This commentary, written as an open letter to Secretary of Natural Resources Julie Moore, is from James H. Maroney Jr., who holds a master’s degree in environmental law and policy from Vermont Law School, a master’s in business administration and a former organic dairy farmer.
Dear Secretary Moore,
As you know, the State of Vermont’s goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26% from 2005 greenhouse gas emissions by 2025; no less than 40% of 1990 greenhouse gas emissions by 2028; no less than 80% of 1990 greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. I am writing to warn you that the original climate action plan for the agricultural sector was not written to achieve these goals. It is written with the express intention of protecting Vermont’s conventional dairy industry from the kind of regulation that would.
The initial climate action plan suggests that “the main mitigation options in the agricultural sector include three strategies: prevention, sequestration and substitution”. But the plan does not list the strategy its authors apparently chose: compensation.
I could go over the council’s prescriptions one by one and explain why this or the other is insufficient or simply wrong. I might point out, for example, that the Climate Council’s initial climate action plan for the agricultural sector does not, on pages 109 to 127 inclusive, mention “fossil fuels” once. I might also point out that the farmers, who are described in the plan as ‘motivated to be part of the solutions to climate change and many already include climate change mitigation as a major objective in their farm management’, have had ample the opportunity over the past thirty or forty years to adopt a “sustainable” business model and they have not. But in a nutshell, my complaint boils down to this: The Climate Council’s initial climate action plan is a bold defense of the status quo.
The council, in keeping with a generations-old Vermont tradition, is trying to green conventional agriculture, to redefine it so that the public sees the industry not as part of the problem but as an important part of the solution. The council suggests that cover crops, nutrient management, manure management, reduced tillage and planting riparian trees will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from ‘farming’. But these practices have been available to industry for decades and they will never – and never can – reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector by 26% by 2025, let alone 40%. % or 80%.
The reason is simple: the Climate Council’s Agriculture and Ecosystems Sub-Committee nowhere acknowledges that one of the main drivers of climate change – and one of the three reasons why lawmakers enacted the Global Warming Solutions Act – is Vermont’s 70-year-long application of conventional agriculture.
Recommending Vermont farmers to continue farming conventionally as a strategy to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions is roughly equivalent to recommending air conditioning as the best way to cool hot office buildings and schools.
Second, the Agriculture and Ecosystems Sub-Committee suggests that of the three options, sequestration “provides the most co-benefits, is the easiest and most immediate to implement”.
But the Council’s recommended strategy fails to address the root cause of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, and that is the GWSA’s legislative intent.
Compensating for the cause of a problem is frequently recommended when the people responsible for fixing it want to divert attention away from the cause of the problem. For example, in 2018, the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, the Vermont Legislature, the University of Vermont, and local community members were forced to address pollution issues in Lake Carmi. The DEC determined that a key driver of cyanobacterial blooms was “enrichment of phosphorus in lake sediments (legacy phosphorus) due to decades of human activities in the lake’s watershed, such as agriculture and coastal development”. These agencies decided to install an aerator in the lake. But the aerator was chosen to offset the problem that, to almost no one’s surprise, was “run-off” from conventional dairy farms in the region, not to solve it at its source.
Here’s another relevant example: The University of New Hampshire has suggested that feeding cows algae as part of their diet can reduce bovine enteric methane by up to 30%. It looks good! But feeding the algae is a compensatory tactic designed solely to address society’s concerns about greenhouse gas emissions while leaving conventional dairy protocols intact. Besides cost and availability, here’s the problem with the introduction of algae: dairy farmers would continue to farm conventionally, still planting 90,000 acres of corn in the floodplain, still applying artificial fertilizers and herbicides, and still overproducing. their markets and driving down agricultural prices.
The immediate cause of 45% of lake pollution and 16% of greenhouse gas emissions attributable to “agriculture” is the large-scale application of artificial petroleum-based fertilizers and herbicides, which is certainly effective, but by no means necessary. The best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from “agriculture” is, as the GWSA suggests, “substitution – substituting organic products for fossil fuel or energy-intensive products, thereby reducing CO2 emissions”. And that means dairy farmers in Vermont must stop relying on fossil fuel-derived fertilizers and herbicides.
I freely admit that agriculture is not “natural”, but it is how we grow our food. Crop rotation is the closest thing to a ‘natural’ process of restoring soil fertility, and cultivation is the closest thing to a ‘natural’ process of weed control. But crop rotation and cultivation are slow and expensive.
Conventional agriculture was designed to circumvent “natural” processes and speed them up. That was the advantage, and the farmers quickly understood. But conventional agriculture is not natural, and fossil fuel-derived fertilizers and herbicides are not organic products. Notably, the GWSA supports natural practices: Law 153, §592 (7)(d)(7) states that the state shall “support the use of natural solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
This year, Canadathe Netherlands and Ireland all have determined that to meet their ambitious climate change mitigation goals – which are identical to those in Vermont – farmers must reduce the use of artificial fertilizers by 30%. As expected, Canadian and Dutch farmers are not happy with these policies. Notably, farms in Canada and the Netherlands need to produce food to feed their people and drastically reducing fertilizer use will undoubtedly affect yields and/or increase the cost of food for millions of people. But Vermonters import 85-90% of their food, which means Vermont agriculture can tolerate reductions in artificial fertilizers without causing food insecurity.
As difficult and disruptive as reforming Vermont’s dairy industry undoubtedly is, the consequences of continuing conventional farming are far worse: greenhouse gas emissions from “farming” will continue to rise. accumulate in the atmosphere and the apocalyptic effects of climate change will soon go beyond our ability to manage them.
To my knowledge, Vermont has never openly questioned whether conventional agriculture is doing the state more harm than good and the greenwashing of Vermont’s conventional agriculture continues at the highest level to this day. Namely, the Governor’s Commission on The Future of Vermont Agriculture (November 15, 2021) does not mention the dairy industry’s overreliance on fossil fuels, the GWSA, or the industry’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. The report of the Governor’s Task Force to Revitalize Vermont’s Dairy Industry (December 2019) does not contain the words conventional, organic, fossil fuel or climate change.
The state of Vermont has never recognized the externalities of conventional agriculture; but because the GWSA requires the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26% by 2025, and because conventional agriculture and the GWSA are clearly contraindicated, the onus is on the state to recognize them immediately.
GWSA’s legislative intent is to significantly reduce society’s dependence on petroleum products and to do so as soon as possible. But with the ICT and the Clean heat standard both in doubt and with plans to offset rather than reduce “agriculture” emissions at their source, the chances of Vermont meeting its first GWSA goal are slim. And unless the state changes course now, its chances of achieving its second and third goals are worse than slim.