Farmers can profit economically and politically by addressing climate change

 A farmer harvests soybeans near Lenox, Iowa. Drake University Agricultural Law Center, Author provided

A farmer harvests soybeans near Lenox, Iowa. Drake University Agricultural Law Center, Author provided

Written by Matthew Russell

President Trump, congressional Republicans and most American farmers share common positions on climate change: They question the science showing human activity is altering the global climate and are skeptical of using public policy to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.

But farmers are in a unique position to tackle climate change. We have the political power, economic incentive and policy tools to do so. What we don’t yet have is the political will.

As a fifth-generation Iowa farmer and the resilient agriculture coordinator at the Drake University Agricultural Law Center, I deal with both the challenges and opportunities of climate change. I also see a need for the agriculture community to make tough choices about its policy priorities in the face of dramatic political shifts in Washington.

Pundits, agriculture groups and President Trump have identified farmers as a key demographic in the Republican victory. How we leverage this influence remains to be seen. Trade and immigration policy and the president’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal are already creating disagreements between farmers and the Trump administration. We will need to be strategic in using our political power to shape agriculture policy.

My research and farming experience convince me that even in today’s unpromising political conditions, agriculture can play an important role in addressing climate change. American farmers can become global leaders in producing what the world needs as much as abundant food: a stable climate.

 Flooded farms in North Dakota, March 28, 2009. Farmers are vulnerable to floods, drought and other natural disasters that may be worsened by climate change.  FEMA/Wikipedia

Flooded farms in North Dakota, March 28, 2009. Farmers are vulnerable to floods, drought and other natural disasters that may be worsened by climate change. FEMA/Wikipedia

Farmers wrestle with climate change

Prior to 2009, thousands of farmers across the United States participated in two large-scale projects designed to maintain or increase carbon storage on farmlands: the National Farmers Union Carbon Credit Program and the Iowa Farm Bureau AgraGate program. These programs paid farmers for limiting the number of acres they tilled and for maintaining or establishing grasslands. Payments came through the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX), a voluntary market in which businesses could buy and sell carbon credits.

But after Barack Obama became president in 2009, farmers overwhelmingly joined the opposition to climate change action. As agriculture journalist Chris Clayton documents in his 2015 book “The Elephant in the Cornfield,” farmers viewed Obama’s climate strategy – especially the push for cap-and-trade legislation in 2009-2010 – as regulatory overreach by a Democratic Congress and president.

For example, after the Environmental Protection Agency briefly mentioned livestock in a 2008 report on regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, farmers and agriculture trade groups erupted in outrage at the prospect of a “cow tax” on methane releases from both ends of the animal. When Congress failed to enact the cap-and-trade bill in 2010, the CCX went out of business.

The election of President Trump and Republican majorities in both houses of Congress eliminates the regulatory “bogeyman” that many farmers organized to reject in 2009. In our opposition, farmers rejected an opportunity to be paid for providing environmental services. Forgoing new sources of income might have made economic sense during the historic commodity boom between 2009 and 2013, but it no longer does.

Recently the farm economy has soured. After several years of historic profitability, 2017 looks to be the fourth straight year of declining income. American farmers face forecasts of stagnant to declining revenues.

Farmers may now be willing to consider new ways of generating income by adopting environmentally friendly practices, such as planting cover crops, extending crop rotations or eliminating tillage. Many farmers are already using these practices on a small scale. To combat climate change, we need to apply them on nearly all of our acres. And we need to develop new environmentally friendly practices.

Farmers are motivated by economic incentives to implement environmental practices. As an example, they recently enrolled nearly 400,000 acres in the USDA Conservation Reserve Program CP-42 which pays farmers to take land out of production and establish habitat for pollinators. Ironically, today we may need to embrace a source of revenue that just eight years ago seemed to many like regulatory overreach.

SOURCE: The Conversation