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Published September 18, 2009, 12:00 AM

Column: Climate change is off-base on agriculture

MINNEAPOLIS — It seems everyone is in a tizzy over agriculture and the climate change bill.

By: Julia Olmstead, Minuteman Media, Worthington Daily Globe

MINNEAPOLIS — It seems everyone is in a tizzy over agriculture and the climate change bill.

Environmentalists are mad about concessions given to farm-state legislators to get the bill—known as the Waxman-Markey bill— through the House. The industrial farm lobby is mad about the climate bill generally, worried it will raise energy costs. And farmers are unsure how, if at all, they will benefit from the “offset credits” they could receive, and what they would need to do to get them.

It’s surely high time we took steps as a nation to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Tackling climate change is perhaps one of the most important and most difficult challenges we have ever faced as a society. But including agriculture in the Waxman-Markey bill is bad for farmers, consumers, and the planet.

For the bulk of human history, we’ve grown food, fiber, and energy without reconfiguring the atmosphere. But the industrial revolution made most agriculture highly dependent on fossil fuels. Today in the United States, agriculture is the source of about 13 percent of our total greenhouse gas emissions, and it also contributes heavily to soil erosion, water contamination, and the loss of biodiversity. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Waxman-Markey has recognized agriculture’s enormous potential to not only mitigate the ills it has caused but also to act as a carbon sink (absorbing more carbon dioxide than it emits). This is the basis for the bill’s carbon offsets program for agriculture, where farmers would receive government credits for doing things like tilling their soil less and planting trees on cropland. Polluting industries and investors could buy these credits, in theory helping fund these on-farm carbon-sequestering activities.

But this program is troubling for several reasons. Technically, carbon offset projects are difficult to measure and verify. And making the incentive for change subject to the whims of a speculative market dominated by Wall Street makes it awfully difficult to ensure that offsets will be a long-term, reliable solution to warming. Falling carbon offset prices would be poor incentives for farmers to switch to climate-friendly agriculture practices. It’s hard to envision this having much of a positive impact either for farmers or the planet.

Agriculture is among our greatest achievements and one of our most precious resources. It gives us season after season of food and fiber. Done right, it builds healthy soils, helps purify our drinking water, provides wildlife habitat, and even helps mitigate climate change. With support, agriculture creates livelihoods for farmers, helps preserve the culture and knowledge of food production, and promotes an ethic of land stewardship and preservation. And let’s be clear: Good farming has been the basis for a sustainable planet for centuries. Agriculture should in no way be given a free pass when it comes to climate change mitigation, but it isn’t the main source of the climate change problem.

Making the climate bill a primary vehicle for debating agricultural sustainability distracts from making real progress toward a more climate-friendly, sustainable agriculture, and takes away much needed resources from those efforts.

We should not aim to define agriculture’s role in our society through a climate bill. Instead, we should begin a separate, equally urgent process to decide how best to promote agricultural systems that provide us with the kind of farms, rivers, livelihoods, and climate we value as a society. The Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Stewardship Program, which pays farmers for sustainable practices on working, productive lands, provides one good place to start such conversations. Expanding such programs should be a clear priority for policymakers and the public. But ultimately agriculture policy will have to reach much further, to a vision and scale that match the historic challenges we face.

Let’s push forward with strong climate policies, but let’s not use agriculture to circumvent the source of the problem. Our food system is too precious. We already know that agriculture can benefit us all; let’s find a way to make certain that it does.

Julia Olmstead is a senior associate at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis.