This story is part of Covering Climate Now’s “Food & Water” joint coverage week.
A trip to the grocery store these days is a crash course in climate change’s toll on supply chains.
Grocery prices have risen every month for the past year, driven by everything from the lingering pandemic, air pollution from fossil fuel particulates, farm labor shortages, and corporate price gouging. A world where droughts and floods regularly devastate crop yields only exacerbates these factors to ratchet up the cost of food.
For meat eaters, the pain is most acute, with the cost of animal products outpacing fruits and veggies. But vegetarians needn’t look so smug. With record-breaking floods threatening China’s grain harvest and Russia’s unconscionable blockade of Ukrainian wheat exports, the cost of staples such as cereal is also climbing higher.
Fortunately, there is an answer to the price shocks that have jumped from the meat fridge to the produce aisle. It lies in the lowly legume.
In order to prosper on American farmland and in American stockpots, however, beans are going to need a lot more help from the US government. What the agriculture sector needs right now is a Bean New Deal—large scale investment in legume production, and a snazzy brand campaign to boot.
Beans are a staple of diets across the globe. They’re rich in protein, use far less water and land than other crops, and even act as a natural fertilizer to replenish the soil they’re grown in. The United Nations went so far as to call pulses, a legume’s dry seed, the “food of the future” because of their low carbon footprint and high nutritional value.
But a sustainability scorecard won’t be enough to convince American farmers to plant more beans. Agriculture insurance companies predict an anticipated decline up to 15 percent in bean acreage planted compared to last year. This is quite possibly another consequence of climate change: as the West’s drought reduces the amount of soil available to till, farmers have to weigh which crops will yield highest profits. Dry edible beans, the kind you’d use to cook a nice casserole, don’t usually fetch the same prices as other farm commodities. Legumes may be cheap for consumers, but this makes them less attractive to planters.
That is, unless the government steps in to incentivize bean growth for the benefit of the planet and for consumer’s pocketbooks.
Agricultural subsidies are the most powerful tools the federal government has to shape what Americans consume year by year. Since 2015, the feds have spent $119 billion to underwrite the agriculture market, mainly to support growers of just five crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice. These subsidies help farmers weather freezes and droughts—increasingly intensified by climate change—and ensure a healthy supply of domestic crops to the market.
But Jefferson’s agrarian ideal, this is not. Many of the subsidies go to the harvesting of enormous monocultures at factory farms—from 1995 to 2020, 78 percent of the $187 billion the federal government dished went to the top 10 percent of farms. These monocultures drain soil of its nutrients—increasing the use of fertilizer, which pollutes local waterways with nitrogen—and diminish the genetic variability of the crop, leaving it susceptible to pathogens. Instead of financing environmental degradation by corporate titans, the government should help out the little guy.
What’s more, because farm commodities like corn and soybeans are often used for livestock feed, subsidies for monocultures are effectively subsidies for the meat industry. Animal agriculture is already a horror show of labor abuses and unimaginable cruelty. If the days of the $4 Big Mac are over, so be it. With prices for poultry and beef continuing to rise, the government should ease spending on meat and pay farmers to plant beans.
Getting more beans to the market, of course, doesn’t mean that consumers will buy them. Let’s be honest: Beans have an image problem. The United States did experience an uptick in bean sales early in the pandemic, likely as a result of their reputation as an essential of emergency preparedness. But that’s just it—beans are reliable, not sexy. “Hard pass,” an 18-year-old told The New York Times at Covid’s onset. You can imagine her wrinkling her nose at a can of garbanzos.
The government can do a lot more to tout the virtues of the bean. The California Milk Processor Board, after all, once used an iconic slogan to buoy dairy sales in the state. During the Great Depression, the Department of Agriculture gave Uncle Sam a wife and a radio program to share easy, nutritious recipes with the public. You can equally imagine that same 18-year-old discovering a tasty bean recipe on TikTok.
Investing in bean science would also make foods made from beans tastier. Much of the corn and soybeans that the country grows isn’t meant for human consumption. It’s meant to fatten up animals for human consumption. The plants are grown to maximize crop yield at the expense of protein content. And protein content, researchers suspect, is the key to developing the perfect meat substitute, according to a new report from Wired. With more research and development into legume breeding, beans could very well be the future of meat.
But right now, the United States is ceding ground to other countries when it comes to a centralized effort to scale up alternative proteins, including beans. While the Netherlands, Israel, and China invest billions of dollars in finding the food of the future, the US spends billions propping up an industry responsible for 20 percent of global emissions. That’s the argument that Alex Smith and Ariel Ron make in a recent white paper. Their solution? Ramped-up federal investment to commercial alternative proteins, coordination nodes between agencies and industry, and additional university research into the science of bean breeding.
Sounds like a Bean New Deal to me.