Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Nathan Rosenberg and Peter Lehner are the authors of a book called Farming for Our Future: The Science, Law, and Policy of Climate-Neutral Agriculture, released in December of 2021 from the Environmental Law Institute Press.
I had the opportunity to interview Rosenberg about the book, which is a forward-looking guide to a lot of the big questions our society needs to ask about its food production system. Enjoy our conversation about carbon-negative agriculture, the conflation of rural residents with farmers, and the twin fates of farmworkers and the natural environment, below.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: Who are you? What’s your background in ag-policy and where’d the interest stem from?
Nathan Rosenberg: I’m an attorney who works in agricultural policy. Currently, I’m a visiting scholar at the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic.
I grew up around agriculture—I’m “driving” my grandfather’s tractor in one of my earliest childhood photos—but I think it’s held my interest so long because it involves so many different important issues: public health, labor rights, and the environment, among others. My brother worked at a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) in high school and he’d come home so caked in manure that we’d have to blast him with a hose before he could come in the house and shower. You could write a book about the health, labor, and environmental implications of that job alone. It’s also a field filled with misinformation and particularly poor data analysis, so there’s plenty of work to be done.
DY: You and your co-author, Peter Lehner, write that the goal of this book differs from others in that it takes a more macro-level approach to the relationship between climate change and the American agricultural system. While many authors have written about environmentally friendly practices for farmers themselves, few have taken on the broader incentive structures that shape the farming industry. Why is zooming out to take on status quo legal and economic regimes so important?
NR: A lot of my non-climate work has been on farmer wealth and income. As we write in the book, contemporary farmers in the United States are, contrary to popular perception, quite wealthy, and they generally benefit from industrial agriculture, at least financially. This doesn’t mean that farmers pollute because they’re greedy, or ignorant, or hate the environment. On the contrary, farmers are business owners and like all business owners, they’re both constrained and motivated by the legal and economic regimes within which they operate. There are some farmers that find alternative markets or adopt alternative practices but such farmers are definitionally a minority. If we want widespread change, we can’t rely on the individual choices made by farmers or anyone else; we have to change the choices we make collectively as a society. Our book is focused on those collective choices.
DY: One crucial premise of the book is that agriculture is both a carbon source and a carbon sink. You write that farming can and should be organized “to ensure that farms sequester more carbon than they emit while at the same time maintaining productivity.” In layman’s terms, what would this look like? Are there models for this kind of balance currently in operation?
NR: As with almost everything in agriculture, it depends on the climate, soil conditions, and so on. But with that caveat out of the way: we need to waste a lot less fertilizer, raise fewer animals, and produce a lot more biomass in the form of trees, shrubs, and perennial grasses. The first two steps would dramatically lower agricultural emissions, while the last step would dramatically increase the amount of carbon dioxide farms are capable of sequestering.
In terms of models, the Savanna Institute is an organization that’s doing really exciting work to expand agroforestry—and by extension, carbon farming—in the Midwest. Eric Toensmeier’s The Carbon Farming Solution brilliantly covers a number of models, both in the United States and elsewhere. As Toensmeier and others have written, many of these methods were developed by indigenous people and there’s still much we can learn from their practices.
DY: Can you speak to the conflation of rural populations with the modern farming class? I think this dynamic hits on something really important about the mythos of the small American farmer, the highly interventionist policy regime it obfuscates, and the real attitudes of rural people toward their environments.
NR: This is something we try to document in the book in a chapter we co-authored with statistician Bryce Stucki. We also try to show—using polling data—how the self-expressed interests of rural residents often differ significantly from those of industrial agriculture. Rural residents consistently rank air and water quality as high priorities, for example, and also support regulating agricultural pollution by substantial margins, even in more conservative states like Iowa. At the same time, farm income doesn’t have much of an effect on rural economies.
You wouldn’t know this from publications like The New York Times or the Washington Post, or even more liberal ones like Mother Jones, which often conflate the fortunes of farmers with those of rural residents, even if they’re savvy enough to understand that farmers are small in number. And this has real consequences. It helps maintain a regressive and environmentally disastrous subsidy system. It also obscures the importance of farmworkers to rural communities—who are far greater in number than farmers—as well as other rural workers, who get little press or policy attention compared to farmers.
DY: How do the interests of farmworkers intersect with climate change outcomes? To what extent are degradations of the environment and of farmworker protections a product of the same system?
NR: Many of your readers have probably seen some of the recent dystopian pictures of farmworkers laboring in fields with wildfires raging in the background. There has also been some good reporting on the increase in heat stroke and other heat-related health issues among farmworkers as extreme temperatures become more common. Those are two very real and disturbing ways that climate change already affects farmworkers. But as you note, there’s also a broader connection: the same system that marginalizes farmworkers also degrades the environment. Marx described this phenomenon in Capital and Cesar Chavez organized around it in the 1960s and 70s. Our understanding of ecology has advanced since the nineteenth century, even since the 1970s, but the basic observation—that the market compels business owners to extract as much as they can from both the environment and from labor—remains just as relevant today. It follows that farmworkers stand to gain from changing the system in a way that their employers do not.
DY: What is the most important policy recommendation featured in the book?
NR: I’d love to see USDA support climate-neutral agriculture through its research, conservation, and subsidy programs, but ultimately that won’t be enough if we don’t start regulating pollution. So my pick would be for the EPA to meaningfully regulate air pollution from CAFOs.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.