In Iowa, Candidates Are Talking About Farming's Climate Change Connections Like No Previous Election

About half the candidates have policy proposals or statements addressing climate change impacts on agriculture or farming's potential as a climate solution.

Bernie Sanders at the Iowa State Fair. Credit: Alex Edelman/AFP/Getty Images

The Democrats running for president were all over the Iowa State Fair the past two weeks, and they're talking about agriculture connections to climate change. Credit: Alex Edelman/AFP/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren munched on corn dogs. Pete Buttigieg opted for pork-on-a-stick. Kamala Harris flipped burgers and joked that she could "flip Republicans," too.

As the Democratic candidates for president made their requisite swing through the Iowa State Fair this week, they stumped near hay bales and posted about it on Twitter. They also brought an unprecedented focus on agriculture's connections with climate change—an issue that's getting more traction among rural Midwestern voters and farmers in the wake of massive flooding and heat waves.

Of the two dozen candidates vying to challenge President Donald Trump next year, at least eight have released rural policy platforms. Three—Sens. Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand—rolled out their platforms just before the fair. Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, released his this week.

"Climate change is not happening in a hundred years, it's happening right now," Klobuchar told a crowd in a 20-minute stump speech. "We can do a lot with soil and conservation."

Gillibrand told the crowd that farmers can sequester more carbon. "Rural America can lead the way on how we tackle climate change," she said.

At least 12 of the candidates—Sen. Michael Bennet, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Cory Booker, Gov. Steve Bullock, former Reps. John Delaney and Beto O'Rourke, Gov. Jay Inslee, ButtigiegGillibrandKlobuchar, Sanders and Warren—have issued policy proposals or statements that specifically address the impacts of climate change on agriculture or the role agriculture can plan in solving the climate crisis. (Former Gov. John Hickenlooper also discussed climate and agriculture but ended his presidential campaign on Thursday.)

Some have called for spending more money on conservation measures that store carbon in the soil. 

"For candidates to be unveiling these very detailed plans is significant," said Adam Mason, state policy director for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, an advocacy group that works on agricultural issues. "Candidates are thinking about how to inject climate policies into their rural agendas."

Elizabeth Warren gives a speech at the Iowa State Fair. Credit: Sergio Flores/Getty Images

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has said she supports a moratorium on large, industrialized farms and supports guaranteed price floors and supply management of commodities to curb overproduction. Credit: Sergio Flores/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the group's political action fund released candidates' answers to a series of questions about their stances on rural and agricultural policy, as well as climate change. Those questions included whether they would support a Green New Deal and how their plans to address climate change would meet "the scale and urgency of the issue."

Eight candidates answered the questions, and all eight said they would support a Green New Deal. The candidates provided "the most comprehensive issue guide yet from and for Iowa voters," the ICCI said.

Sanders, Warren and Julián Castro, the former U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development, told the group they're in favor of a moratorium on large, industrialized farms. Sanders, Warren and Inslee all said they support guaranteed price floors and supply management of commodities to curb overproduction, which consumes more agricultural lands in ways that release, rather than store, more carbon.

Warren and Sanders have previously called for the break-up of agricultural monopolies. Booker introduced legislation in May that would place a moratorium on agricultural mergers.  Consolidation in the agricultural business has led to ever-larger farms and farming systems that are more polluting and resource-intensive.

"Warren and Sanders' plans are nearly identical. They address the core concepts of breaking up agricultural monopolies, of promoting economic justice principles so that farmers get paid a living wage," Mason said. "That limits over-production and that means combating climate change and promoting more sustainable farming."

Sen. Cory Booker unveiled draft legislation this month that would direct billions in spending on programs to cut emissions through better soil management and more research directed as soil health. Credit: Sergio Flores/Getty Images

Sen. Cory Booker unveiled draft legislation this month that would direct billions in spending on programs to cut emissions through better soil management and more research directed as soil health. Credit: Sergio Flores/Getty Images

That the candidates are discussing climate change in the context of agriculture—in a heavily agricultural state where voters went for Trump in 2016—suggests a political shift, driven in part by the extreme weather that's increasingly challenging Midwestern farmers.

"I think what's happening, and particularly this year, is the weather has just been battering the upper Midwest," said Craig Cox, a senior vice president with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group. "Whether you've accepted the science on climate change or you're still denying that science, there's consensus that something really needs to be done to make our farms and watersheds and cities more capable of standing up against this kind of weather. That's the context in which this conversation is happening."

The issue has also risen to prominence as more research emphasizes the need not only for agriculture to rein in its emissions—which account for nearly a quarter of total global greenhouse gas emissions—but for expanding carbon storage on agricultural lands through conservation practices.

In a landmark report released Aug. 8, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) showed how stopping deforestation, limiting greenhouse-gas-emitting fertilizers and raising crops in ways that add carbon to the soil are essential for slowing global warming.

"That gives this issue an urgency we've never seen before," Mason said.

The week the IPCC report was released, Booker unveiled draft legislation that would direct billions in spending on programs to cut emissions through better soil management and more research directed as soil health. Warren, Klobuchar and Gillibrand have proposals that also call for more farm conservation practices that store carbon in the soil. 

The IPCC report also emphasized that global food consumption, particularly in developed countries with high meat consumption, need to shift toward plant-based diets and away from carbon-intensive foods, which include dairy and meat.

The candidates at the Iowa State Fair, however, didn't seem to heed that suggestion. Only Booker—a committed vegan—aligned his dietary choices with his political ones: He ate a fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Published Aug. 15, 2019

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