Is COVID-19 the final nail in the Green New Deal coffin?


The changes we’ve seen during the quarantine indicate just how misplaced the Green New Deal’s anti-ag efforts were

Is “The Rona” a net benefit for the environment? And what does that portend for policy development and society at-large?

Consider widely circulated before and after photos on social media: crystal-clear waters in Venice, and a lifting of the smog-induced haze that normally blankets metropolitan skylines, among others.

This isn’t to suggest that perpetual quarantine is needed to “save” the planet, but our multi-week flirtation with austerity has emboldened some — those who see this as the ideal time to reconfigure society. 

To supporters of recent efforts like the Green New Deal, this is proof positive of the restorative power of nature. And climate change is the prime impetus, one we should emphatically rally around and make collective sacrifices for. All we need to do is align our societal cadence with Mother Earth. To sell this agenda, supporters use affirmational and inspirational terms like prosperity, justice, and security.

Security? From what? Well, emissions attributed to agriculture, especially livestock production. You know, burps mistakenly hyped as “flatulence” that are going to slowly baste us alive in an Earthen oven.

Therein lies the problem of being a perennial whipping (farm)boy/girl. Ag is routinely framed as public enemy number one — the disproportionate and most easily addressed contributor to our climate change ills.

One problem though: Ag’s role is laughably trivial. Like a pro wrestler intentionally taking a dive after getting hit — all to raucous applause — the Green New Deal artfully oversold the move to play to the non-ag crowd.

Delve into the numbers. Agriculture’s contribution to total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions is about 10 percent (globally, it’s 4 percent) — and even that doesn’t show how negligible ag’s impact is compared with the bigger picture. (Note that greenhouse gas mostly implies carbon dioxide, but also methane, nitrous oxides, and some refrigerants.)

Globally, forecasters are predicting a 5 percent reduction in CO2 emissions for 2020. Even more striking, this 5 percent reduction is still 2.6 percent short of the yearly reductions we need to implement over the next decade to stave off the worst effects of climate change. So effectively, it’s like we simulated a total wipe of ag’s footprint (and then some), with literally zero net effect.

But while the past couple of months have seen a 15 percent to 20 percent drop due to quarantines, the expected second-half rebound of 2020 is going to offset many of the gains.

The one constant through it all? Agriculture.

Memesmiths have slyly capitalized on this — prompting many clever quips like “Less pollution, same number of cows. I wonder what’s changed?” and “Tell us again how ag is responsible for air quality and climate change?

So who/what bears responsibility? According to the EPA’s global breakdown by economic sector, electricity and heat production (25 percent), industry (21 percent), transportation (14 percent), buildings (6 percent), and “other” (10 percent). But wait, that doesn’t add up to 100 percent! Cooking the books? Well, agriculture, forestry, and land use is listed as 24 percent.

It definitely seems like a numerical offender, until you examine the fine print.

Ecosystems sequester carbon, offsetting that contribution by 20 percent. Farms are (at least some) of those ecosystems. That’s the unsung carbon discount. And increasingly, farms are no-till, generously stashing away carbon dioxide as carbon in plant tissues and the soil. And as long as the soil isn’t disturbed (read: tilled), it’ll largely stay locked away in climate contributing stasis, benefiting soil health, tilth, and diversity. But this system relies on herbicide tolerant crops (Roundup Ready and the like), which the green contingent has condemned as unsustainable. Way to self-sabotage.

Thanks to the Green Revolution, there’s also our uncanny ability to squeeze more out of less land, sparing countless acres the plow. By keeping those natural ecosystems in play as additional CO2 scrubbers, we’re effortlessly mitigating 20 percent of emissions.

Additionally, the livestock industry is now 10 percent more efficient than the 1970s. That’s no small feat. Beef is reportedly only 3.3 percent of U.S. emission. Despite that, ag is incessantly chastised for not doing enough. 

For all the hardship COVID-19 has injected into our lives, there’s a silver lining. It exposes the false narrative that agriculture is in any way a significant contributor to climate change. As a policy measure, the Green New Deal was an absurd, virtue-fueled pivot. We need to tread carefully before committing to drastic changes that will impact food security and make no measurable dent. Ag’s climate contribution so laughably miniscule, it isn’t even low hanging fruit.

Much of the subtext that surfaced from the Green New Deal was that the architects simply like to browbeat agriculture — with climate change the urgent backdrop. The changes we’ve seen these past couple of months represent a clear signal to Green New Deal aficionados: Their singular obsession with agriculture’s climate impact is misguided, with no ethical or numerical grounds for revival — whatever the justification — in the future.

Regrettably, the political mood is to elevate (or ignore) some constituencies and dismantle others. In the classic quest to fashion a solution — in search of a problem that never was — the Green New Deal failed miserably.


Tim Durham’s family operates Deer Run Farm — a truck (vegetable) farm on Long Island, New York. As a columnist and agvocate, he counters heated rhetoric with sensible facts. Tim has a degree in plant medicine and is an Associate Professor at Ferrum College in Virginia.

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