The Future For Farmers

05/25/2011 01:35 pm ET
  • The Progress Report The Progress Report is the daily policy newsletter of the Center for American Progress Action Fund

by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ryan Powers, Ian Millhiser and Nate Carlile

To receive The Progress Report in your email inbox everyday, click here.

Farmers and those in the agriculture economy have a lot to lose as greenhouse gases increasingly trap more heat at the planet's surface. More than any other sector of our economy, farmers are hit hard by the extreme weather exacerbated by global warming -- floods, droughts, heat waves, and storms threaten their livelihood and our food supply. At the same time, the one in 300 Americans employed in the $200 billion farming and forestry sector have tremendous opportunities in the shift to a clean energy economy. U.S. agricultural and forest lands sequester 903 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, absorbing 13 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, but U.S.agriculture also produces 413 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per year. If industrial agriculture engages in greener practices, then advanced biofuels, wind farms, biological sequestration and other sustainable practices can offer new jobs and billions of dollars of income to rural America. However, as climate and clean energy legislation moves to the Senate, many of the members most skeptical of taking action to curb greenhouse gas emissions and build a green economy hail from predominantly rural states. Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe (R) continues to claim that global warming is "phony." Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson (D) is "against" President Obama's climate agenda. And Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) has "a lot of concerns" with the American Clean Energy and Security Act passed last month by the House of Representatives.

BILLION-DOLLAR DISASTERS: The effects of global warming are already being felt by the nation's farmers, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program. "The Midwest and northern Great Plains have experienced increases of more than 7ºF in average winter temperatures over the past 30 years," allowing "many insect pests and crop diseases to expand and thrive." "Precipitation has become less frequent but more intense," such as the spring 2008 flooding of the Mississippi River, which caused$8 billion in agricultural losses. "Three years ago in a drought that spanned more than a year, Texas lost $4.1 billion, a crop and livestock record for a single year," one of several billion-dollar droughts in the last 10 years. And the devastating droughts and heat waves continue, hitting our nation's top agricultural producers especially hard. Last month, "close to 4,000 head of cattle died in the extreme heat across 23 counties in central and eastern Nebraska." "Central and South Texas are in the midst of an epic drought that has sapped soils of their moisture, dried up stock ponds and turned cornfields from green to beige." California's "Central Valley farmers will receive an additional 100,000 acre-feet as part of a water loan to deal with the three-year drought plaguing the state" that "has turned fields into dust bowls and resulted in a spike in rural crime, high unemployment and low property values." Yet these disasters pale in comparison to projected trends if global warming pollution is not curbed. By the end of the century, the Southwest will be in permanent drought, the Great Plains will see average summer temperatures rise more than 10ºF, and heat waves in the Midwest will occur three times a year.

BIG AG'S DEMANDS: The House agriculture chair, Collin Peterson (D-MN), limited scientific oversight of agricultural offsets and included "a raft of provisions friendly to corn-based ethanol" in the clean energy act. The move blocked the EPA from calculating a biofuel's worldwide carbon footprint due to land use changes when determining its eligibility for federal subsidies. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Senate agriculture committee, told E&E News that "EPA's got to get over their absolute rejection of ethanol. They've just got to get over it. And we're going to force them to get over it." Harkin explained that he is "reasonably happy" with Peterson's work: "We want no indirect land use, things like that in there -- there is no scientific basis for that." In fact, the connection between biofuels and indirect land use change is real, and the scientific understanding is robust. "These amendments run the risk of creating a subprime market in both offsets and biofuels," David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council testified before the Environment and Public Works Committee this week. "They seriously damage the environmental integrity of the bill, and they will undermine public confidence in the markets for both products." But other influential members of the Senate agricultural committee, including Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Kent Conrad (D-ND), strongly support the Peterson amendments. In fact, Conrad told E&E News he wants "more allocations or offsets" for the oil and coal industries in his state.

CLEAN OPPORTUNITY: Unfortunately, these senators seem to be looking to continue unsustainable business practices instead of reaching for opportunities for clean energy reform. As Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Jake Caldwell reports, the Department of Energy estimates that if only 5 percent of the nation's energy comes from wind power by 2020, rural America could see $60 billion in capital investment. Farmers and rural landowners would derive $1.2 billion in new income and see 80,000 new jobs created over the next two decades. And the Congressional Budget Office has suggested that with the appropriate incentives farms and forests could ultimately absorb 50 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Even though the Brookings Institution has found that the economic impact of a cap on carbon emissions to the agricultural sector is minimal, politicians continue to focus on the possible costs of change instead of the very real costs of inaction, promoting existing subsidies instead of spurring innovation through science-based standards. Although this approach serves the short-term interests of the industrial giants of the agricultural sector, it puts the security of America's food supply and the future of America's farmers at great risk.