Carbon – An Agricultural Commodity?

Much of America’s farm community is opposed to proposed cap-and-trade legislation that could have severe repercussions for the agriculture sector.

The American Clean Energy and Security Act (HR 2454), aimed to address global warming, was recently approved by the U.S. House of Representatives and is currently being considered by the Senate. It places greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions limits on and offers a cap-and-trade system for affected businesses.

“This is not a vision for American agriculture, it's a death sentence,” said U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns, R – Neb.

The agriculture industry, responsible for 8 percent of the nation’s GHG emissions, is feeling pressure to be on-board with Congress’ attempts to limit industries’ carbon footprint.

Increased energy prices will result from the legislation’s potential passage as industries raise prices to maintain production costs, in turn, elevating farm-production costs at all levels.
In a Corn & Soybean Digest article, Johanns states:

“USDA testified that the costs of fuel, oil and electricity will increase by about 22 percent. And here's a staggering estimate: The bill drives 59 million acres of cropland and pasture out of production by 2050. With millions of acres coming out of production and energy prices going through the roof, it’s not surprising that USDA also predicts significant declines in farm production. USDA’s testimony shows that corn production will decrease by 22 percent, soybean production will drop by 29 percent, beef production will decline by 10 percent and pork production will sink by 23 percent. This decline in production will threaten our nation’s food supply and is estimated to drive up food prices by as much as 5 percent.”

A blog posted at The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis calls farmers “victims” of the proposed legislation. Foundation analysts found that it would adversely affect farmers:
  • Farm income is expected to drop $8 billion in 2012, $25 billion in 2024, and more than $50 billion in 2035.
  • The average net income lost throughout the 2010-2035 timeline is $23 billion – a 57-percent decrease from the baseline.
  • Construction costs of farm buildings will increase 5.5 percent in 2025 and increase 10 percent by 2034 (from the baseline).
  • By 2035, gasoline and diesel costs are expected to be 58 percent more and electric rates 90 percent more.
But not everyone in agriculture is aggressively opposed to cap-and-trade legislation. For example, some groups have remained neutral about the issue, claiming it’s better to have a spot at the table when negotiating legislation rather than to be outright opposed.

USDA Sec. Tom Vilsack believes farmers should view the legislation as an opportunity rather than as economically damaging. Farmers would receive credits (payment) for using farming techniques that don’t emit carbon dioxide.

Production agriculture is not included in the current legislation as one of the industries that is required to cap their GHG emissions, but it can provide emission-reduction offsets to companies in industries that are required to cap their emissions.

According to ecomii, an environment resource, “The government issues credits, which allow companies to pollute a certain amount, as long as the aggregate pollution equals less than the set cap.” Regulated industries, such as fuel refineries and energy suppliers, either take it upon themselves to develop cleaner facilities to maintain compliance, or they can purchase emissions credits from other businesses that have credits available when they need to exceed their allotted emissions.

Farmers can limit their carbon footprint by practicing no-till and reduced-till techniques and can also convert cropland to grass.

In a Rapid City Journal article, Vilsack is reported as saying that conservation measures such as carbon credits contain the potential for billions of dollars in income for farm families. He said he is convinced that climate change is a fact and that changes in farming practices can help.

But with legislation stalled in Congress, “there's an almost-complete collapse of the market for carbon credits,” states Sarah McCammon of Iowa Public Radio. “That means profits are drying up for people who are paid to create those carbon credits — like farmers who manage their land in ways that capture carbon dioxide in the soil.”

In a segment titled, “Farmers Hurt By Collapse Of Carbon Credits Market” available at WBUR Radio online, the reporter talks about the economics of carbon offsets bought and sold via contracts, a scenario of paying someone to reduce emissions for you. For example, farmers that engage in no-till farming receive monetary payback for their “green” efforts. The reporter states that the global carbon market is valued at $125 million.

“It is important to set up an offset system to reward American farmers for doing the right thing, whether they’re raising crops or raising livestock,” Vilsack said. “Various studies show it’s (cap and trade) a net plus for agriculture.”

The failure to pass climate-change legislation could lead to regulation of emissions by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). If legislation dies in the Senate, the EPA has publicly declared its intentions to regulate carbon. Many believe that the EPA would include more industries for regulation and impose stricter policies.

Several ag-industry figureheads have voiced their discontent for EPA oversight.

“We believe the EPA’s greenhouse gas requirements will lead to costly and ineffective regulations on America’s farmers and ranchers,” said American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman. “We vehemently oppose regulating carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act because we believe it will require livestock producers and other agricultural operations to obtain costly and time-consuming permits as conditions to continue farming.”

Do you feel farmers are unfairly regulated or not regulated enough? In what other ways can farmers contribute to an improved environment? Are other industry sectors being ignored that should be mandated?

*Photo from The Journal of the American Enterprise Institute

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