Food System Opportunities in the Biden Executive Order on Climate Change

August 26, 2021
 Min Read

The following was first published by Informed Sustainability Consulting on March 4, 2021.

It’s been just over a month since President Biden published his executive order on climate change. The order mentions possible roles for farms and agriculture in a national climate solution. That is a welcome change from previous climate efforts that dealt exclusively with energy. Much of the media attention last month focused on the directives to improve soil carbon sequestration on farms and ranches. Soil carbon is important, but it isn’t easy to measure. And there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical that regenerative farming practices alone can make a big dent in the climate crisis.

So what else does the Executive Order have to say about food and agriculture? How can other directives in the document support a transition to a low-carbon food system at home and abroad? Here are some of my ideas for supporting food and agriculture solutions using language in the EO:

“Part 1 – Putting the Climate Crisis at the Center of United States Foreign Policy and National Security

Section 102. Purpose

(f) – The United States will also immediately begin to develop a climate finance plan… to assist developing countries in implementing ambitious emissions reduction measures, protecting critical ecosystems, building resilience against the impacts of climate change…”

Implement ambitious emissions reductions. Protect critical ecosystems. Improve climate resilience. Improving the efficiency and resilience of food production systems around the world, and especially in tropical nations, is one of the best ways to simultaneously address these three goals. Collaborating with food producers, farmers, and national and local organizations in partner countries to improve crop yields, expand sustainable agricultural practices, and promote trade in high-protein plant crops will improve food security, reduce conversion of forest to cropland, and improve the overall sustainability of the global food system. Higher yields benefit local farmers and markets. Sustainable practices protect soil and local ecosystems. Expanding global plant protein supply feeds the fast-growing alternative protein industry, which can reduce the demand for unsustainable livestock products.

“(g) The Secretary of the Treasury shall: …

(iii) develop, in collaboration with the Secretary of State, the Administrator of USAID, and the Chief Executive Officer of the DFC, a plan for promoting the protection of the Amazon rainforest and other critical ecosystems that serve as global carbon sinks, including through market-based mechanisms.”

Cattle and soybeans for livestock feed are leading threats to the Amazon rainforest and many other high-carbon and high-biodiversity ecosystems around the world. Cattle alone replace 2.5 to 3.5 million hectares (6 to 8.4 million acres, about the area of Massachusetts) each year (2001 to 2015). We need creative solutions to reduce the damage of livestock expansion into critical habitat. As the Global Forest Watch notes, beef is often produced for domestic consumption in countries across the world, making it less sensitive to international demand for “deforestation-free” meat or other economic pressures. Making progress on the Administration’s commitment to protect the Amazon may require alternative means of halting rangeland expansion in Brazil and other nations. Supporting local plant-based protein production - for people, not cattle - through technology sharing or trade assistance could help save the Amazon while establishing farmers, manufacturers, and trade groups abroad.

“Part II – Taking a Government-wide Approach to the Climate Crisis

Section 203. National Climate Task Force…

(b) Mission and Work. …This Task Force shall facilitate planning and implementation of key Federal actions to reduce climate pollution; increase resilience to the impacts of climate change; protect public health; conserve our lands, waters, oceans, and biodiversity; deliver environmental justice; and spur well-paying union jobs and economic growth.
(c) Prioritizing Actions. Task Force members shall prioritize action on climate change in their policy-making and budget processes, in their contracting and procurement…”

Meeting these directives – to make progress on stated climate, public health, and environmental goals through Federal policymaking, contracting and procurement – will require a reexamination of our approach to food and nutrition. The National Climate Task Force will include every major Federal agency, including Agriculture, Defense, and Health and Human Services. I call out those particular departments because of their potential to influence the US food system. USDA could start by including climate change impacts and other sustainability factors in its nutritional guidance (as Germany, Brazil, and Sweden have done, to varying degrees).

The DoD and HHS could perhaps be even more influential by shifting food purchases at hospitals, barracks, and other facilities away from carbon- and resource-intensive animal foods and towards low-carbon and land- and energy-efficient plant proteins. By setting and following environmental standards as well as nutritional standards for food, the Federal government could drive large reductions in the climate change emissions, energy use, and land use of the US food system.

Many US livestock farms (confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs) have high climate and non-climate pollution emissions. The high impacts of these pollutants fall primarily on economically and socially disadvantaged rural communities. Shifting from a CAFO-heavy meat supply chain to one that emphasizes human and animal welfare (by focusing less on meat, and including plant-based and fermentation-based meat products, for example) will have many benefits for climate, health, and well-being.


204.  Policy.  …by aligning the management of Federal procurement and real property, public lands and waters, and financial programs to support robust climate action.  By providing an immediate, clear, and stable source of product demand, increased transparency and data, and robust standards for the market, my Administration will help to catalyze private sector investment into, and accelerate the advancement of America’s industrial capacity to supply, domestic clean energy, buildings, vehicles, and other necessary products and materials.”

If food isn’t a “necessary product,” I don’t know what is. And the Federal Government buys a lot of it. In 2019 the Federal Government spent almost $50 billion on food for hospitals, prisons, and the military. Shifting that purchasing power to climate-friendly food would have a dramatic effect on the emissions from the American food system. Consistently following climate standards in food purchasing would provide a stable Federal market for innovators and existing manufacturers who need a stable market to fund growth and drive investment.

“211. Climate Action Plans and Data and Information Products to Improve Adaptation and Increase Resilience.

(a) The head of each agency shall submit a draft action plan … to bolster adaptation and increase resilience to the impacts of climate change.  …Agencies shall consider the feasibility of using the purchasing power of the Federal Government to drive innovation, and shall seek to increase the Federal Government’s resilience against supply chain disruptions. Such disruptions put the Nation’s manufacturing sector at risk, as well as consumer access to critical goods and services.”

The covid-19 pandemic showed how sensitive the food sector is to supply chain disruptions, animal meats in particular. Within weeks of slaughterhouse closures due to the pandemic, American farmers had “depopulated” millions of animals – killing them on the farm instead of bringing them to market. By using their purchasing power to strengthen alternative product markets, Federal agencies can help build a food system that is less sensitive to shocks from extreme events. Plant-based and fermentation-based food products with lower climate impacts may have higher overall system resilience and similar or better human health impacts.

“216. Conserving Our Nation’s Lands and Waters.

(a)  The Secretary of the Interior… [shall recommend] steps that the United States should take… to achieve the goal of conserving at least 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030.”
(b)  The Secretary of Agriculture shall:
(i)   …collect input from Tribes, farmers, ranchers, forest owners, conservation groups, firefighters, and other stakeholders on how to best use Department of Agriculture programs, funding and financing capacities… and how to encourage the voluntary adoption of climate-smart agricultural and forestry practices that decrease wildfire risk fueled by climate change and result in additional, measurable, and verifiable carbon reductions and sequestration and that source sustainable bioproducts and fuels… “

Food is the highest-volume, largest-area, and highest-impact “bioproduct.” Developing a sustainable food system is the most well-established and verifiable way to reduce agricultural emissions. Stakeholders in our agricultural system must be open to considering changes in what foods we produce, and not just how we produce the crops we grow now. A truly sustainable food system has three important benefits over today’s corn-soy-CAFO pipeline. By growing more foods for people and producing less meat, American farmers can dramatically reduce climate change emissions from agriculture, improve the nation’s health by providing foods that meet the USDA’s dietary guidelines, and simultaneously make more land available for conservation and habitat restoration programs.

Today, American farmers use about 2.5 acres per person to feed the nation. Nearly all of that land grows grass or grains that feed cows, pigs, and chickens. Cutting way back on meat consumption (but not cutting it out completely) would let the US feed itself on just over half an acre per person. That means hundreds of millions of acres available for soil improvement, reforestation, and wildlife.


219.  Policy. To secure an equitable economic future, the United States must ensure that environmental and economic justice are key considerations in how we govern.  …Agencies shall make achieving environmental justice part of their missions by developing programs, policies, and activities to address the disproportionately high and adverse human health, environmental, climate-related and other cumulative impacts on disadvantaged communities… that have been historically marginalized and overburdened by pollution and underinvestment in housing, transportation, water and wastewater infrastructure, and health care.”

Exemption of agricultural producers from pollution regulations has led to dire conditions for many individuals and communities located near (and employed by) CAFOs and slaughterhouses. Any serious assessment of environmental justice must include a reevaluation of the impacts of industrial animal production on disadvantaged communities – particularly rural communities of color and employees of the animal processing industry.

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