be “surplus” or when the landowner was deemed not “competent” to hold property. Native Americans lost roughly 80 million acres in this way between 1871 and 1928.66 By 1910, freed Black people and their descendants had acquired at least 16 million acres of land, almost all of it in the South.67 Through a variety of means, white families, often with federal assistance, deprived them of almost all of their acreage,68 so that by 2012 there were only about 300 Black commercial farmers, or about 0.2 percent of the total.69 Black farmers’ lost wealth and income since 1910 would be worth hundreds of billions of dollars today according to recent estimates.70 Federal and state governments passed a series of laws in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that barred Asians from owning land. Many Japanese American farmers who had been interned in camps during World War II returned to their farms to find white farmers had stolen them.71

Because of this and other widespread discrimination in landownership and agriculture, almost all farmers are white. USDA also still discriminates against Black and other non-white farmers on a systemic basis. For example, more than 99 percent of the 2019 tariff bail out, the single largest farm subsidy that year, went to white farmers.72 These payments further entrench the positions of those who received them.

Many non-white farmers have responded to this system by working toward reform. Black farmer groups have led numerous campaigns against discrimination at USDA, often connecting their problems with the problems of department employees who have protested harassment, abuse, and mismanagement within USDA itself. Black farmers have also led campaigns in regions throughout the South to prevent the construction of concentrated animal feeding operations and to support safer modes of production. Numerous leaders in the sustainable agriculture movement are non-white, and a wide variety of non-white farmer groups use sustainable and traditional practices to produce food and connect with their culture.73 These leaders are already creating a vision of a more sustainable agriculture, and policymakers should ensure also that farm policy reflects their interests.

Rural Communities

While the interests of rural communities are usually assumed to be identical to those of larger commercial farmers, most rural people are not attached to the farm economy. In rural areas, construction provides about as many jobs as farming, with about twice the total earnings. Health care and social assistance, retail, and manufacturing all provide about twice as many jobs as farming, and government provides almost three times as many.74 In total, these industries account for about 50 percent of the rural jobs and about 60 percent of rural income.75

Moreover, most rural residents are supportive of heightened environmental protections, even those opposed by farmers. Since virtually all of the climate-friendly practices recommended in our book will also reduce air and water pollution, rural residents’ demonstrated concern for clean air and water makes it likely that they will be supportive of policies designed to encourage these practices. A national survey conducted in 2019 found that rural voters were more likely to be concerned about environmental and conservation issues that concerned farmland than urban and suburban voters.76 Rural voters said clean water was their highest environmental priority among the seven listed options and only 26 percent of the respondents opposed government regulations to ensure clean water.77 A majority of rural respondents (52 percent) also agreed with the statement that environmental protection should be prioritized, “even at the risk of curbing economic growth,” in comparison to a small minority (28 percent) who agreed that economic growth should be prioritized, “even if the environment suffers to some extent.”78 A follow-up survey of rural voters in the upper Midwest found that rural voters in the region were much more likely to prioritize “ensuring clean water” and “ensuring clean air” than “conserving farmland/range lands.”79 Sixty-eight percent of voters said that “ensuring clean air” was very important to them personally.80

Recent state-level surveys have also found that rural voters’ main agricultural priority is the regulation of pollution from farms. A 2019 survey in Pennsylvania found that voters rated “safe drinking water,” “protection and conservation of the environment,” and “development of alternative energy sources” highly among environmental and agriculture issues.81 A 2015 survey in Iowa found that the highest-ranked priority for agricultural policy was “protecting drinking water quality,” followed by “protecting water quality for aquatic life.”82 A majority (55 percent) agreed or strongly agreed that “Iowa agriculture has some negative impacts on the environment,” while only 25 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that “farmland use should be regulated to ensure that it does not negatively impact the general public.”83 In addition, 79 percent of surveyed residents said they were concerned or very concerned by “water pollution from livestock production.”84

Rural people who live near industrial livestock facilities have strong reasons to oppose them. CAFOs depress property values,85 and various studies link living near a CAFO with respiratory problems, MRSA, hypertension, and other health problems. Local residents and activist groups often oppose CAFOs because of their foul odors, pollution, and public health risks. These demonstrations rarely make the national news, but they are significant events in the places where they happen. In 2018, more than 150 people turned out to oppose a CAFO in Mercer County, Ohio, home to about 40,000 people; a demonstration of the same relative size in New York City would have had 70,000 people. In 2020, a group called KnowCAFOs in Polk County, Wisconsin, fought off an ordinance that would have allowed new CAFOs in the county.86

So concerned are industry leaders about nuisance cases against animal production facilities that they have successfully urged many state legislators to enact laws limiting such cases.87 When the cases are allowed to proceed, the facts make clear that many rural residents would strongly support policies to limit pollution. For example, people living near a swine CAFO in eastern North Carolina filed a nuisance suit in 2014 against a subsidiary of Smithfield alleging that odors, pests, and truck traffic from a CAFO unreasonably interfered with their use and enjoyment of their properties.88 In 2018, a jury found in favor of these neighbors, awarding them millions of dollars of compensatory and punitive damages, and in 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit largely affirmed the awards.89 A judge, concurring in the judgment, wrote:

It is well-established—almost to the point of judicial notice—that environmental harms are visited disproportionately upon the dispossessed—here on minority populations and poor communities. But whether a home borders a golf course or a dirt road, it is a castle for those who reside in it. It is where children play and grow, friends sit and visit, and a life is built. Many plaintiffs in this suit have tended their hearths for generations—one family for almost 100 years. They are exactly whom the venerable tort of nuisance ought to protect. Murphy-Brown’s interference with their quiet enjoyment of their properties was unreasonable. It was willful, and it was wanton. The record fully supports the jury’s finding that punitive damages were warranted.90

Local rural groups have led similar fights against pesticides. A 2019 literature review found that people who live closer to agricultural land have higher levels of pesticide exposure.91 Both acute and chronic exposure to pesticides is associated with cancer, depression, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, respiratory diseases, and other chronic ailments.92 In 2012, a coalition of environmental, farmworker, and local California groups filed suit in response to the approval of methyl iodide, one of the most toxic pesticides used in agriculture. In response, the manufacturer pulled the pesticide from the U.S. market and it was eventually banned.

There are broad swaths of the rural population, far more numerous than farmers, who see the need for stronger environmental protections and would support policies to accelerate adoption of climate-friendly practices. Policymakers must include them fully as stakeholders.

The Opportunity for Carbon Farming

The modern agricultural system produces a vast amount of food cheaply, but with significant environmental and social costs. It externalizes the costs of water, air, and climate pollution, depends on resource extraction, and relies on an immigrant work force with few rights. And it is built on a system that must be changed, having been so shaped by people opposed to the interests of farmworkers, non-white farmers, and the rural poor.

The system of industrialized monocultures supported by federal policy depopulated rural towns, while polluting the air and water throughout the countryside. Farmers were once a large and diverse group, both in their backgrounds and in the operations they ran; now, in large part due to policy choices, the farmers that dominate policymaking are a small and largely homogeneous group of conservative, wealthy, and white families.

Just as federal policy has largely shaped today’s system, federal policy can change it. These changes could benefit and would be supported by many groups who should have a role in policymaking. While our recommendations to accelerate regenerative farming will also benefit farmers, we need to enlist everyone in the debate. Policies that expand carbon farming can create new constituencies with Black and other non-white farmers, agricultural workers, and rural residents. These constituencies, together with farmers already on the forefront of change, will, in turn, ensure these policies are successful, that they will endure, and that they are spread across the entire agricultural system. Together these constituencies will create a more just and sustainable farm economy. ELI Press


bar chart comparison of farm and household net worth


This article first appeared as a chapter in Farming for Our Future: The Science, Law, and Policy of Climate-Neutral Agriculture, $24.95. Published by ELI Press, the book publishing arm of the Environmental Law Institute.

1. Robert Leonard, Trump Has Sucker-Punched Farmers. America Will Suffer, N.Y. Times, Jan. 14, 2019, See also Annie Gowen, Left Behind: Farmers Fight to Save Their Land in Rural Minnesota as Trade War Intensifies, Wash. Post, Aug. 3, 2019,; John Muyskens et al., Midwestern Farmers’ Struggles With Extreme Weather Are Visible From Space, Wash. Post, July 2, 2019,; Laura Reiley, Weather Woes Cause American Corn Farmers to Throw in the Towel, Wash. Post, June 18, 2019,; Amber Phillips, Trump’s Trade War Could Cost Him With a Key Constituency: Farmers, Wash. Post, Aug. 28, 2019,; Daniel W. Drezner, Donald Trump Has Emasculated the American Farmer, Wash. Post, Aug. 13, 2019,; Tory Newmyer, The Finance 202: Trump’s Trade War Keeps Punishing Farmers. But Farmers Remain Optimistic, Wash. Post, Aug. 7, 2019,; Annie Gowen, “I’m Gonna Lose Everything”: A Farm Family Struggles to Recover After Rising Debt Pushes a Husband to Suicide, Wash. Post, Nov. 9, 2019,

2. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service, Net Cash Income, (last updated Sept. 2, 2020).

3. See, e.g., Elizabeth Grieco, For Many Rural Residents in U.S., Local News Media Mostly Don’t Cover the Area Where They Live, Pew Res. Center: Factank, Apr. 12, 2019,; April Simpson, As Local News Outlets Shutter, Rural America Suffers Most, Stateline, Oct. 21, 2019,; Jim Boren, Agriculture Is Huge Story in California, but Newsrooms Around the State Aren’t Paying Attention to the Details, Fresno St. Inst. for Media & Pub. Tr., Dec. 9, 2019,; Chris Clayton, The Agriculture Beat Is a Crucial Lens on a Changing Climate, Colum. Journalism Rev., Oct. 24, 2017,

4. Labor law scholars have dubbed the phenomenon “agricultural exceptionalism” and environmental law scholars refer to the “anti-law” of farming and the environment due to the sector’s almost total exclusion from environmental regulations. E.g., Juan Perea, The Echoes of Slavery: Recognizing the Racist Origins of Agricultural and Domestic Worker Exclusion From the National Labor Relations Act, 72 Ohio St. L.J. 95-138 (2011) (discussing agricultural exceptionalism); J.B. Ruhl, Farms, Their Environmental Harms, and Environmental Law, 27 Ecology L.Q. 263, 295-305 (2000) (arguing that the environmental law of agriculture constitutes an “anti-law”).

5. Philip L. Martin, Giannini Foundation, Immigration and Farm Labor: Challenges and Opportunities 2 (2017).

6. Craig Gundersen & Susan E. Offut, Farm Poverty and Safety Nets, 87 Am. J. Agric. Econ. 885, 885 (2005).

7. See Nathan A. Rosenberg & Bryce Wilson Stucki, The Butz Stops Here: Why the Food Movement Needs to Rethink Agricultural History, 13 J. Food L. & Pol’y2, 13-14 (2017).

8. Id. at 20-22.

9. Id. at 14.

10. Id.

11. Id. at 20-22.

12. Seventy-five percent of limited-resource farmers sold less than $10,000 of agricultural products in gross sales. Agricultural Resource Management Survey Special Tabulation Request From USDA ERS to Nathan Rosenberg (June 25, 2019) (on file with authors).

13. Jesse Newman & Jacob Bunge, “This One Here Is Gonna Kick My Butt”—Farm Belt Bankruptcies Are Soaring, Wall St. J., Feb. 6, 2019,

14. Nathan A. Rosenberg, Farmers Who Don’t Farm: The Curious Rise of the Zero-Sales Farmer, 7 J. Agric. Food Sys. & Community Dev. 2-4 (2017), available at

15. Calculated by the authors from CPS March supplement data. Nat’l Bureau of Econ. Res., NBER CPS Supplements, available at (last visited Jan. 23, 2021).

16. National Agricultural Statistics Service, USDA, 2017 Census of Agriculture, U.S. National Level Data VII (2019) [hereinafter 2017 Census of Agriculture].

17. A total of 47.9 percent of all farms in the 2017 Census of Agriculture sold less than $5,000 in agricultural products.

18. See Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Response No. 2019-REE-02265-F From USDA to Authors (Sept. 30, 2019) (on file with authors) (showing the point values used by USDA); Maggie Koerth, Big Farms Are Getting Bigger and Most Small Farms Aren’t Really Farms at All, FiveThirtyEight, Nov. 17, 2016,

19. See FOIA Response No. 2019-REE-02265-F, supra note 18.

20. See Rosenberg, supra note 14 (describing methodological changes to the census that lead to higher numbers of zero-sales and other point farms).

21. 2017 Census of Agriculture, supra note 16, at 9 tbl.2.

22. Calculated by the authors using Special Tabulation Request From USDA to Nathan Rosenberg (Nov. 20, 2019) (on file with authors) and 2017 Census of Agriculture, supra note 16. In comparison, less than 6 percent of farms had zero-sales in 1992, the last agricultural census administered by the Census Bureau. Rosenberg, supra note 14, at 3.

23. See National Agricultural Statistics Service, USDA, 2012 Census of Agriculture, Farm Typology 1 tbl.1 (2015) [hereinafter 2012 Census of Agriculture].

24. Robert A. Hoppe & James M. MacDonald, USDA, Updating the ERS Farm Typology 11 (2013) (EIB-110).

25. Koerth, supra note 18.

26. John E. Anderson, Agricultural Use-Value Property Tax Assessment: Estimation and Policy Issues 1 (2011).

27. For example, a 2005 Miami Herald investigation into Florida’s property tax expenditures for farmland found that local property appraisers awarded tax breaks on land that had been purchased for more than three times its agricultural value, rezoned for development, and not kept up to farming standards. Beth Reinhard & Samuel P. Nitze, Law Fails to Save Florida Farmland, Miami Herald, Sept. 8, 2014,

28. See, e.g., Jordan Weissman, America’s Dumbest Tax Loophole: The Florida Rent-a-Cow Scam, Atlantic, Apr. 17, 2012,

29. Richard Rubin, Goat Herd Helps Trump Lower Tax Bite, Wall St. J., Apr. 20, 2016,

30. S.C. Code Ann. §12-43-232 (2020).

31. More than 73 percent of taxpayers filing Schedule F reported net losses. IRS, Table 1.3. All Returns: Sources of Income, Adjustments, Deductions, Credits, and Tax Items, by Marital Status, Tax Year 2017 (Filing Year 2018), (last updated Sept. 3, 2020).

32. Id.

33. USDA Economic Research Service, Tailored Reports: Farm Structure and Finance, (last updated Dec. 10, 2019).

34. Id. (reporting approximately one million operators who said their primary occupation was farming); 2017 Census of Agriculture, supra note 16, at 62 tbl.52 (reporting more than 1.4 million operators who said their primary occupation was farming).

35. Calculated by the authors using 2018 CPS March Supplement data. Nat’l Bureau of Econ. Res., supra note 15. To produce the estimates, the authors used the standard methodology. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey 2018 ASEC Supplement, available at We calculated “farm households” by calculating the number of households with someone who said their longest job in the previous year was as a farmer in the household. We calculated farmers as the count of people who said their longest job in the previous year was as a farmer.

36. 2017 Census of Agriculture, supra note 16, at 7 tbl.1, 62 tbl.52. Farm groups sometimes argue most low-sales farms like those excluded from USDA’s farm business count would expand their operations if they had the financial wherewithal. However, the evidence strongly suggests that this is not the case. USDA data show that “farms” with low and very low sales are almost exclusively owned by households with comfortable incomes and above average wealth (even excluding farm assets).

37. The series began in 1929. See USDA Economic Research Service, supra note 2.

38. Ana Swanson & Jim Tankersley, As Trump Appeals to Farmers, Some of His Policies Don’t, N.Y. Times, Jan. 7, 2018,

39. USDA Economic Research Service, Tailored Reports: Operator Household Balance Sheet, (last updated Dec. 18, 2020).

40. Id. Note that “low-sales farms” are sometimes called “intermediate farms” in USDA’s collapsed typology.

41. Calculated by authors using National Council of Real Estate Investment Fiduciaries (NCREIF), NCREIF Farmland Property Index, (last visited Jan. 23, 2021); David A. Lins et al., Institutional Portfolios: Diversification Through Farmland Investment, 20 Real Estate Econ. 549-71 (1992); Roger G. Ibbotson & Laurence B. Siegal, Real Estate Returns: A Comparison With Other Investments, 12 Real Estate Econ. 219-42 (1984). A study of tax returns suggests farmers also seriously understate their incomes to save even more money. Naomi E. Feldman & Joel Slemrod, Estimating Tax Noncompliance With Evidence From Unaudited Tax Returns, 117 Econ. J. 327, 347 tbl.7 (2007) (estimating substantially lower rates of tax compliance among farm businesses than other types of businesses).

42. Statistics are for primary producers. 2017 Census of Agriculture, supra note 16, at 62 tbl.52.

43. Trina Shanks, The Homestead Act: A Major Asset-Building Policy in American History, in Inclusion in the American Dream: Assets, Poverty, and Public Policy 29 (Michael Sherraden ed., Oxford University Press 2005).

44. Id. at 36; Keri Leigh Merritt, Land and the Roots of African-American Poverty, Aeon, Mar. 11, 2016,

45. E.g., Perea, supra note 4. Thus, when Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which extended organizing and collective bargaining rights to workers, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which extended minimum wage and overtime requirements, farmworkers were excluded.

46. Donald H. Grubbs, Lessons of the New Deal, in The People’s Land 19, 20 (Peter Barnes ed., Rodale Press 1975).

47. We refer to these groups as “new constituencies” not because they are new to agriculture but rather because farm policy does not currently serve their interests.

48. See, e.g., Tim Marema & Bill Bishop, White House Adviser Erroneously Calls Ag the “Primary Driver” of Rural Economy, Daily Yonder, Apr. 25, 2017 (explaining that agriculture is not the “primary driver” of the rural economy, contrary to the statement of a White House adviser),

49. Nick Shaxson, Rural America Doesn’t Have to Starve to Death, Nation, Feb. 18, 2020,

50. James M. MacDonald, USDA, Three Decades of Consolidation in U.S. Agriculture 37 (2018) (EIB-189).

51. Kenneth M. Johnson & Daniel T. Lichter, Rural Depopulation: Growth and Decline Processes Over the Past Century, 84 Rural Soc. 3, 14-15 (2019).

52. Linda Lobao & Curtis W. Stofferahn, The Community Effects of Industrialized Farming: Social Science Research and Challenges to Corporate Farming Laws, 25 Agric. Hum. Values 219-40 (2008).

53. Jeremy G. Weber et al., Crop Prices, Agricultural Revenues, and the Rural Economy, 37 Applied Econ. Persp. 459-76 (2014).

54. J. Michael Harris et al., USDA, Agricultural Income and Finance Outlook 69 (2009) (AIS-88).

55. Calculated by the authors using Economic Research Service, USDA, Rural America at a Glance: 2019 Edition 1 (2019) (EIB-212) (reporting approximately 45 million people in non-metro areas), and our estimate, supra Chapter II.A.2, of approximately one million farmers.

56. U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Regional Data, (last visited Oct. 26, 2020).

57. Timothy Parker, Updated ERS County Economic Types Show a Changing Rural Landscape, Amber Waves, Dec. 7, 2015,

58. In 2019, for example, the Washington Post ran at least seven articles on the financial fortunes of farmers, but only three on farmworkers, and each of those articles discussed farmworkers from their employers’ perspective. Annie Gowen & David Nakamura, Rallying Farmers, Trump Pushes Border Wall but Opens Door to More Immigrants in Agriculture Jobs, Wash. Post, Jan. 14, 2019,; Danielle Paquette, Farmworker vs. Robot, Wash. Post, Feb. 17, 2019,; Kevin Sieff & Annie Gowen, With Fewer Undocumented Workers to Hire, U.S. Farmers Are Fueling a Surge in the Number of Legal Guest Workers, Wash. Post, Feb. 21, 2019,

59. Bryce Wilson Stucki & Nathan Rosenberg, How a Simple CDC Error Inflated the Farmer Suicide Crisis Story—And Led to a Rash of Inaccurate Reporting, Counter, June 21, 2018,

60. Martin, supra note 5.

61. JBS International, Inc., Findings From the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS): A Demographic and Employment Profile of United States Farmworkers 2015-2016, at 36 (2018).

62. S.E. Smith, Heat Is Now the Deadliest Threat to Farmworkers. Only Two States Protect Them From It, Talk Poverty, June 20, 2019,

63. Heather E. Riden et al., Wildfire Smoke Exposure: Awareness and Safety Responses in the Agricultural Workplace, 25 J. Agromedicine 1 (2020).

64. Danielle Paquette, During California Wildfires, Farmworkers Say They Felt Pressure to Keep Working or Lose Their Jobs, Wash. Post, Nov. 20, 2018,

65. Riden et al., supra note 63.

66. Jessica A. Shoemaker, An Introduction to American Indian Land Tenure: Mapping the Legal Landscape, 5 J.L. Prop. & Soc’y 1, 22-23 (2020).

67. Jess Gilbert & Gwen Sharp, The Loss and Persistence of Black-Owned Farms and Farmland: A Review of the Research Literature and Its Implications, 18 J. Rural Soc. Sci. 1, 2 (2002).

68. See, e.g., Pete Daniel, Dispossession: Discrimination Against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights (2013); Nathan Rosenberg & Bryce Stucki, How USDA Distorted Data to Conceal Decades of Discrimination Against Black Farmers, The Counter, June 26, 2019,

69. Calculated by the authors using 2012 Census of Agriculture, supra note 23, at 9 tbl.1.

70. Vann R. Newkirk II, The Great Land Robbery, The Atlantic, Sept. 29, 2019,

71. Megan Horst & Amy Marion, Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Inequities in Farmland Ownership and Farming in the U.S., 36 Agric. & Hum. Values 3 (2019).

72. Nathan Rosenberg & Bryce Wilson Stucki, USDA Gave Almost 100 Percent of Trump’s Trade War Bailout to White Farmers, Counter, July 29, 2019,

73. See, e.g., Nadra Nittle, The People’s Agroecology Process Brings a Global Lens to U.S. Food Justice Work, Civ. Eats, Sept. 10, 2020,

74. U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, supra note 56.

75. Id.

76. Robert Bonnie et al., Duke Nicholas Institute, Understanding Rural Attitudes Toward the Environment and Conservation in America 15 fig.4 (2020).

77. Id. at 15 fig.4 & 19 fig.9.

78. Id. at 21 fig.11.

79. Id. at 19 fig.9.

80. Id.

81. Daniel J. Mallinson et al., Center for Rural Pennsylvania, Attitudinal Survey of Pennsylvanians, 2019, at 105 (2020).

82. J. Gordon Arbuckle et al., Iowan’s Perspectives on Targeted Approaches for Multiple-Benefit Agriculture 2 fig.1 (Iowa State University, Sociology Technical Report No. 1038, 2015).

83. Id. at 4 tbl.2.

84. Id. at 6 tbl.3.

85. Kelley Donham et al., Community Health and Socioeconomic Issues Surrounding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, 115 Env’t Health Persp. 317, 319 (2007).

86. Polk County: Thank You! CAFO Ordinance Stalls Under Mountain of Negative Comments, KnowCAFOs, July 9, 2020,

87. See, e.g., Emily Moon, Missouri Outlaws Rural Residents’ Last Line of Protection Against CAFOs, Pac. Standard, May 17, 2019,; Morgan Niezing et al., Government Eases Up on CAFOs as Residents Fight Their Expansion, Missourian, Aug. 9, 2018,; Chris Braun, “Keep Makin’ Bacon”: Indiana’s Right to Farm Act Statute Upheld as Constitutional, American College of Environmental Lawyers, Jan. 11, 2021, percentE2 percent80 percent99-Bacon percentE2 percent80 percent9D-Indiana percentE2 percent80 percent99s-Right-to-Farm-Act-Statute-Upheld-As-Constitutional.aspx.

88. Barry Yeoman, Jury Awarded Hog Farm Neighbors $3.25 Million. Will Three-Wuarters of That Be Erased?, Charlotte Observer, Jan. 31, 2020,

89. McKiver v. Murphy-Brown, LLC, No. 19-1019 (4th Cir. 2020).

90. Id.

91. Clementine Dereumeaux et al., Pesticide Exposures for Residents Living Close to Agricultural Lands: A Review, 134 Env’t Int’l (2019),

92. Aaron Blair et al., Pesticides and Human Health, 72 Occupational & Env’t Med. 81 (2015).

ELI PRESS A closer look at farmers, farmworkers, farm communities.

The Environmental Argument for Less Meat in Your Diet
Stephen R. Dujack - Environmental Law Institute
Akielly Hu - Environmental Law Institute
Environmental Law Institute
Environmental Law Institute
Current Issue

Just over a half-century ago, Diet for a Small Planet, Frances Moore Lappé’s surprise best seller, exposed the harms of animal agriculture to a wide audience in the same way that Rachel Carson’s book of a decade earlier, Silent Spring, put to widespread shame the practice of applying pesticides to cropland. The title of Moore Lappé’s book encapsulates her thesis. The math in 1971 made a compelling case that abandoning meat is indeed necessary to avoid crossing planetary boundaries.

And we have up-to-date figures that confirm her conclusions. As revealed in a Sidebar to be published in our next issue, by Harvard’s Sparsha Saha, “Animal agriculture uses 83 percent of all available farmland on the entire planet . . .yet it produces just 18 percent of our calories and 37 percent of our protein.” The numbers are from a 2018 article by Oxford University’s Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek published in Science. Their report takes a comprehensive look at the world’s food system.

The scholars conclude that meat farming produces a majority of agriculture’s harmful climate effects. Indeed, as Poore and Nemecek state, “Converting grass into [meat] is like converting coal to energy. It comes with an immense cost in emissions.” Avoiding animal products entirely could reduce an individual’s effect on the climate system from growing food by 73 percent.

In reporting on this research, The Independent concluded that cutting out meat and dairy “is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use, and water use.”

Poore believes a labeling system can drive consumer behavior toward less meat. “The problem is, you can’t just put environmental labels on a handful of foods and look to see if there is some effect on purchasing,” he says. “Consumers take time to become aware of things, and then even more to act on them. Furthermore, the labels probably need to be in combination with taxes and subsidies.” He is still positive on the concept: “My view is that communicating information to consumers could tip the entire food system toward sustainability and accountability.”

In that regard, a bar chart published at highlights the problems of growing meat. It portrays the greenhouse gas emissions per unit of food type sorted by product weight. The conclusion is obvious: with a few minor exceptions, animal protein is more climate affecting than is protein derived from vegetable sources.

Beef is literally off the chart, more than twice the emissions per kilogram of product than the next highest food source. Indeed, beef has 40 times the climate impact per kilogram as does rice, and almost all other animal foods show a smaller but still substantial discrepancy. This is in addition to other resources that it takes to raise animals, including over 450 gallons of water to produce every McDonald’s Quarterpounder.

According to Poore and Nemecek, if humanity gave up animal agriculture, “Global farmland use could be reduced by 75 percent, an area equivalent to the size of the U.S., China, Australia, and the EU combined.” In other words, The Independent concludes in reviewing their research, “Not only would this result in a significant drop in greenhouse gas emissions, it would also free up wild land lost to agriculture, one of the primary causes for mass wildlife extinction.”

Even Consumer Reports is making the case for eating less meat and dairy. It reports on a Nature Food article that calculates “the way we grow, transport, and consume food accounts for about a third of the planet-heating gases created by humans, with animal-based foods causing twice as much as plant-based ones.” The magazine notes that “beef alone accounts for roughly half the emissions linked to U.S. diets but provides just 3 percent of the calories.”

Beef comes up once again in research out of Johns Hopkins University showing that plant-based fake meats have a “carbon footprint about 90 percent smaller than beef’s,” according to the magazine. “On the other hand, they are “1.6 to 7 times more energy-intensive then tofu, peas, or other less processed plant proteins.”

Every little bit helps. You can reduce the amount of meat in your diet as a first step—smaller portions or meatless days. You can make meat a side dish instead of the main course. You can make vegetable combos with morsels of meat in a supporting role. If you are looking for recipes, Diet for a Small Planet has several nourishing dishes in the meals it presents, although it is not the latest word on the input ratios in a healthy diet.

All environmental professionals should be aware that the latest data on the harms of animal agriculture are clear and compelling. Meaningful actions in response are simple—and delicious. —Stephen R. Dujack, Editor


Food Staples for Thought

Rice is a primary food source for more than half of the world’s population—especially in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In China, the rice-consuming culture I’m most familiar with, rice is breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert. Even the Chinese character for “cooked rice” simultaneously means “food.” Rice is security, sustenance, and life itself.

It’s also one of the crops most vulnerable to climate change. A 2018 study led by Chunwu Zhu revealed that higher atmospheric carbon dioxide levels cause a decrease in nutrient levels of rice. The researchers found that at levels of about 580 parts per million, several B vitamins—crucial for bodily functions like nervous system regulation, metabolism, and immune response—decreased by 13 to 30 percent. Protein declined by an average of 10 percent; iron by 8 percent; and zinc by 5 percent. “Everything is becoming more like junk food,” David Wallace-Wells writes of this phenomenon in The Uninhabitable Earth.

How does this happen, given that carbon dioxide, the key input for photosynthesis, theoretically should promote more plant growth? It turns out that more plant mass isn’t always a good thing. While carbon dioxide does stimulate carbohydrate production, it doesn’t do the same for nutrients. The result is “a dilution effect of the nutrients in the grains,” says biologist Lisa Ainsworth, as reported by the UN Environment Programme.

“Acting just through that single crop, rice, carbon emissions could imperil the health of 600 million people,” Wallace-Wells reports. It’s a dire problem deserving of more attention. Already, millions of people are food-insecure. Two billion “have deficiencies of important micronutrients such as iron, iodine and zinc,” writes one of the study authors Kristie Ebi in The Conversation. These nutritional climate effects will only intensify existing health burdens.

They are also not the only risks to rice production. Rising temperatures, increased flooding, saltwater intrusion, and drought all reduce yields of the staple food. Moreover, a 2021 study in Science of the Total Environment found that higher temperatures increase rice’s uptake of arsenic, a toxic metal.

Just to complicate the issue even more, rice is actually itself a source of the potent greenhouse gas methane. While alleviating climate risks to rice, we also need to consider practices like alternate wetting and drying of rice fields to mitigate these emissions.

In response to these many challenges, Ebi calls for investments in further research to better understand the effects of climate change on rice and nutrition. Plant breeding for resiliency, genetic modification, and nutritional supplements are additional ways to address the issue. Still others have called for water-saving techniques to cope with drought.

Meanwhile, carbon emissions continue to shoot up—reaching a record high of 421 parts per million in May—as we burn ever-increasing amounts of fossil fuels. Debates on carbon-capture technologies aside, many of the changes we’ve brought on to the world’s most important staple food are irreversible. As the Chinese proverb goes, the rice has already been cooked. Actions taken cannot be undone. —Akielly Hu, Associate Editor

Notice & Comment is the editors’ column and represents the signatory’s views.


They Are Everywhere. They Last Forever. They Harm Health

Because of their widespread use, release and disposal over the decades, PFASs show up virtually everywhere: in soil, surface water, the atmosphere, the deep ocean—and even the human body. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s web site says that the agency has found PFASs in the blood of nearly everyone it has tested for them, “indicating widespread exposure to these PFAS in the U.S. population.” Scientists have found links between a number of the chemicals and many health concerns—including kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, liver damage, developmental toxicity, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, pregnancy-induced preeclampsia and hypertension, and immune dysfunction. —Scientific American

Decades of federal housing discrimination did not only depress home values, lower job opportunities and spur poverty in communities deemed undesirable because of race. It’s why 45 million Americans are breathing dirtier air today. . . . Redlining was outlawed more than a half-century ago, but it continues to impact people who live in neighborhoods that government mortgage officers shunned for 30 years because people of color and immigrants lived in them. —Washington Post

The Editors on What's on Professionals' Plates

Too Much Science in Ranching, Farming, Forestry, Public Lands Management
Craig M. Pease - Ph.D Scientist and Former Law School Professor
Ph.D Scientist and Former Law School Professor
Current Issue
Craig M. Pease

President Biden has made science advisor Eric Lander a member of the Cabinet, a first. The Bureau of Land Management now touts it is “listening to the science.” These developments are good news, of course, after four years of science denial. Yet like all tools, science has its limits.

Good science almost invariably promotes strong environmental protection. Yet sometimes, good science will never be available, as with the potential harm to the great-great-grandchildren of those exposed to nanoplastics.

Rotational grazing pioneer Alan Savory has enjoyed unparalleled success. He recently said, “People coming out of a university . . . , you take them into the field and they literally don’t believe anything unless it’s a peer-reviewed paper. It’s the only thing they accept.” His words are not hyperbole. I once got into a heated dispute with an accomplished biostatistician who simply could not believe that rotational grazing worked.

If one defines good science as the theories and their supporting data and statistics that one can publish in a peer-reviewed journal, then the best ranching, farming, and forestry being done today does involve good science. But agriculture in an era of climate adaptation involves complex ecosystems. Science, and statistics in particular, both have limited applicability to complex systems.

We live in a milieu of complexity. A smudge of dirt might contain over 5,000 species of microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, protozoans), and around 10 billion individuals, one individual containing some three million proteins. A diagram of a bacterium’s biochemical pathways looks like Escher painted a bowl of spaghetti. Scaling up, a 100- acre ranch might have over one billion pounds of topsoil and a multitude of native plants, insects, mammals, and birds, embedded in complex political-social-economic and climate systems, topped off with a dollop of cows.

The limits of statistics trace back to its very origins. Ronald Fisher and the other statistical pioneers of the first half of the 20th century specifically wanted to increase yields in farming and ranching. Their genius took incredibly complex agricultural systems, and, using randomization, replication and controls, gathered data on one or a small handful of variables, holding all else constant. Those data can then be analyzed with statistics.

We face a dilemma. There is a sort of complex systems uncertainty principle: The more successfully we isolate, rigorously study, and manage one variable in a complex system, the less we learn about and manage that complex system as a whole. It’s worse. When we demand good science when it is not appropriate, the limits of science induce serious pathologies in the very structure of our institutions.

Though most environmentalists will be horrified, I’d argue that the agricultural institutions most explicitly grounded in science are those of factory farms, corn monocultures, glyphosate herbicide, and processed food at the supermarket as the end product. Industrial agriculture focuses on one specific variable professionals can measure and manipulate-—pounds marketed per unit inputs of water, fertilizer, pesticides, and labor. The corps of agribusiness scientists maintains the intellectual heritage of the statistics pioneers, which heritage of rigor has now summoned forth a veritable catastrophe in the health of ecosystems and human consumers.

There are striking and disturbing parallels between industrial agriculture and science-based environmental litigation on public lands. The 2015 Sage Grouse Plan is grounded in a tremendous amount of science, and it protects millions of acres of high desert sagebrush. It originally arose to avoid the certain adverse political fallout from listing the Sage Grouse as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. It remains unlisted. Originally under President Obama, the plan withdrew many acres from gas and mineral development, which Trump attempted to undo, and Biden is now attempting to reinstate, per the government’s response to a March 2021 court order. The Sage Grouse Plan’s focus on one particular species within a complex ecosystem looks a lot like industrial agriculture.

Savory, the grazing pioneer, manages ecosystems in ways science cannot capture, but humans can comprehend. He is the intellectual heir not of formal science and statisticians, but rather the land management of indigenous peoples and medieval peasants.

January past, incoming President Biden sent Lander a letter posing five Panglossian questions, including the inevitable genuflect to progress. Nary a mention of limits to science, nor the disadvantages of technology. No hint that most all the economic, scientific, and technological progress of the last century would never have happened without fossil fuel consumption, which Biden has pledged to restrain.

Good science requires we recognize and respect its limits. Especially in ranching, farming, and forestry, science is often ill-suited, or even counterproductive.

Too Much Science in Ranching, Farming, Forestry, Public Lands Management.

Good for Ag, Good for the Bioeconomy
Keira Havens - Pivot Bio
Pivot Bio
Current Issue
Parent Article
Keira Havens

Production agriculture is a cornerstone of the trillion-dollar bioengineering industry, yet it is often overlooked and underfunded. In other sectors, private equity investment and national-level initiatives have worked hand-in-hand to jump start research, tool development, and novel applications of biology. Programs like U.S. Department of Agriculture’s BioPreferred ensure that the government is a ready and willing market for novel products manufactured with sustainable practices. However, agriculture itself is often discussed in isolation from the bioeconomy, and could benefit from a national-level focus on the development of new tools and markets for the production of sustainable, resilient, and domestic feedstocks.

Investment in agricultural research and economic support for growers implementing sustainable practices are essential to realizing the promise of a circular bioeconomy. American commodity crop growers cultivate millions of tons to provide the biomass that is converted into fuel, feed, food, and fiber. Crops like corn also provide the sugar for fermentation that drives much of the bioeconomy. A national discussion that includes commodity growers as an essential element of the bioeconomy integrates inputs critical to the successful trial and deployment of new agricultural tools, with the potential to change the definition of best practice in the field.

Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is one of the oldest tools available to farmers. But it presents a catch for the bioeconomy. Even when used with best practices, half of nitrogen fertilizer never reaches the plants; it’s lost to the environment.

Fertilizer production and loss to the environment account for up to half of the global warming potential of an acre of corn. Without the downside of synthetic nitrogen, corn is one of the plants best suited to capture carbon from the air and serve it up as biomass and sugar feedstocks for the bioeconomy. As long as synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is required for productive agriculture, nitrogen loss will offset the benefits of a robust and sustainable bioeconomy.

There are systemic benefits to re-thinking tools and best practices in light of the unique advantages biotechnology offers. For example, nitrogen-fixing microbes, developed using tools and knowledge from other sectors of the bioeconomy, are part of the solution to the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer dilemma. The microbes bring cutting-edge biology to the field and facilitate the previously impossible: a transition away from petroleum-based synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, allowing growers to maintain productivity while operating with a lighter environmental footprint.

Microbes as a nitrogen source can reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with fertilizer manufacturing by 98 percent Furthermore, emissions reduction for commodity row crops like corn ripple through both traditional markets like animal feed and essential biomanufacturing pipelines like fuel production and fermentation. This innovation brings us closer to realizing the full potential of the bioeconomy by examining the essential needs of growers and working with biology to eliminate barriers like nitrogen loss.

When we invest in technologies — biological or otherwise — that benefit growers through both improved agricultural productivity and improved sustainability, we reap benefits in the bioeconomy at large. Each innovation that makes production agriculture more sustainable means that the bioeconomy can further distinguish itself as a long-term solution to provide essential goods and services without compromising our resources. Biology advances beyond the static, linear expectations of traditional chemistries and offers dynamic tools that cultivate resilience as well as reliability.

Innovation is the key to delivering clean water, clean air, and a healthy planet to the next generation. When we make use of new tools, powerful algorithms, and models that allow us to rapidly test our understanding of interconnected systems, biology becomes a source of innovation with the capacity for unrivaled impact. Policies that recognize the sustainable intensification of agriculture as a cornerstone of the bioeconomy will help realize the full potential of this rapidly growing industry.

Conservation vs. Exploitation
Is Napa Valley a Sustainable Garden of Eden?
Ridgway Hall - Chesapeake Legal Alliance
Chesapeake Legal Alliance
Current Issue

Napa! What does that name conjure up? Delicious wines? A bucolic “paradise valley” with thousands of green acres stretching from the Napa River to the Mayacamas Mountains to the west and Howell Mountain to the east? Farmland undergoing rapid development? It is all of these, but the reality is more complicated. It is a microcosm of the struggle going on across America between profit-driven development and resource conservation.

Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity is the recently published third volume of a trilogy on this subject by James Conaway. The first in the series, Napa: the Story of an American Eden (1990), a New York Times best seller, describes this place where climate, soil, and weather conditions are extraordinarily well-suited to the growing of grapes from which excellent wines can be produced. In the late 19th century a few adventurers, including immi-
grants from Europe who brought with them knowledge on how to grow grapes, matching grapes to climate, and the making of wine, came to the Napa Valley. They produced wine profitably, built large mansions on the hillsides, and then the combination of a grape disease and Prohibition shut them down. In the 1960s, people eager to leave city life for a living in a beautiful setting “rediscovered” Napa and revived the wine industry.

By 1976 the wineries that sprung up in Napa Valley were producing wine of such excellence that two Napa vintages, a cabernet sauvignon and a chardonnay, won a blind taste testing in Paris against some of the very best French wines. As the number of wineries expanded rapidly, other businesses began to arrive, bringing construction equipment and traffic. In 1968 the county wisely declared agriculture to be the “highest and best use” of the land and created in the Napa Valley the first “agricultural preserve” in the country. “Agriculture” included “the raising of crops, trees, and livestock, [and] the production and processing of agricultural products.” A house or farm building required at least 40 acres.

Conaway’s second book in the trilogy, The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land and the Battle for Napa Valley (2003), describes the extraordinary wealth generated by Napa’s wines, and the arrival of absentee corporate owners and real estate developers whose main interest was making money. This led to planting vineyards on steep slopes, and the associated cutting of enormous numbers of trees, which in turn led to erosion and pollution of the Napa River, which runs from north to south through the valley. The river was home to salmon and steelhead before the deteriorating water quality drove them out. This development also began to take its toll on the appearance of the valley and the hillsides, including new structures, heavy traffic, dust, bulldozers, and other earth-moving equipment.

Napa at Last Light begins with a recap of this history, and then brings the saga up to 2017. (Disclosure: I read and provided comments on an early draft of the book). Conaway has spent over 30 years traveling up and down the approximately 25 mile Napa Valley and the surrounding communities, getting to know the people, their desires, values, and personalities. As a result, reading his books is not just a story of the evolution of a community. It is also getting to know the grape growers, the winemakers, and their families, many of the original owners, the preservationists, the concerned citizens, the newcomers looking to make big money fast, and the local officials. You encounter the organizations that spring up on all sides, and their interactions. After reading about the fist fight between Robert and Peter Mondavi to decide the ownership of the family business, you may never look at a bottle of Mondavi quite the same.

There are now over 400 wineries in Napa Valley, and efforts continue to increase production and profits. Some winery owners tried to increase their production by bringing in grapes from outside the valley. This increased short-term profits, but eventually debased the value of the winery name when the public found out that their bottle of “Napa Valley” wine was made from mostly non-Napa grapes, and didn’t taste quite as good. To curtail this practice the county passed an ordinance in 1990 defining “Napa Valley” wine as being produced from at least 75 percent Napa Valley grapes.

Also in 1990, with strong backing of citizens groups and environmentalists, Napa adopted an amendment to its general plan, known as Measure J, which stated that any change in land use provisions, whether by ordinance or permit, must first be subject to a popular referendum. This was challenged by winery owners and developers, but was upheld by the California Supreme Court in 1994. It has been invoked to challenge exceptions to land use laws with mixed success.

Many vineyard owners and winemakers have long felt they should be able to do whatever they want with their property. They began to chafe against the strictures of the “agricultural preserve” and the definition of “agriculture.” Using their wealth and influence they have been able to persuade local officials to overlook violations and to allow planting on more acres than authorized, illegal tree-cutting and construction in the wrong places. The threat which climate change poses to future grape-growing has been ignored. Some owners expanded what once was known as a “tasting” to include food service tantamount to running a restaurant. Promoted as the “full wine experience,” the events are high priced. Receptions and the like are being held, and the sale of T-shirts, bar equipment, and paraphernalia unrelated to wine has sprung up.

By 2008 the owners were promoting an expansion of the definition of “agriculture” quoted above to include: “and related marketing, sales and other accessory uses.” This would legalize the excesses described above, and more. They argued that the greater business and profits that could be generated from these activities would benefit everyone. There was widespread opposition among the other residents. Many feared further destruction of the natural beauty of the valley, increased traffic and noise, and further pollution of the Napa River, which was already listed by EPA as impaired under the Clean Water Act. However, this change had support among the planning department and the board of supervisors, and was approved as a “minor” clarification with minimal public notice.

While the owners reaped extraordinary profits, the farm workers and many other residents were barely getting by — some living in trailer parks not visible to most tourists. They resented the arrogance of the owners and developers, who seemed oblivious to the fact that their drive to expand operations and convert wineries into tourist attractions was destroying the qualities of the valley which brought people — including many of the owners — there in the first place.

To put the land use conflict into human terms, Conaway discusses several examples of profit-motivated outsiders who came to the Napa Valley with the aim of creating opulent wineries with no regard for the impact which development would have on the environment. One grew up in San Matteo, made a fortune during the tech boom, and bought 40 acres on a mountain adjacent to a 3,000-acre wildlife preserve and a state park, where he wanted to plant a vineyard. This would involve clear-cutting many large trees, removing boulders, and recontouring the land in an area that was ill-suited to development. Outraged citizens organized a strong effort to block it, and that battle continues.

Another example was a Texas real estate developer and part owner of the Dallas Cowboys who wanted to clear cut 500 acres, including an estimated 30,000 mature oak trees, ostensibly for a vineyard. His massive infrastructure plans strongly suggested an intention to build a large number of “ranchettes.” He had done a similar development in neighboring Sonoma County. Surveys indicated that the land disturbance would cause significant erosion, damaging Napa’s drinking water supply, adversely affecting fish populations, and destabilizing downhill soil. The public, fed up with deforestation and environmental destruction, rallied to oppose this. But the developer began a campaign of misinformation and bullying, and the county supervisors allowed the project to proceed. Lawsuits were immediately filed.

Conservation-minded citizens then drafted a proposed water and woodland protection initiative, and quickly gathered more than twice the number of signatures needed to get on the ballot for the 2016 election. The board of supervisors initially approved it to go on the ballot. Then they rejected it on the technicality, rarely invoked, that it failed to attach copies of regulations that might be affected. The citizens were left to start the process over again for the 2018 ballot, amid protests of “voter suppression.”

Near the end of the book Conaway observes: “‘Eden’ is a figurative stretch for what the valley once represented, but all vestiges of that early innocence are lost. The remnant fig leaf kept in place by the wine and hospitality industries grows more tattered every year, revealing more schemes to transform a way of life into a marketable experience as or more valuable than the thing itself.”

Napa at Last Light is a very engaging read and carries some important messages. The struggle going on in the Napa Valley is similar to struggles between developers and conservationists all across the country. At a time when our national leaders are calling for less regulation and making it more difficult to protect our environment, this book could not be more timely.

Is Napa Valley a sustainable Garden of Eden?

The Debate: Dangerous Intersection: Climate Change and National Security
Francesco Femia - The Center for Climate and Security
Leo Goff - Center for Naval Analyses
Alice Hill - National Security Council
Thilmeeza Hussain - Voice of Women -- Maldives
Marcus King - George Washington University
Maureen Sullivan - Department of Defense
The Center for Climate and Security
Center for Naval Analyses
National Security Council
Voice of Women -- Maldives
George Washington University
Department of Defense
Current Issue

The dangers of climate change are not usually couched in terms of national security, but awareness of the issue is growing rapidly. What could be more basic to security than a climate conducive for agriculture, abundant water supplies, ecosystem health, industrial production, biodiversity, and human comfort? What could be more threatening than extreme weather events or mass migrations because of rising seas and crop failures? The annual ELI-Miriam Hamilton Keare Policy Forum brought together top experts on the topic.

Restore the Chesapeake
Ridgway Hall - Chesapeake Legal Alliance
Chesapeake Legal Alliance
Current Issue

The vast bay and watershed include the largest estuary in the country. Efforts to restore its vastly degraded water quality involve a commensurately large response by the Bay States, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, local governments, and the public.