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Climate Legislation; Mexican Ag Tariffs; Ag Economy; Biofuels; ERS Report; and Farm Policy Perspective

Climate Legislation

The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a news release yesterday, which indicated that, “U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack today addressed attendees of the 2009 North American Biochar Conference and discussed the Obama Administration’s commitment to taking international leadership on climate change, and the potential to create rural jobs and opportunities for landowners through the use of biochar.”

Although a complete transcript of the Secretary’s remarks was not located on the USDA homepage at the time of this writing, yesterday’s release did include a few excerpts from yesterday’s address.

“Climate Change is one of the great challenges facing the world. President Obama and I believe that America must show international leadership in our efforts to combat the effects of a changing climate and that we must embrace new technologies to create a green energy economy.”

Farmers, ranchers and forest landowners can play a very important role in addressing climate change and creating a new energy economy. Biochar has the potential to create opportunities for the agriculture and forestry sectors to mitigate the effects of a changing climate while creating jobs in rural communities and offering new income sources to landowners.”

According to this news article, “‘Biochar’ refers to a charcoal-like compound created through the heat generated by decomposition of plant material. It’s seen by some as a promising way to capture carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and hold it in the soil.”

A news report posted this morning at The Daily Camera Online (Boulder, CO) regarding the Secretary’s speech stated that, “Companies also could buy ‘carbon offsets’ at a lower cost from farms, forests and other sources. It’s those offsets that could create an economic opportunity for farmers and ranchers, Vilsack said, and biochar is an offset candidate.

He said other income-generating possibilities for farmers include biomass and biofuels.”

With respect to “creating a new energy economy,” Lois Romano reported in today’s Washington Post that, “Van Jones may have one of the hottest assignments in the Obama administration — selling the notion of a new ‘green-collar’ economy — but in a country burdened with a 9.4 percent unemployment rate, it’s not easy.

“How do you tell an unemployed construction worker that it’s time to start thinking about installing solar panels instead of aluminum siding? ‘I think some of these ideas are complicated for people when they first hear them,’ said Jones, senior green jobs adviser to the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Most people ‘don’t know what retrofitting a building means, or they haven’t heard of . . . a smart biofuel. And so a lot of times, people just sort of go yes, yes, but they aren’t really following you.’

Jones, 40, has been a leader in a growing movement that aims to hit two major social and policy challenges — the struggling economy and environmental quality — with one boulder. It’s a vision that has been embraced by various industries and advocacy groups intrigued by the promise of thousands of new green jobs as the country invests in energy efficiency and confronts climate change.”

Today’s Post article pointed out that, “But skeptics say the reality of creating a ‘green economy’ is more complex. As with any new business, start-up costs are high — and money is tight these days. And although the administration has allocated as much as $80 billion through the stimulus package to create more than 6 million green jobs, it is impossible at this point to quantify success. For one, there is no official federal definition of a green job — though the president’s budget includes money for the Bureau of Labor Statistics to work with other agencies to define the green economy and produce data on green-collar jobs by 2011.”

Meanwhile, Keith Johnson noted yesterday at The Environmental Capital Blog (The Wall Street Journal) that, “It may seem like the health-care debate has pushed the debate over climate legislation to the back stage. But it’s a very busy backstage.

“The Center for Public Integrity reports that the number of lobbyists trying to shape the Waxman-Markey energy and climate bill jumped 30% in the weeks leading up to the House vote on that bill in June. There are now 1,150 companies and organizations groping for the sausage grinder—that’s almost one lobbyist for each page of legislation.

“CPI notes that farm interests piled into the debate as the vote neared, which could explain Waxman-Markey’s generous treatment of agricultural interests.”

From an international perspective on climate related issues, in a speech delivered yesterday in Seoul, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that, “Ladies and gentlemen, I see four cornerstones for this new multilateralism- this concrete multilateralism.

First, climate change.

It is, simply, the greatest collective challenge we face as a human family. The world’s top scientists tell us now is the time. We have less than ten years to halt the global rise in greenhouse gas emissions if we are to avoid catastrophic consequences for people and the planet.

“Yet there is ample reason to hope.”

The Secretary-General added that, “This December, in Copenhagen, we have a chance to put in place a climate change agreement that all nations can embrace.”

Patrick Wintour reported on Saturday at The Guardian Online that, “Vital UN climate change talks in Copenhagen are likely to collapse unless rich nations agree a ‘social justice deal’ built around equalising emissions per head in each country, according to the former deputy prime minister John Prescott.

“Speaking to the Guardian, Prescott admitted that the formula would require far greater sacrifices by rich nations, especially the US. Prescott, one of three politicians to broker the original UN climate change deal in December 1997, is to become deeply involved in trying to ensure there is a successor to Kyoto.

He met leaders of Barack Obama’s climate change team in Washington a fortnight ago, and is due to travel to China on 8 September at the same time as Lord Mandelson, the business secretary. He will be given an honorary professorship at Xiamen University for his work on climate change.”

And the AP indicated yesterday that, “New Zealand announced on Monday that it will cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 10 to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, the country’s climate change minister said.”

The article explained that, “The target would be met through a mix of domestic emission reductions, storage of carbon in forests with new plantings and the purchase of carbon credits from other nations that have not exceeded their emissions targets.”

President Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and President of Mexico Felipe Calderon Hinojosa took part in meetings at a North American leaders conference in Guadalajara, Mexico yesterday. As part of these discussions, the three leaders issued a declaration on the climate change issue.

In part, the declaration stated that, “We, the leaders of North American reaffirm the urgency and necessity of taking aggressive action on climate change. We stress that the experience developed during the last 15 years in the North American region on environmental cooperation, sustainable development, and clean energy research, development, and deployment constitutes a valuable platform for climate change action, and we resolve to make use of the opportunities offered by existing bilateral and trilateral institutions.”

Mexican Ag Tariffs

Bloomberg writers Nicholas Johnston and Jens Erik Gould reported yesterday that, “President Barack Obama told his Mexican counterpart Felipe Calderon that he is committed to resolving a dispute over truck access to U.S. highways.

“Obama said he will also address safety concerns about the trucks raised by the U.S. Congress, an administration official said after the two leaders met in Guadalajara yesterday at a summit of North American leaders. Calderon told Obama that the dispute has hurt trade, raised consumer costs and reduced job creation, according to a statement from his press office.

“Removing restrictions that prevent Mexican trucks from delivering goods across the border has been a top issue for Calderon since the U.S. Congress, citing safety concerns, ended a pilot program in March that allowed some trucks access. Mexico retaliated by imposing $2.4 billion in tariffs on U.S. goods after the program ended, affecting companies such as Procter & Gamble Co., the world’s largest household-products maker.”

The tariffs were also levied against some 36 agricultural products including peanuts, potatoes, cherries, pears, wine, onions, strawberries and juices.

Elizabeth Williamson reported in today’s Wall Street Journal that, “President Barack Obama concluded a summit with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts by pledging greater cooperation on uncontroversial issues like flu prevention, but he papered over trade disputes between the U.S. and its close trading partners, dashing hopes for progress on those issues.”

Today’s Journal article stated that, “Mr. Obama also didn’t address an effective ban on Mexican trucks crossing the border into the U.S., a move that has made trade between the two nations more costly and cumbersome, and has angered Mexico. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, the U.S. is required to allow Mexican trucks to cross the border. However, U.S. trucking companies and other critics have argued that Mexican trucks aren’t safe.

“A pilot program had allowed a small number of Mexican trucks to ply U.S. highways, before Congress ended it in March following lobbying by the Teamsters Union, which represents U.S. trucking companies, among others. Mexico retaliated by imposing an estimated $2.4 billion in tariffs on 89 U.S. industrial and agricultural products, from potatoes and pears to precious-metal jewelry. Mexican truckers also are suing the U.S. under Nafta for $6 billion in compensation.

Mr. Calderón didn’t specifically mention the trucking issue during Monday’s news conference, but reiterated the need ‘to abide by Nafta and to resolve the pending topics that impede us to reach greater regional competitiveness.’”

The President’s trip to Mexico was also the subject of debate on yesterday’s Diane Rehm Show. To listen to a clip from Diane and Edward Alex Lee (State Department) on the trucking issue, just click here (MP3-about one minute).

Agricultural Economy- USDA Assistance

Reuters writer Charles Abbott reported yesterday that, “The Agriculture Department will try to help U.S. farmers and rural businesses survive the recession by offering loan restructuring and low-interest loans as needed, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Monday.

“Vilsack said USDA would use its authority to maximize relief to borrowers. It sent a letter to borrowers to outline options including loan rescheduling, reamortization, deferral of payments and debt reduction.”

Swine Sector

Bloomberg writer Whitney McFerron reported on Friday that, “The U.S. should spend an additional $50 million to buy pork for federal food programs to help hog farmers, who have lost almost $4.4 billion since September 2007, Iowa Governor Chet Culver said.

“Nine governors sent a letter to President Barack Obama today asking him to boost spending on pork and to work on reopening China to U.S. exports of the meat, Culver said today on a conference call. Iowa is the biggest U.S. pork producer.”

A National Pork Producers Council news release from late last week indicated that, “The National Pork Producers Council today commended the governors from a number of the nation’s top pork-producing states for urging President Obama to take immediate action to help U.S. pork producers through a nearly 2-year-old economic crisis.”

Northeast Blight

Dan Barbar indicated in an opinion item posted at The New York Times Online on Sunday that, “The latest trouble is the explosion of late blight, a plant disease that attacks potatoes and tomatoes. Late blight appears innocent enough at first — a few brown spots here, some lesions there — but it spreads fast. Although the fungus isn’t harmful to humans, it has devastating effects on tomatoes and potatoes grown outdoors. Plants that appear relatively healthy one day, with abundant fruit and vibrant stems, can turn toxic within a few days. (See the Irish potato famine, caused by a strain of the fungus.)

“Most farmers in the Northeast, accustomed to variable conditions, have come to expect it in some form or another. Like a sunburn or a mosquito bite, you’ll probably be hit by late blight sooner or later, and while there are steps farmers can take to minimize its damage and even avoid it completely, the disease is almost always present, if not active.”

Mr. Barbar added that, “But this year is turning out to be different — quite different, according to farmers and plant scientists. For one thing, the disease appeared much earlier than usual. Late blight usually comes, well, late in the growing season, as fungal spores spread from plant to plant. So its early arrival caught just about everyone off guard.

“And then there’s the perniciousness of the 2009 blight. The pace of the disease (it covered the Northeast in just a few days) and its strength (topical copper sprays, a convenient organic preventive, have been much less effective than in past years) have shocked even hardened Hudson Valley [New York] farmers.”

The Times item stated that, “According to plant pathologists, this killer round of blight began with a widespread infiltration of the disease in tomato starter plants. Large retailers like Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart bought starter plants from industrial breeding operations in the South and distributed them throughout the Northeast. (Fungal spores, which can travel up to 40 miles, may also have been dispersed in transit.) Once those infected starter plants arrived at the stores, they were purchased and planted, transferring their pathogens like tiny Trojan horses into backyard and community gardens. Perhaps this is why the Northeast was hit so viciously: instead of being spread through large farms, the blight sneaked through lots of little gardens, enabling it to escape the attention of the people who track plant diseases.

It’s important to note, too, that this year there have been many more hosts than in the past as more and more Americans have taken to gardening. Credit the recession or Michelle Obama or both, but there’s been an increased awareness of the benefits of growing your own food. According to the National Gardening Association, 43 million households planned a backyard garden or put a stake in a share of a community garden in 2009, up from 36 million in 2008. That’s quite a few home gardeners who — given the popularity of the humble tomato — probably planted a starter or two this summer.

Here’s the unhappy twist: the explosion of home gardeners — the very people most conscious of buying local food and opting out of the conventional food chain — has paradoxically set the stage for the worst local tomato harvest in memory.”


Reuters writers Peter Henderson and Timothy Gardner reported yesterday that, “The ethanol industry called for requirements that all vehicles sold in the United States accept high blends of the alternative motor fuel as part of a push to lower greenhouse gas emissions and provide jobs at home.

“A low-carbon fuel standard, which would spur use of alternative fuels, more ethanol pumping stations and construction of biofuel pipelines would also help wean the country from gasoline, Growth Energy, the ethanol industry trade group, said in a ‘biofuels road map’ during a renewable energy meeting in Las Vegas on Monday.”

The Reuters article added that, “”We have excess capital right now that could be invested in our domestic fuels industry like ethanol,’ Growth Energy Co-Chair Wesley Clark told reporters in a teleconference [audio available here] from the sidelines of the meeting hosted by Senator Harry Reid. ‘We have unemployed labor. We would love to put those people to work in the ethanol industry.’

Growth Energy said the policy outlined in road map could more than double the number of biofuels jobs to 1.3 million, and that cellulosic is almost 90 percent better for the environment than gasoline.”

ERS Report

The USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) issued an interesting report yesterday entitled, “Baby Boom Migration and Its Impact on Rural America.”

According to an ERS summary of the report, “Members of the baby boom cohort, now 45-63 years old, are approaching a period in their lives when moves to rural and small-town destinations increase…[T]he analysis finds a significant increase in the propensity to migrate to nonmetro counties as people reach their fifties and sixties and projects a shift in migration among boomers toward more isolated settings, especially those with high natural and urban amenities and lower housing costs. If baby boomers follow past migration patterns, the nonmetro population age 55-75 will increase by 30 percent between now and 2020.”

Farm Policy Perspective

Alec MacGillis, a national politics writer for The Washington Post, participated in an online chat at the paper’s webpage yesterday.

An interesting excerpt from this dialogue included the following:

“Alexandria (VA): “When a country that is so heavily metropolitan as America now is still riddled with, say, farm subsidies, does that not suggest an imbalance of sorts?

“Are you so politically naive as to think farm subsidies are for anything other than keeping food cheep and abundant for metropolitan areas?”

“Alec MacGillis: Subsidies obviously have multiple beneficiaries. But no, I would argue that they also pretty obviously benefit the big ag interests as well. When Kent Conrad of North Dakota flat out rejects Obama’s plan to reduce subsidies for the wealthiest farmers, I don’t think Conrad’s doing that on behalf of you and your neighbors in suburban Alexandria.”

Keith Good