European Affairs

In U.S. Climate Debate, Farms are Crucial Lobby     Print Email
Dan Morgan

Agriculture is a political heavyweight in Europe, but in the U.S. farms (and rural regions sprawling across a continent) are an even bigger sector. The U.S. Congress contains a strategically-organized bloc of: "Agricrats" (pro-farm Democrats) who fear losses from carbon caps, and so the need to reward farmers with "agricultural offsets" is a political imperative in Washington for climate action. In Europe, the climate debate has focused on industry and the farm dimension has been ignored.

On the side of the Atlantic where rural restaurants serve “chicken-fried steak” instead of terrine or schnitzel, Europe’s farm bloc has acquired an almost legendary reputation for lobbying clout as exemplified, say, by the weight of the Common Agricultural Policy in trans-atlantic trade negotiations. American farmers often wish they wielded the same kind of power and influence.

So I was surprised recently by the answer I got from a senior official from Brussels when I asked him about the role agriculture was playing in the European debate over climate change. After a pause and a momentary blank stare, the European Commission official replied that the farm lobby hadn’t been a major factor.

It couldn’t be more different in the United States. With the debate in Congress at a critical point about climate-change legislation, agriculture is a key actor. Those who thought the farm bloc’s influence ended sometime around the end of the Eisenhower administration have had to adjust their thinking -- and that seems to include a number of lawmakers on the energy committees who have had to confront the power of law-makers representing agricultural interests.

Comprehensive climate legislation passed the House of Representatives in July in the Waxman-Markey bill, but only after substantial concessions to agricultural producers, including the burgeoning bio-fuels industry centered on corn-based ethanol.. In the Senate, agriculture is far more powerful because every state has farming interests, and sparsely populated rural states wield outsized influence. In this chamber of Congress, the legislation is in deep trouble. The largest U.S. farm organization, the American Farm Bureau Federation, has vowed to kill it. The powerful chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee – Blanche Lincoln, a centrist Democrat from Arkansas, has called the chances of passage a “heavy lift” despite the fact that she belongs to the same party as President Obama. Whereas the White House is pressing for legislation, she. Represents rice, cotton and poultry interests that fear being penalized by charges on carbon for rural food producers in sprawling agricultural areas. She and other strategically-positioned lawmakers with farm constituencies will want big sweeteners before any bill is allowed to start toward the President’s desk.

In one Senate committee, Environment and Public Works, a draft climate bill narrowly passed on November 5. But the vote was boycotted by all committee Republicans and an ominous “no” vote was cast by a key Democrat, Max Baucus (a Democratic from Montana, another rural state), who also chairs the powerful Finance Committee. He cited concerns over the agricultural provisions in the bill. Now Baucus’s own committee, which is laced with farm-state Senators, will take up the legislation to write its own version of a climate-change bill..

Agriculture interests on both sides of the Atlantic are famously wary of change, and there is no denying that climate legislation will bring economic change on an unprecedented scale. Farmers and ranchers fear it will greatly increase the costs of their main “inputs”: fertilizer, fuel for tractors and combines, and power to heat barns and farm houses during brutal Midwest winters. Rural electric utilities, many of which depend on coal, are seen as big losers liable to suffer penalties for carbon emissions in the legislation drafted so far. A recent study from the university, Texas A&M, a center for agricultural research, concluded that the House-passed bill would be costly for almost all rice and cotton farms across the South of the country. In this situation, it is not surprising that the “farm vote” is finding it tough to support President Obama and Democratic Congressional leaders in their push for curbs on carbon to combat climate change.”

Significantly, the “farm bloc” in Congress has maneuver strategically to get its members positioned in committees and sub-committees at key choke points in the legislative process for legislation on many matters – such as climate change – that are not traditionally associated with agrarian interests. This group – who might be dubbed the Congressional “Agri-crats” consists of moderate-to-conservative Democrats from farm states who often put the needs of agriculture ahead of party loyalty. They find it politically painful to follow the lead of President Obama at the risk of weakening their own political base at home.  In the Senate, the Midwestern corn belt and Great Plains is a Democratic bastion.  But half of the 28 Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee are from districts carried by Obama’s rival, Republican Senator John McCain his run for president in 2008, and 13 of these voted against the House version of climate-change legislation.

These stiff political odds against President Obama on the climate issue in his own party offer a bleak picture for the White House initiative. But meaningful legislation may still be possible as Congressional advocates seek to craft a bill that will win at least the grudging support of the Agricrats while also advancing the cause of reducing greenhouse gases.

Agriculture has already won major concessions from Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency. These include, most notably, a guarantee of nearly total exemption from any requirement to limit emissions of greenhouse gases. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that agriculture accounts for about six percent of total emissions, in the form of such things as carbon dioxide (released when ground is plowed); nitrous oxide (a side effect of nitrogen-based fertilizers), and methane (from the stomachs of animals confined in feed-lots for herds of stationary animals, dairies and hog-feeding buildings).

The “cap and trade” system under consideration has framed to soften the impact on agriculture: for example, the fertilizer industry would receive special allowances to help it meet its targets. This would, in theory, insulate farmers against higher costs associated with the transition.

But Congress will have to do much more to bring rural lawmakers on board, notably by building in opportunities for farmers and ranchers to make money from the new cap and trade system.  This will come largely in the form of “offsets” – earned (and then sold) for sequestering carbon in soil and in new trees, capturing methane and perhaps even limiting their use of chemical fertilizers. As credits, these offsets could then be traded in an international marketplace where they would be purchased by utilities, refineries, manufacturers and others who need the credits in order to meet greenhouse gas-reduction targets that they cannot reach themselves by directly reducing their own emissions below the targeted ceilings..

The rural-backed movement to give farmers and ranchers a stake in the cap and trade system has been decried by some environmental organizations as simply a crude device to buy off the farm bloc. They are skeptical that agricultural offsets will result in actual reductions of greenhouse gases: there is a question of “additionality,” ie whether farmers would be paid for doing things (such as adopting better ways of tilling the soil) that they would be doing anyway to improve their farming practice.) Critics fear that farm offsets will be a cheap way for polluters to postpone cutting actual emissions. (According to a recent environmental study, the House-passed legislation would not result in any actual decline in fossil-fuel emissions until 2030, in part because of the availability of agricultural and other offsets.)

Questions about the impact of some environmentally-friendly practices were raised in a recent study sponsored by United States Department of Agriculture. It examined the carbon savings from a relatively new farming practice known as “continuous no till.” By avoiding deep ploughing of the lands, this technique leaves residue in the fields, preserve moisture and nutrients and keeps oxygen in the air from combining with soil carbon so it can escape as carbon dioxide. “No till” has been touted both as good land husbandry and as a climate mitigator. But the scientists at the department’s research service reviewed test plots using traditional aggressive tillage and heavy applications of fertilizer to grow corn and soybeans and compared their results with those of other plots using minimum tillage and a four-year rotation of corn, wheat, soybeans and alfalfa. Over one full year, they found, “carbon dioxide emissions were no different.”

There are also concerns “carbon versus food.” This debates centers on the long-term impact on food prices of reforestation as a way of reducing carbon emissions from the land. Some recent initial surveys by the Environmental Protection Agency estimated the impact of offsets (carbon-reduction payments to agriculture) in shifting shift land from crops and pasture to forests.  To achieve current targets for carbon cuts, these estimates said, the role of agricultural offsets would have to so big that they could shrink U.S. cropland shrink by 23 percent by 2050. This change might not be wholly unwelcome to farmers who were being paid for the switch, but they would drive up food supplies (and prices) at a time when unfavorable trends are already emerging for consumers.

However, to underscore the complexity of this debate, other recent studies have noted that rising oil prices (which also raise the value and price of ethanol from corn) could make it worthwhile for farmers to grow more corn rather than plant more trees. The point about these debates is not simply the difficulty of making assumptions about how to meet carbon targets: it is also to underscore the major role that the American agricultural sector, the world’s largest, must play in any national (and even global) plan for curbing greenhouse gases and limiting climate change.

Despite the skepticism of climate legislation across rural America, the opposition is not universal. The National Farmers Union, a Democratic-leaning lobby that is the country’s second-largest farm organization, supports cap and trade. This differing position is personified in Congress by representatives such as Betsy Markey, a freshman House member from a rural, agricultural district that covers most of eastern Colorado. Her political situation exemplifies the tensions in an emerging climate-debate on agriculture known as “Old Ag versus New Ag.”   Her constituency in the West is dominated economically by wheat, corn and cattle, as it has for generations; but the economic future of her district may rest more with “new economy” alternative-energy development: Colorado is a center of pioneering activity on renewable fuels, and her district is home to wind farms, companies making solar panels and turbine blades, and biofuel - research facilities.  All of these activities would benefit from tax credits and other incentives in the climate bill.

In her part of the country, with or without legislation, carbon is emerging as a commodity in the business calculations of farmers, alongside wheat, corn, soybeans and sunflowers. Even farmers who oppose the legislation are eyeing the prospect of profits with interest. “If it paid enough I’d have to look at it,” a Colorado wheat and corn grower confided to me when I traveled there recently.  Markey voted for the House bill, one of seven freshmen on the Agriculture Committee to do so.

In the Senate, momentum appears to be growing for a robust “agricultural offsets” program that could lure rural support for the climate bill. Influential Senators (such as Majority Leader Harry Reid from Nevada) are supporting a sweeping proposal in the Agriculture Committee that, among other things, would enable farmers to earn credits for a variety of practices that store carbon.

That won’t insure enactment by any means. (Senator Lincoln, significantly, has not signed on.) But it suggests that, like it or not, U.S. agriculture is going to have a seat at the table.

Dan Morgan writes for the Washington Post and has worked for the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 10, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2009.