Old New Deal shows path to Green New Deal

One hundred years ago, English-born Catherine and Thomas Naylor, bought the farm we farm today in Greene County, Iowa. They built our house we live in that year, too, when prosperity from World War I markets gave them the courage to go in debt for the farm and house. This destination came after a Greene County coal mine shaft caved in on my grandfather’s tools, and hopscotching from farm to farm cast my family’s status as family farmers, which gave George, their only grandchild, the opportunity of becoming a family farmer. The Jochimsens, George’s mother’s parents, were always tenant farmers.

Long before that, Patti’s ancestors settled in Guthrie and Audubon Counties in Iowa, as farmers from Denmark. This was shortly after the U.S. government had ruthlessly driven the Native American Indian tribes from this land, a fertile prairie Garden of Eden between two rivers, the Mississippi and Missouri. Some of Patti’s family participated in the Underground Railroad helping freed African Americans escape the brutal slave system of the South. There’s no doubt our families’ inclination to being our brother’s keeper and valuing freedom cast their lot with the Republican Party—the Party of Lincoln.

Our families have seen good times and bad times over the years. Stories of the Great Depression and the oppressive heat and failing crops of the Dust Bowl years were recounted many times. Our families’ farms recovered because of the Roosevelt New Deal parity farm programs, yet emotional stories of neighbors that weren’t so lucky stamped a sense of empathy and appreciation on our hearts to this very day.

There is no doubt we have lived privileged lives, and there is no question we, as white Americans, can never forget the sacrifices of generations of Native and African American human beings before us. Nor can anybody living today, ignore the fact that the system of family farms whose future had been guaranteed with New Deal parity farm programs has been under attack from exploitive and extractive agribusiness since the those programs were dismantled beginning in the early 1950’s. When discussing the plight of family farmers with a member of a Nebraska tribe during the 1980’s farm crisis, he said, “Well, you’re next!” meaning that this extractive economic system will eventually swallow us all.

Our one glimmer of hope and that which has crystalized the thinking and focused the energy of many food and farm activists like ourselves is the initiative called the New Green Deal, which borrows inspiration from policies that addressed the sick economic development and final catastrophes of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl—the old New Deal of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration. Progressive activists with an international perspective have underlined the necessity of addressing the undemocratic nature of global markets with the principles of food sovereignty and agroecology. “Supply and demand”, wealth accumulation, cheap labor, mountains of debt, and cheap commodities can no longer rule our economic lives and future.

Having been corn and soybean farmers living in a landscape that has become devoid of biodiversity, devoid of neighbors, devoid of thriving small towns, and devoid of clean air and water, we are most familiar with the U.S. problems we see firsthand. Frighteningly, the agronomic problems inherent in ignoring the science of ecology, raising genetically engineered corn and soybeans year after year, are being addressed by the chemical-genetic engineering companies who prescribe more patented chemical monocrop solutions that already created this disastrous course. We are inspired by Old New Deal policy—both domestically and internationally—of combining price floors for commodities that adjust with inflation, i.e. applying the parity principle, coordinated supply management to stop wasteful over-production, and creating food security reserves (basic storable commodities) to avoid famine when climate change or volcanic eruptions bring crop production crashing down. In the same international spirit, the International Coffee Agreement stabilized profitable prices with price floors and country quotas—like a parity progron—but those features were abandoned when the United States withdrew from the agreement in 1989. With parity policies in place, we can bring livestock production back to family farms and out of the grip of vertically integrated meat, milk and egg companies. Farmer can then incorporate hay, pasture and small grains into a sound crop rotation with responsible use of manure so that artificial nitrogen will be unnecessary and weed control will not be dependent on more chemical warfare. Small town economies will be restored and the new balanced economy will create purposeful jobs and tax revenues for new democratic priorities.

A major focus of the Green New Deal is combatting climate change. It’s been recognized that the current agricultural system promoted by agribusiness depends on fossil fuels to power giant machinery, processing, transportation, manufacturing of chemicals, and fertilizer. The production of two main crops, corn and soybeans year after year on millions of acres of North and South America, and soon Africa leads to soil erosion, water pollution, and feeding cheap corn to animals in corporate feedlots and confinements. We believe, as does the many farmers of La Via Campesina and as expressed in a civil society statement, Our Land is Worth More Than Carbon (at COP22), that family farm and peasant agriculture practicing agroecology can better address climate change with a holistic analysis of our global climate and environmental problems rather than many of the proposals that simply focus on carbon emissions. Agroecology emphasizes agriculture as a social activity connected to community, culture, and ancestral wisdom. It’s been a self-serving trick of agribusiness to claim that their system of agriculture creates a smaller “carbon footprint”, and a big benefit to farmers will be if governments and corporations pay farmers to sequester carbon. Of course, none of these solutions including chemical intensive no-till farming or the application of “regenerative practices” will get in the way of the global corn-soybean-processed food-confined animal bulldozer. Besides, such thinking invites land grabbing to gain payments for planting tree plantations, etc. International solidarity with family farmers and peasants using the concepts of food sovereignty and agroecology is the answer. As the civil society statement says, “Farming land cannot become an accounting tool for managing the climate crisis,” nor can we accept the “financialization of Nature.”

George Naylor is an Iowa farmer and a member of the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers for a Green New Deal.