Climate Billl Is the Wrong Place for Farm Policy

This week, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) introduced a new piece of climate legislation, and agriculture once again is expected to be at the center of debate as the bill moves forward. The new legislation is a complement to the Waxman-Markey climate bill the House passed last June, a bill that placed agriculture in a potentially perilous position. The Boxer-Kerry legislation now threatens to do the same, a move that could be bad for farmers, eaters, and the planet.

For much of human history, we've grown food, fiber and energy without reconfiguring the atmosphere. But the industrial revolution made the bulk of agriculture in developed countries highly dependent on fossil fuels. Agriculture now contributes significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions - it is currently the source of about 6 percent of our nation's total emissions, according to the EPA, most of which come from large-scale animal agriculture. It also contributes heavily to soil erosion, water contamination, and the loss of biodiversity. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Agriculture has enormous potential to mitigate not only its aforementioned ills, but also to store excess carbon in our soils. Decades of research and practice have shown the soil-amending, biodiversity-increasing, and water-quality-improvement benefits of diverse, perennial-based agriculture systems that integrate crops with livestock. Systems like these can produce enough food to feed us all while requiring far fewer petroleum-based, carbon-intensive inputs; and perennial systems have a much greater capacity to sequester carbon than annual crops.

Both Waxman-Markey and the Boxer-Kerry legislation recognize agriculture's carbon sequestration potential, and each has made it the basis for an agriculture offset program, where farmers would receive payments through a credit-based system for doing things like tilling their soil less and planting trees and perennial grasses on cropland. Polluting industries could buy the credits this system generates, in theory "offsetting" their own emissions by way of these on-farm activities. Wall Street investors could get in on the action as well, by buying credits through a secondary, private market.

I find these offset programs deeply troubling. Technically, carbon offset projects are notoriously difficult to measure and verify. The more acute danger, however, is that polluting industries would be given significant power to dictate what farmers grow. Farms can do double duty by feeding us and creating healthy ecosystems, but offset payments could instead encourage farmers to shift away from food production toward monocultures of trees or grasses. It's a move that would be risky for farmers as well if the whims of speculative carbon markets dominated by Wall Street banks send carbon prices crashing.

Agriculture is too great an achievement and too precious a resource to be subject to the whims of industry and speculative markets. With support, agriculture creates livelihoods for farmers, helps preserve the culture and knowledge of food production, promotes an ethic of land stewardship and preservation, and can even help meet some of our energy needs, not to mention season after season of food and fiber. Good farming has been the basis for a sustainable planet for centuries.

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, food, rivers, livelihoods, and climate we value as a society. The USDA's Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is a good place to start. CSP is our only large-scale farm program that recognizes agriculture's mulitfunctionality. It rewards cover cropping, grass-fed beef production, and other farming practices that are good for the climate, soil and water. Expanding such programs should be a clear priority for policymakers and the public if we are to truly change the way we farm.

Let's support Congress's push for strong climate policies, but let's not use agriculture to circumvent the source of the problem, namely, the combustion of fossil fuels by coal plants and other industrial processes. Our food system is too precious and policies that treat agriculture like mere carbon offsets are too risky. We already know that agriculture can benefit us all; let's find a way to make certain that it does.

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