What is Government's Role in Reversing Climate Change with the Food System?
The Role of Government (29th) Edition of the Negative Foods Newsletter
While COP26 is underway in Glasgow, let’s discuss the role of government in our efforts to reverse climate change with the way we eat.
In my opinion, most human progress has been, and will continue to be, achieved by business. The business sector is likely to do the heavy lifting in the transition of the food system toward our future carbon net zero economy.
But government must play an important role so that private businesses can get the job done. Even the most fervent free market capitalists support laws preventing carpet factories from dumping chemical dyes in the river, right? Steven Pinker puts it a bit more eloquently:
With regulations such as environmental protections, a given company may fear that if they pollute less than their competitors, they’ll be at a disadvantage, whereas, if everyone were subject to the same regulations, then no one would have a competitive advantage.
And likewise, in an environment that is ruthlessly competitive, you might be driven out of business if you don’t pollute and your competitors save the money of putting in pollution-control devices. But clearly, it’s an irrational country as a whole that would permit that to happen.
In sports, everyone benefits if there’s a rule that you have to wear a helmet. If wearing a helmet were optional, you wouldn’t want to hurt the competitive advantage of your team and might be willing to take a greater chance of brain damage or even death. So, making it voluntary in a competitive environment is not viable, but if everyone has to wear a helmet, then you can still have an exciting and competitive game without the brain damage or early death.
With the food system, we need governments to play such a role to create a level playing field. But government can and must do even more to create the environment in which private businesses can transition our food system to be a lever to reverse climate change.
Below are reasonable steps our government should take to accelerate the transition to a regenerative food economy:
Achieve Broad-Based Support for an Effective Carbon Net Zero Plan. The European Union, and many countries, have laid out effective plans to achieve carbon net zero emissions. Although the White House just released a 2050 net zero plan for the United States, I don’t think the U.S. currently has an effective plan with specific targets, broad-based support and an effective policy framework. Let’s be more like Finland, which three years ago struck a deal among the major political parties to achieve carbon net zero by 2035 (with targets and a policy framework). To get the carbon transition flywheels spinning in any country, businesses need an effective national plan around which to plan their strategies and investments. So in the U.S. we need both major parties, and the majority of the U.S. population (which might be ready), to rally around such a plan. This is table stakes, and I will support any candidate of any party (or no party) who works toward such a plan (and vice versa). This in my opinion should be the top political agenda item for most of us. And there are plenty of conservatives who agree. Hunters and treehuggers unite!
Stop Doing Harm. The U.S. should stop subsidizing the sectors of agriculture that emit the most carbon needlessly, such as industrial corn and meat. Are we still producing ethanol to fuel cars using corn grown with fertilizer made from natural gas? None of this is in our interests for carbon emissions, for our health, for our budget, etc., and it should simply be ended.
Be the Future Customer. The U.S. spends a great deal of taxpayer money on food, and influences other spending, and it should use that spending as a lever to create market opportunities to accelerate the growth of Negative Foods. Think about the military, school lunch programs, food purchased for government employees, and, of course, SNAP & WIC (food assistance programs). The U.S. should reduce spending on foods with outsized carbon footprints, such as industrial meat, soda and ultra processed food, and increase spending on Negative Foods. In addition to creating market demand for the producers of Negative Foods, as a country we’d save a fortune in health care costs and enjoy higher rates of productivity and happiness.
Fund Research. The U.S. has a long history of funding research that spurs innovation. How do you think Al Gore created the Internet?! I’m pleased that the USDA appears to be well funded and eager to support research to improve the carbon footprint of U.S. agriculture.
Protect Natural Places. The U.S. should protect natural places (where carbon is sunk and biodiversity thrives) to prevent further climate change and to make our agricultural productivity more resilient in the face of climate change.
Carbon Labeling. Consumers will drive market demand to accelerate the transition to a Negative Foods food system. But consumers need knowledge to make informed choices, and for that we need effective carbon labeling. This process would be accelerated and made more effective if the U.S. provided standards that businesses could follow. We can look to Europe and early adopters for inspiration.
Establish a Revenue-Neutral Price on Carbon Emissions. Products that emit carbon are costly to society. An effective way to motivate businesses to reduce their emissions is with a price on emissions. Americans, of course, can’t utter the words “tax increase” (even if the dinosaurs are gonna die again). A revenue-neutral price on carbon emissions would not be a tax increase, sort of, and so perhaps could achieve bipartisan support. Nineteen Republican members of the Utah legislature recently declared support for this approach:
Emissions can be cut either with regulations, incentives or price signals. Regulations are heavy-handed and growth-inhibiting. They burden the economy, they cost American jobs, and they end up exporting our emissions to other countries. Incentives can work, but they let government choose the winners and losers, and too often end up becoming permanent entitlements. We believe the best way to cut emissions is with a price signal to the private sector, which lets competition and innovation find the solutions.
We support a carbon dividends approach that puts a fee on carbon emissions and returns all the money to the American people in dividend checks. This approach does not require heavy-handed government oversight. The fee gives the markets an incentive to move to cleaner technologies, while the dividend protects families from the effect of higher energy prices. Most families should come out financially ahead, and they will be rewarded for reducing emissions however they choose. All will benefit from the cleaner air that will result from these policies. (emphases added)
I will write a future edition of this newsletter about how the ideas above will spur the economy and create jobs, and I’d love your ideas on that topic.
In the meantime, FFS vote with these matters in mind, and hold your political leaders feet to the fire. Let’s get on with it!
For Your Consideration:
Prince Charles’ ode to private markets is a clarion call for agtech
Is food and agriculture missing from the political debate at COP26?
AS COP26 NEARS, ACTIVISTS SAY AGRICULTURE SHOULD BE A BIGGER PART OF THE AGENDA
More than 100 world leaders pledge to halt deforestation by 2030
Applegate Farms Introduces the DO GOOD DOG Hot Dog, the First Nationally Available Hot Dog Sourced from Verified Regenerative U.S. Grasslands
This U.S. city just voted to decarbonize every single building
Byron Bay-based $50m climate tech fund seeks to save the world
Investors see the light on sustainable farming as carbon prices surge
Citi Joins Breakthrough Energy Catalyst as Anchor Partner to Accelerate the Clean Energy Transition With $100 Million Commitment
Grupo Bimbo Commits to Net Zero Carbon Emissions by 2050 as it Launches its New Sustainability Platform
Indigo Announces New Investments to Drive Discovery in Soil Carbon Science and Adoption of Agriculture as a Nature-Based Climate Solution
The views in this newsletter belong solely to Paul Lightfoot (and not to BrightFarms or other organizations). This newsletter accepts no advertising. Learn more about this newsletter at https://paullightfoot.substack.com/about.