A Food & Climate Guide to the 2020 Democratic Candidates

Janet McGarry, CUESA Volunteer
February 28, 2020

*As of March 5, 2020, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bloomberg, and Tom Steyer have dropped out of the presidential race.

The Democratic primary on March 3 is an opportunity to go beyond voting with your fork to voting for a vision for the future you want to see. Having weathered droughts and wildfires in recent years, California voters have named climate change their number one priority, while recent national surveys ranked climate number two, after health care.

From climate and health to jobs and immigration, food touches everything. We’ve compiled some highlights of the major candidates’ positions on food and climate, with a focus on some of their unique plans. Since this is just an overview, click on the links to dive into the candidates’ policy proposals. See you at the ballot box next Tuesday!

Democratic Ag Policies Address Climate Change

Without a doubt, candidates have spent more time addressing agriculture, specifically as it relates to climate, than in recent presidential elections. You can see roundups of candidates’ positions on climate and agriculture here and here.

Both Sanders and Warren have developed detailed policies for transforming the agricultural sector, including breaking up Big Ag monopolies by enforcing antitrust laws. They advocate for returning to New Deal-era policies to reduce overproduction and environmentally destructive farming practices resulting from agribusiness-friendly policies adopted by the Nixon administration. 

Other candidates’ plans, although less comprehensive, also show support for sustainable practices, particularly carbon sequestration on farmland. Biden, Klobuchar, and Buttigieg back biofuels, which help commodity crop farmers in the Midwest. Biofuels are less controversial in the 2020 race than in past elections, although skepticism remains about their environmental benefits.

Sanders Aims to Transform Agriculture 

Sanders has an ambitious plan to invest $410 billion to help all farmers transition to regenerative agriculture. His policies include investing $160 billion in food recovery and composting programs to reduce waste and address hunger. Sanders also proposes investing over $45 billion to create local food processing systems and support cooperatively and community-owned grocery stores.

His plan provides government funding for beginning farmers to purchase farmland, and agricultural easements to protect farmland from development. Sanders’s agricultural plans extend to suburban and urban land; his Victory Lawn and Garden initiative envisions transforming lawns into food-producing or reforested land.

Sanders advocates for strengthening organic standards so that large agribusinesses cannot circumvent rules to disadvantage smaller organic farms. Sanders was the only candidate to attend the Presidential Forum on Combating Climate Change with Organic and Regenerative Agriculture in Iowa. (Warren and Buttigieg provided written responses.)

Bernie Sanders is committed to enacting the Green New Deal and has a comprehensive climate platform that received an A+ from Greenpeace.

Warren Has a Blue New Deal and Equity Plan for Farmers of Color (Campaign Suspended on March 5)

Warren plans to increase funding for the Conservation Stewardship Program to $15 billion (15 times its current funding). This program pays farmers to adopt regenerative practices, such as reducing chemical use and tillage and planting cover crops.

Warren’s policies include expanding the Farm-to-School program a hundredfold, and investing $1 billion in a Farm-to-People program in which federally funded institutions, such as military bases and hospitals, buy fresh food from local farmers. She also supports a ten-fold increase in funding of the USDA’s Local Ag Market Program to fund food hubs, distribution centers, and points of sales in rural and small town communities.

Warren’s policy addresses discrimination against farmers of color including establishing a land trust to buy land from retiring farmers and sell it to new farmers interest-free, with specific benchmarks for sales to Black farmers. Her plans also will require the Farm Credit System to allocate 10% of its $5 billion profits to supporting farmers of color through expanded access to credit.

Warren is unique among the candidates in offering a detailed plan for promoting sustainable seafood and carbon sequestration projects in the ocean. Her Blue New Deal plan includes investing $5 billion over 10 years to expand the USDA Local Agriculture Market Program to fund food hubs and distribution centers to make it easier for fishermen to sell seafood directly to consumers and also rebuild infrastructure for processing fish. Her plan is to create a new USDA program to develop ocean-based farming, such as algae and seaweed that may be used in renewable fuel, and a blue carbon program. 

Elizabeth Warren supports the Green New Deal, with an in-depth climate action plan that includes investments in sustainable agriculture.

Biden Advocates for Biofuel Research 

Biden plans to invest $400 billion in clean energy research, innovation, and deployment with a top priority put on developing biofuels as part of his climate change plan. Like the other candidates, Biden’s agricultural policies include carbon sequestration on farmland, with a promise to make the agricultural sector achieve net zero emissions. To this end, he supports dramatically expanding the Conservation Stewardship Program and allowing it to participate in carbon markets. Corporations, individuals and foundations could offset their emissions by contributing to the program’s payments to farmers for sequestering carbon. 

Biden also wants to invest in agricultural research by land grant universities so that the public, not private companies, own patents to agricultural advances including new seeds. 

His plan includes support for regional food systems, where smaller farmers can sell directly to consumers, and beginning farmers by doubling the maximum amount of micro-loans to $100,000 and increasing funding for the USDA’s farm ownership and operating loans. He plans to increase funding for the Sustainable Agriculture and Education Program and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Bloomberg Proposed a Soda Ban (Campaign Suspended on March 4)

Although Mayor Bloomberg showed interest in healthy food issues by proposing a sugary beverages ban in New York (later blocked), presidential candidate Bloomberg has not proposed a farm policy. He has expressed support for expanding Farm Bill conservation programs to reduce carbon emissions and improve sequestration.  

His 2016 comments about farming have recently attracted criticism. In a talk to business school students, he said, “I could teach anybody—even people in this room so no offense intended—to be a farmer. It’s a process. You dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, add water, up comes the corn.” Bloomberg has donated millions to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign and, though he has been critical of the Green New Deal, has put forth his own climate and clean energy plan.

Buttigieg Supports Soil Carbon Sequestration (Campaign Suspended on March 1)

Buttigieg’s policies include doubling the USDA’s investment in soil carbon sequestration research and development to $50 billion over 10 years, with particular emphasis on research to reduce agriculture’s carbon emissions and increase farmland’s potential to sequester carbon. 

Buttigieg’s policy includes doubling funding for antitrust enforcement against Big Ag monopolies. He plans to launch an investigation of recent mergers in the seed market, and to protect the right of family farmers to replant seeds grown on their own farms. He also advocates for expanding labor and employment law protection to farm workers. 

In terms of climate change, Buttigieg supports a carbon fee and rebate, and has proposed other climate initiatives such as the American Clean Energy Bank, Climate Action Bonds, and U.S. Climate Corps.

Klobuchar Promotes Healthy Soil (Campaign Suspended on March 2)

In addition to support for biofuels, Klobuchar wants to protect native sod and improve soil health by expanding the Soil Health and Income Protection Pilot Program to provide farmers with an alternative to planting crops on less productive land. 

Klobuchar advocates for increased support for beginning farmers through a tax credit for retiring farmers who sell land or equipment to beginning farmers, and mandatory funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. Her policies also support small and family-owned farms including expanding access to capital and loans. 

She co-sponsored the Green New Deal resolution and has a climate plan that sets a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, but she is somewhat more moderate than other candidates in her climate positions.

Steyer’s Research on TomKat Ranch (Campaign Suspended on February 29)

Billionaire Steyer has shown strong personal commitment to sustainable agriculture; he owns TomKat Ranch in Pescadero, where he has invested $10 million to raise grass-fed, hormone-free beef and do scientific research on regenerative grazing. He also has a climate justice plan, advocating for establishing low-carbon agriculture standards to reduce emissions and water pollution 40% by 2030, and achieve carbon neutrality by 2045. He supports significant investments in small and mid-sized farmers and underrepresented communities.

Photos of Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer by Gage Skidmore.

Click here to find out how you can vote in the California Presidential Primary on March 3.