Whether it’s Mexico’s threat of banning the import of American corn, or the five-year revamp of the American Farm Bill, agriculture is not merely about growing food. As the politics of farming affects the livelihoods of each American, it transforms agricultural policy into an electoral issue.
The Biden administration recently announced the creation of a $1 billion grant fund to aid farmers in their renewable energy transition. The money comes from the Inflation Reduction Act and seeks to allow ranchers and rural farmers to make investments in their green energy efficiency. It is one of the many instances in which governments are seeking to reshape farming policies to match green agendas – whether it’s in Washington or over in Europe.
Agriculture is blamed for many environmental woes of our time, from carbon dioxide to methane and nitrous oxide emissions, despite the fact that the sector has for decades ensured that Americans buy their food at affordable prices while reducing its environmental footprint, especially compared to Europe. These “green” funding mechanisms act as a means to buy the consent of farmers who are constantly affected by stringent regulations on their profession. Arguably, there is leeway for politicians to buy the silence of farmers by simply injecting more subsidies into the equation, yet there are also discernible limits. One government that found that out the hard way is the Netherlands.
When the Dutch government decided to phase out a large chunk of livestock farming by simply buying farmers out of their profession, they took to the streets, setting hay bales on fire and blocking Amsterdam’s busy airport. The international news attention and the upset of the local population over food price inflation led to the Farmer’s Movement taking most seats in the recent Senate elections in the Netherlands, putting pressure on the government to change course. In fact, the effect of farmers turning into politicians has had ripple effects on European politics. The European People’s Party (EPP), the largest political group in the European Parliament (the legislative body of the European Union), now rejects the goal of the EU of cutting pesticide use by 50% by 2030. This puts one of the cornerstone policies of the European Green Deal in jeopardy.
In the United States, the vote of farmers themselves has been cornered by Republicans, who raked up a vast majority of their vote in 2016, according to polls. Under the Trump administration, a large section of Obama-era regulatory controls were rolled back. America’s most popular weed killer, atrazine, was no longer a target by the EPA, and the insecticide chlorpyrifos was re-authorized. However, the Biden administration has picked up where Obama left off, leaving farmers in a state of insecurity at a time when affordable food is in increasingly shorter supply. Granted, compared to Europe, where politicians are grappling with the very palpable geopolitics of Ukrainian grain imports and Russian fertilizer supplies, the American food system appears very resilient. That said, if the White House chooses – as it increasingly does – to go down a European-style agricultural reform, it jeopardizes the food security of Americans and the livelihood of farmers.
For Massachusetts, crop protection rules are as important as in states with larger agricultural production. Crops such as corn, tomatoes, blueberries, potatoes, pumpkins and other greenhouse and nursery crops represent a well over $100 million industry. Adding to that, if Massachusetts were to be compelled to enforce nitrous oxide emissions reductions such as those sought out in the Netherlands, it would decimate the over $80 million dairy and livestock sector in the state.
Food crops must compete with 30,000 species of weeds, 3,000 species of nematodes and 10,000 species of plant-eating insects. Despite the fact that chemical crop protection is used, farmers still lose between 20% and 40% of their crops each year. The more we restrict the toolbox available to farmers to fight pests, the less productive they can be. Innovation in the farming sector is key to improving the profitability of farms, and while USDA has understood the importance of new technologies, regulators and politicians need to understand that before they can realistically phase out the old, the new needs to be affordable and available to them.
A lot of agricultural policy is niche policy talk for nerds, but since the COVID-19 pandemic, voters have identified two key ways in which it affects their lives: is the food on the shelves, and how much does it cost? The ramifications of Biden’s regulatory approach to farming affect both of these questions, and that, politically seen, isn’t good news for Democrats.
Originally published here