FarmPolicy

April 18, 2014

Climate Issues and Agriculture; Food Security; and Food Safety

Climate Issues and Agriculture

Dan Morgan, a former Washington Post reporter and editor, who is now an independent writer specializing in agriculture and energy, published an article yesterday titled, “Mining Carbon Down on the Farm.”

Datelined from Wheatland, Wyoming, the article stated that, “This region of the country was built from selling coal, gold, lead and other minerals buried in the ground. Now some farmers and ranchers are betting there is treasure in yet another element below the surface: carbon.

“At this point, it is still a long-shot gamble.”

The article explained that, “Against conventional wisdom, for example, soil scientists have found that intensive grazing can improve the health of native grasses in the West, and increase carbon by as much as a quarter of a ton a year per acre.

“‘You don’t have to be sold on global warming to do this,’ said Larry D. Cundall, 60, a Wheatland, Wyo., cattleman who qualified last year to sell about 2000 tons of carbon a year from the ranch where he raises Angus and Black Baldy beef.

“Another technique, known as ‘continuous no till,’ avoids plowing and leaves crop residues in the fields. The method preserves moisture and nutrients and keeps oxygen in the air from combining with soil carbon so it can escape as carbon dioxide. Farmers who follow the practice can qualify for nearly half a ton an acre of carbon savings.

“‘There are a lot of co-benefits that come with managing for carbon,’ said Justin Derner, a USDA rangeland scientist at theHigh Plains Grassland Research Station in Cheyenne, Wyo. These include saving water, upgrading pastures, preventing erosion and strengthening resistance to drought.

“There could also be long-term benefits for taxpayers. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has told Congress that income from carbon– along with new revenue from farm-based wind power and local ethanol plants using new forms of biomass—eventually could replace cash subsidies for farmers.”

Mr. Morgan noted that, “Ranchers say they are drawing a lesson from the days when huge herds of buffalo thundered across the plains, mauling the prairie, yet leaving the grasslands strong and thriving. Confined to smaller fenced pastures, cattle act almost like gardeners, spreading seeds and manure with their hooves and breaking the thin crust to allow scarce water to filter in.

“‘The closer we mimic Mother Nature the better’ said Rocky Foy, 54, whose 7000-acre ranch 25 miles from Cundall’s won the Wyoming Stock Growers Association environmental stewardship award this year.

“Cundall’s decision to follow the new grazing scheme on parts of his 20,000 acre ranch long preceded the current interest in carbon. By holding cattle in smaller pastures and moving them frequently, cattle have time for only one bite at the grass, rather than many, which gives it a chance to replenish the nutrients in leaves and roots. Pastures are also grazed at different times of year, to shift pressure from plants that mature in different seasons. The result is healthier plants that can withstand drought better. A bonus is that they absorb more carbon.”

After additional analysis, yesterday’s article pointed out that, “Some environmental groups are dubious that agricultural offsets will result in actual carbon savings and fear the availability of such credits will provide an inexpensive way for polluters to postpone cutting emissions: buying offsets will be cheaper than curbing toxic gases.

“Although the offset protocols of the Chicago Climate Exchange credit no-till farmers with half a ton of carbon savings a year, just-released studies by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service have challenged earlier scientific data showing significant greenhouse gas savings from that farming practice.”

At the conclusion of his article, Mr. Morgan stated that, “Reflecting these concerns, many farm state lawmakers are opposed to climate change legislation, or are deeply wary of it. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Blanche Lincoln (DArk.) has called passage in the Senate ‘a heavy lift.’

“Not all farmers will be able to sell offsets. In wetter parts of the farm belt, plowing is needed to drain soil, so no-till methods may not be possible. According to a recent study of 98 representative farms nationwide by Texas A&M’s Agriculture and Food Policy Research Center, most rice and cotton farms in the South would lose money if House-passed climate legislation became law. Methods used to grow those crops make it difficult to store additional carbon.

But with or without action in Washington on climate legislation, carbon seems certain to emerge as a major agricultural commodity, alongside wheat, corn and cotton, over coming decades.”

To read the entire article by Dan Morgan, just click here.

DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton reported yesterday (link requires subscription) that, “In the latest round of studies looking at the impact of climate legislation on agriculture, a report conducted for the agricultural renewable energy group 25x’25 finds a properly crafted cap-and-trade program could boost agricultural income $209 billion by 2025.

According to the study, net returns for farmers and landowners are positive, generating up to $13 billion in annual additional revenue for agriculture and forestry.

“A program that would provide farmers and livestock producers with multiple opportunities for carbon offsets and bioenergy crops would also generate $364 billion more in net returns for agriculture than a policy in which the Environmental Protection Agency continues to establish greenhouse-gas emission controls without offset benefits, the report states.”

Mr. Clayton’s detailed article indicated that, “The report is released as the U.S. Senate is gridlocked on climate legislation, divided by both party and region of the country, even after the House passed a bill in late June. Congress won’t have legislation completed before a United Nations summit in mid-December, and the U.S. is already drawing criticism for its lack of comprehensive policy.

Commodity groups also largely oppose the climate legislation because of what they see as a lack of incentives or benefits for farmers and livestock producers. The American Farm Bureau Federation opposes the climate bills while the National Farmers Union backs a cap-and-trade policy.

“The analysis forecasts that demand for bioenergy crops will cause ‘significant shifts to hay and dedicated energy crop acreage’ that will come from pasture. The analysis shows that regardless of the regulatory scenario, acres for corn, wheat and soybeans would show relatively little shift over time, a range of about 5.3 million total acres. Any major shifts in acreage would come from shifts in hay, pasture or dedicated energy crops based on the benefits, the report concludes.”

Ken Anderson reported yesterday at Brownfield that, “The [25x ‘25] study also warns that if carbon emissions are regulated solely by EPA—as prescribed under a 2007 Supreme Court ruling—net farm income is projected to fall below USDA baseline projections.

“‘The study provides clear evidence that EPA regulation could subject agriculture to higher input costs,’ says Bart Ruth of Rising City, Nebraska, policy chairman for 25x’25. ‘And there will be no opportunity for farmers, ranchers and forestland owners to be compensated for the greenhouse gas reduction services they provide. Furthermore, the impacts of EPA regulation on beef production are uncertain.’”

The Brownfield link also includes an audio interview with Bart Ruth.

The “Washington Insider” section of DTN reported yesterday (link requires subscription) that, “As the Senate Environmental and Public Works committee moved toward consideration of the climate change legislation it eventually passed last week, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and several other Democrats introduced legislation of interest to agriculture — a voluntary carbon offsets program for agricultural and forestry activities to be managed by USDA. This program would accept projects begun as early as 2001 that were registered under certain approved programs, along with other projects begun in 2009.

The bill specifically includes some 15 categories of acceptable projects, such as methane capture from landfills, reduced tilling of farmland to reduce the release of greenhouse gases, afforestation or reforesting of land and carbon capture and storage. In her floor statement, Stabenow said her proposal — the Clean Energy Partnerships Act — would create partnerships among manufacturing, utilities, agriculture, and forestry to reduce costs during the transition to a clean-energy economy by allowing companies to offset fossil fuel emissions by investments in a broad range of projects that capture and store carbon.”

The DTN item added that, “From the beginning of the climate change debate, it has been expected that passage of a bill would be much more difficult in the Senate than in the House — and, that larger concessions than those made in the House would be needed to bring along reluctant Democrats concerned about agriculture, coal and a few other industries concentrated in the Midwest and West. Agriculture has been a difficult case since most of the negative results the industry faces are indirect in terms of rising costs of fuel, electricity, fertilizer and others that are receiving ‘transition allowances’ intended to give those industries time to adjust to the new regulations.

“Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and the rest of the administration heavyweights are fond of saying that agriculture will be able to take advantage of offset programs with benefits expected to be greater than the cost increases — but, those assurances have been general, distant and thought likely to affect only limited sets of producers and areas. Even worse, early adopters of beneficial technologies like no-till were widely seen as unlikely to be credited under the still-vague offset program rules.”

“At this time, ag group resistance to the current proposals continues strong, but the Stabenow bill appears to reflect many of their concerns and could mean the beginning of a coalition effort similar to that by Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., that succeeded in modifying the House bill. A key factor in the outlook in the Senate will be whether other political heavyweights including Ag Committee Chairman Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., focuses on the Stabenow proposal or choose a different course,” the DTN item said.

Meanwhile, Dan Looker reported yesterday at Agriculture Online that, “The debate over health care legislation will push the Senate’s work on a climate change bill into next year, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) said Tuesday. Harkin is one of several farm state Democrats trying to improve a climate change bill recently passed by The Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee.”

Ian Talley reported yesterday at The Wall Street Journal Online that, “Key Senate Democrats Tuesday said it is unlikely there will be any more major committee action on climate-change legislation this year, the strongest indication yet that a comprehensive bill to cut greenhouse-gas emissions won’t be voted on until at least next year.”

The article added that, “Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.), who is leading an effort by moderate, heartland Democrats to protect manufacturing and agriculture industries, said committees were no longer under any timetables to produce legislation.

Ms. Stabenow said the Agriculture Committee—which has jurisdiction over climate provisions fundamental to containing costs and cutting emissions in the farming and forestry sectors–might not even debate or vote on any provisions for the bill.

“‘The question is whether or not Agriculture actually marks up something or it gets done on the floor,’ she said.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D., Ark.), who chairs the Agriculture Committee, is facing a tough re-election campaign next year, and handling a highly controversial climate-change bill in her panel may risk alienating voters.”

Bloomberg writer Kim Chipman reported yesterday that, “A bipartisan ‘framework’ to combat climate change may be reached in the U.S. Senate before global meetings in Copenhagen next month to craft a new treaty on global warming, Senator Joe Lieberman said.

“Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, said he’s working with Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, to ‘move the Senate as far as we can before Copenhagen.’”

Yesterday’s Bloomberg article added that, “Lieberman said that Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus’s comments that his panel won’t finish drafting a climate bill before next year is a ‘practical problem.’

“‘I hope that Senator Baucus can find a way to mark up his part of the legislation,’ Lieberman said. The portions of the bill overseen by the Finance Committee are ‘critical,’ he said.

“The committee headed by Baucus, a Montana Democrat, has jurisdiction over trade issues and how to distribute emissions allocations.

“‘The framework won’t be whole without that,’ Lieberman said.”

With respect to executive branch perspective on the Copenhagen talks, Ben Geman of Greenwire reported yesterday at The New York Times Online that, “Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton today called U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen a ‘steppingstone’ toward a global, legally binding climate agreement, and spelled out U.S. priorities for the talks.

“Her comments at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Singapore are an acknowledgement from the nation’s top diplomat that next month’s talks will not result in a final international deal to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

“But Clinton also said the meeting would be pivotal and declared that the United States — the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China — is ‘prepared to assume our share of responsibility’ to address climate change.”

More generally on the climate issue, Alexander C. Hart reported in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times that, “Governments must act now to ward off catastrophic climate change or face additional costs of $500 billion per year of delay, according to a report released Tuesday by the International Energy Agency.

“‘Saving the planet cannot wait,’ said the report by the 28-nation intergovernmental organization. ‘For every year that passes, the window for action on emissions . . . becomes narrower, and the costs of transforming the energy sector increase.’”

Food Security

A news release issued earlier this week by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) stated that, “Food prices in poor countries that are net importers of food still remain stubbornly high despite a good 2009 world cereal production, FAO warned today in its latest Crop Prospects and Food Situation report.

“The report was published ahead of the Rome World Summit on Food Security to be held in Rome on November 16-18.”

The release added that, “‘For the world’s poorest people who spend up to 80 percent of their household budgets on food, the food price crisis is not over yet,’ said FAO Assistant Director General Hafez Ghanem. ‘It is now a global priority to increase investment in developing country agriculture in order to fight poverty and hunger’”.

In a related item, the Los Angeles Times editorial board indicated today that, “Poverty, famine and disease overseas lead to lawlessness, instability, revolution and terrorism that threaten American interests, and Americans, at home and abroad. That’s why our second most important means of self-defense after the military is foreign aid. Moreover, our investments in development pay off when poor countries become prosperous enough to become trading partners. To their credit, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton realize this, and repeatedly have said as much — they just don’t appear to be in a great hurry to put that philosophy into practice.”

After noting that, “Policy disputes are common in the development community, but there is near universal agreement that USAID in particular, and American foreign aid efforts in general, are a muddle,” the opinion piece added that, “Frustrated by decades of inaction, some members of Congress are getting restless. In the Senate, a bill sponsored by Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Richard G. Lugar (R.-Ind.) would create new bureaus within USAID for strategic aid planning and evaluation. Meanwhile, Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village) has a bill calling on the president to create a national strategy on foreign assistance. While it’s nice that so much attention is being paid to foreign aid, these bills simply mandate reviews and reforms that are already underway, albeit at a glacial pace; Clinton and Obama have both initiated separate evaluations of the aid system, whose initial findings aren’t expected until next year.

“The president has a staggering to-do list, but the USAID nomination should have been made months ago, and the defects of the current system are widely known and well documented. Let’s get on with fixing it.”

Food Safety

A news release issued on Tuesday by Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) stated that, “[Sen. Stabenow] today introduced S. 2758, the Growing Safe Food Act, to help farmers and food processors ensure the safety of our nation’s food supply. The bill was introduced with six co-sponsors: Sens. Bingaman, Boxer, Gillibrand, Leahy, Merkley, and Sanders.

The Senate is currently considering food safety reform proposals that would increase FDA food inspections and improve our food safety system. This bill will provide small and medium sized farmers, food processors, and wholesalers technical assistance and education to effectively implement these new reforms.”

Keith Good

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