She sees a more just, equitable food system in our future

As 2020 draws to a close, Fix asked 21 climate and justice leaders to offer their predictions for 2021. We’re presenting a handful of their responses in depth — because we could all use some extra hope these days. Be sure to check out the full list of predictions here.

A native of Montana, Liz Carlisle started her career as a country and folk singer — a path that continually exposed her to the different facets of living close to the land and fueled her desire to share stories from rural America. She went on to write two books about the transition to sustainable farming practices and now teaches in the Environmental Studies program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. (Side note: She also taught this writer a whole heck of a lot during her time as a lecturer at Stanford.)

Carlisle made a few predictions about the changes we could see in the food system — particularly when it comes to uplifting the people who have been most exploited by business as usual. Her responses have been edited for length and clarity.

On learnings from 2020

Obviously the pandemic upended the way people access food. Delivery services for groceries and restaurant meals were already growing and have now ballooned. We need to ensure that labor protections follow workers into this shifting workplace. 2020 shined a very unflattering spotlight on the inadequacy of existing labor protections in the food system, demonstrating that workers are “essential” but treated as disposable. Food-system work, already among the most dangerous occupations, became even more lethal.

One bright spot is that many of the more decentralized elements of our food system that we tend to label “alternative” — CSAs, food hubs, mutual-aid networks, community gardens — came to the forefront during the pandemic. I’d love to see policymakers at all levels learn from this by strengthening this community food infrastructure to ensure that our food system is better prepared for the next crisis.

On the possibilities in 2021

The imperative of rebuilding the economy presents a lot of opportunities to “build back better,” particularly since it coincides with the most widespread social movements of my lifetime: Black Lives Matter, climate justice, and landback, among others. There are a lot of big economic choices that have not been made yet, and the collective IQ around organizing and participating in the political process has leveled up dramatically.

One concrete example: the Justice for Black Farmers Act, introduced by Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren. If signed into law, it would create an Equitable Land Access Service backed by an $8 billion fund and a Farmland Conservation Corps to ensure young people from all backgrounds could become regenerative farmers. This legislation is possible because of decades of dedicated activism, and it could be passed in 2021.

On priorities in the year ahead

Racial and economic injustice are the biggest and most immediate barriers to climate progress in the food and agriculture sectors — and the most promising and impactful solutions emerge through centering justice. Awareness has been raised, but the discussion needs to get very nitty-gritty and actionable: How do we shift resources to grassroots groups that are “shovel ready” to create regenerative food systems in their communities? How do we swiftly phase out the most polluting and exploitative elements of the food and agriculture sector while offering workers a just transition to good green jobs?

I’m hoping to see changes seeded in 2021 that will bear fruit for many years into the future. These changes aren’t likely to be headline-makers, but they will powerfully shape decision-making processes. For example, I’d like to see the end of the revolving door between agribusiness and the USDA, and a new era for this agency that prioritizes community food sovereignty and ecosystem services from agriculture. To achieve these goals, the agency will need to better reflect the diversity of the U.S. and see the whole country as its constituency. We are all stakeholders in the food system, but many voices have been left out in the past and must now be listened to and heeded.

This post was originally published on Radio Free.