During an historic, televised town hall on the climate issue, the leading Democratic presidential hopefuls agreed broadly on imposing taxes or limits on carbon emissions and shifting to electric vehicles, and some candidates called for changes in farming practices and said Americans should be encouraged to reduce meat consumption. 

Both a carbon tax, which would be designed to raise the cost of fossil fuels, and the proposed switch to electric vehicles, which would reduce biofuel consumption, could have significant impact on agriculture. 

“We have to take the internal combustion vehicle off the road as quickly as we can,” said the Democratic frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden. He also said he supported a carbon tax but emphasized that other countries had to be encouraged to reduce emissions as well. “We make up 15% of the problem. The rest of the world makes up 85% of the problem,” he said.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren endorsed the idea of a carbon tax for the first time in her campaign. "Those who are throwing the carbon into the air .. are the ones who are responsible for paying it," she said. 

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg said a carbon tax would encourage the use of renewable energy without directly dictating what sources are used. “We set the goal and then we challenge America to live up to it,” he said. 

Biden, Warren, Buttigieg and seven other candidates were questioned successively by CNN moderators and members of the audience during the seven-hour event Wednesday.

The candidates were all over the place when it came to whether Americans should change the foods they eat and the way they are produced, but the questions also differed from candidate to candidate, and a few weren't asked directly about food and ag policy. 

Warren emphasized that she would focus on reducing emissions from three sources other than agriculture: New buildings, electricity generation and motor vehicles. 

She suggested that other issues, including agriculture, would be a distraction. The fossil fuel industry is trying to to “stir up a lot of controversy around light bulbs, straws and cheeseburgers,” she said.

California Sen. Kamala Harris was one of several other candidates who were asked whether meat consumption should be lowered to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

"The balance we have to strike here is about what government can do around creating incentives and just banning something," she said. 

She said the federal dietary guidelines should be modified to encourage consumption of foods that are better for the environment, and she called for requiring food labels to disclose the environmental impact of the products. 

“I strongly believe that the American consumer is still left without the information you need and deserve to have about what it is you’re putting in your body,” she said. Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke said that "what we eat, how we consume ... is all going to have to reflect the true cost of climate change." But he also said he believes that livestock producers can reduce greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently so there would be no need to "radically or fundamentally change how we eat or what we eat."

O'Rourke favors reducing emissions through a cap-and-trade system, that would set limits on carbon emissions, rather than a carbon tax. 

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, asked what personal sacrifices Americans should be required to make, brought up his sweeping proposals to shift agriculture toward smaller scale and organic farms. 

“We are saying that we are going to end factory farming, because it is a danger to the environment. … There will be some transitions and some change there," he said. Sanders said his plan would encourage more consumption of locally produced foods. 

Pressed on whether Americans should reduce meat consumption, Buttigieg appeared to agree but said the carbon tax would reduce greenhouse gas emissions without dictating how people should eat. 

“We can have a more balanced diet and more balanced footprint and not propose that we abolish the cow,” he said. 

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang made a similar point. “It’s good for the environment, it’s good for your health, if you eat less meat. … (But) this is a country where there’s a lot of individual autonomy, so you can't force people's eating choices on them.”

Buttgieg fielded a question from a Connecticut dairy farmer, Amanda Freund, who said the "economic and environmental challenges we are facing are unprecedented, from erratic weather to crippled export markets. How will you create more stability for the ag sector so that farmers can meet environmental regulations in response to climate change and stay in business?"

For farmers, it has been "harder under this administration," Buttgieg responded, citing trade wars and consolidation  "Uncertainty is one of the biggest enemies that a farmer has, and we’re adding an awful lot of it with what’s happening with climate change. It's one of the reasons farmers have the most to lose."

He linked President Donald Trump's trade war with China to the fires burning in the Amazon that release more carbon into the atmosphere. “It is providing an incentive for people (in Brazil) to burn down the Amazon forest so they can plant soybeans," Buttigieg said. 

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a vegan and the final candidate to be questioned during the forum, gave an extended critique of U.S. livestock production, claiming the farms were polluting poor communities while hiding the practices from the public. 

“We’re incentivizing those kinds of farm practices and not the kind that represent our heritage and support family farmers,” Booker said. 

He also asserted that low-income people in urban areas “don’t have access to fresh and healthy foods.” 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., was asked how climate change activists could trust her to take on the beef and dairy industries when she represents a major agricultural state. 

"I am hopeful that we’re going to be able to do this in a way that we can continue to have hamburgers and cheese, but at the same time understand that there are many people who choose to eat vegan and that is great, too," she said. 

She said farm bill conservation programs should be used more widely to promote cover crops and other farming practices that can reduce emissions. 

O’Rourke said conservation measures were the “way of the future.” 

Steve Davies contributed to this report. 

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