Op-Ed: Don’t talk with your mouth full

by Troy Bishopp

I received a text with this disturbing title: “Meet the People Getting Paid to Kill Our Planet.” I thought, “Good play on words if you want to attract attention” within a very planned and convenient “Opinion” piece by the New York Times flying under the radar of litigation. I mean, really, farmers may well be cranked, but what can you really do against an editorial perspective – censor it?

You can denounce it. The NCBA said “It’s incredibly disappointing”; U.S. Ag Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation Robert Bonnie thought it was a horrible video; and Georgia Congressman Austin Scott said it’s an “outright lie about America’s farm families.” American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall responded in his “Zipline” commentary: “It was so disappointing to see a respected media outlet present a distorted picture of agriculture without so much as acknowledging that farmers play an essential role in stocking America’s pantries.”

I’ll play along, but for transparency purposes, I’m a New York-based, small, “non-certified” organic grass farmer who espouses biological systems with livestock and has no affiliation with aforementioned organizations.

I tried to look at the “opinion movie” a bit more honestly, even against some very questionable inaccuracies. I suggest you do too and come to terms with managing our farms much better within a holistic framework for our future generations. This is a conversation for all farmers within your own context and community – not just for animal agriculture. This topic can’t be a sacred cow.

Let me introduce you to the opinion protagonists: Jennifer Jacquet, NYU associate professor of environmental studies, who wrote “Is Shame Necessary” and “The Playbook: How to Deny Science, Sell Lies and Make a Killing in the Corporate World” (due out in June 2022). There’s Peter Lehner, a lawyer, former executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council and acclaimed environmentalist who leads a sustainable food and farming program at Earthjustice, and co-author of “Farming for Our Future: The Science, Law and Policy of Climate-Neutral Agriculture.” And there’s Cory Booker, lawyer, heralded vegan and New Jersey Senator on the U.S. Senate Ag Committee.

You might want to back away from milking and tractor work long enough to understand these folks have a clear agenda and a tactical plan for net-zero agriculture. They will be using lawyering, high-handed narratives and regulation on all of us, including the regenerative ole farmer with his burping, farting cows.

Jacquet fascinates me by writing, “Shaming might be very effective as a tool, but very impermissible as a means of changing society. This is what I’m looking at now, ways in which you can make shaming more effective as a tool … It worked at scale, one group of people using it against another group of people at the group level. This is the kind of scale that interests me.”

Lehner surmises in his book, “Agricultural emissions are much higher than commonly understood, farmers are much smaller in number – and ‘wealthier,’ than reported, we can’t decarbonize agriculture without massively expanding perennial production, we shouldn’t rely on long-term soil carbon sequestration to offset emissions elsewhere, we can completely eliminate net agricultural emissions and policymakers can dramatically reduce emissions now.” He also said, “Our food system is creating more public health harm than smoking, we need a ‘subsidized’ stable climate and consider eating lower on the food chain (plants).”

Booker said, “We can’t solve climate change or inequality without fixing our food system” (good) … “There must be regulation. We need to take these big, multinational factory farms and stop them, put a moratorium on their growth and eventually phase them out.” He warned, “We are past a national emergency.”

A deeper dive into their climate/animal narratives sadly doesn’t include the perspective of many diverse farmers, of any scope in the vetting of ideas. Just take a look at the Law, Ethics & Animals Program (LEAP) at Yale Law School (law.yale.edu/animals), Earthjustice (earthjustice.org/about), the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation (CHLPI) at Harvard Law (chlpi.org) and the Environmental Advocates NY (eany.org) platform.

A potential hotspot for New York farmers to monitor is State Sen. Michelle Hinchey’s “Soil Health and Climate Resiliency Act” (Senate Bill S4722A). “The purpose of this legislation is to enhance and maintain the health of soil on farms to improve farm productivity, protect natural resources, reduce the effect of farming on climate change and mitigate the impact of climate change on farming.”

It’s an “act to amend the agriculture and markets law and the soil and water conservation districts law” in relation to establishing the soil health and climate resiliency act. Guess who’s in the henhouse with NY Farm Bureau, NOFA-NY and the Northeast Dairy Producers Association on this? EarthJustice, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Advocates NY and the NY Nature Conservancy. Interesting.

For me, the opinion video points out some glaring missed opportunities: They offered no concrete solutions to their points, they never shared what their ideal, zero-emission plate of food would look like and didn’t correlate, at all, how the consumer’s dollar and choice dictates how we farmers are asked to feed America.  They never addressed how the cheap food policy will fix climate change or support the 1% of us farmers who are striving to remain sustainable or regenerative. It reminds me of what my mother said: “Don’t talk about agriculture with your mouth full.”

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