Little data available on carbon emissions of orchards, vegetable fields
By WES SANDER
Farm organizations oppose a climate change bill proposed in the U.S. Senate, expressing the same worries they have for a counterpart bill that passed the House of Representatives in June.
The bill, sponsored by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and John Kerry, D-Mass., was introduced Wednesday, Sept. 30, in the Environment and Public Works Committee, which Boxer chairs. The panel is expected to vote on the legislation by late October.
Farm interests hope to build on provisions that are laid out vaguely in the House bill, said Cathleen Enright, a representative of Western Growers Association in Washington, D.C.
"What the agriculture community is looking for is ways to mitigate input costs," Enright said.
But just how those costs would be mitigated is unclear. In the West, specialty-crop growers lack extensive knowledge of whether their growing techniques could generate sufficient carbon offsets to defray expected costs.
"We oppose the legislation moving forward until we have a better idea of what the impacts will be," Enright said.
The bill has been described by its sponsors as well as stakeholders as a starting point for negotiations that are expected to be long and tough.
It would reduce carbon emissions 20 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. The House bill would cut emissions by 17 percent by 2020, but both bills lay out an 83 percent reduction by 2050.
Many in the industry oppose the tighter short-term cuts of the Senate proposal.
While agriculture is exempted from carbon-emissions caps under both the Senate and House bills, farmers' costs would likely increase as makers of inputs like fertilizers and pesticides are forced to alter production practices.
Both bills would help compensate by creating a carbon-offset program through which researchers and farmers would develop techniques to reduce emissions and sequester carbon. From those efficiencies, producers would earn carbon offsets, which could be sold to larger emitters to help defray the higher input costs.
So far, attention has fallen largely on forest-cultivation techniques, commodity-crop tillage and emissions from livestock. And that leaves specialty crops in the lurch.
Specialty agriculture occupies only 3.2 percent of U.S. farmland, but the stakes for the sector are high, Enright said. While input costs for wheat are around $30 per acre, those of specialty crops range from $3,000 to $12,000, she said.
That means specialty-crop growers would need significant advances in production techniques to create carbon offsets that might compensate for expected increases. But the sector is starting at a disadvantage, Enright said.
To start with, there is little available data on the amount of carbon that an orchard or vegetable field can sequester, Enright said. Furthermore, it will be tough to compete with the comparatively high level of offsets expected in forestry and Midwest commodity farming, both of which benefit from vast acreages.
"It's really quite complicated for us," Enright said. "It's hard for farmers to support legislation when they don't know what the impacts would be."
A further problem with the Senate bill is that it places administration of a carbon-offset program under the Environmental Protection Agency, said Rick Krause, senior director of congressional relations with the American Farm Bureau Federation.
In the House, Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., succeeded in shifting that authority to USDA, a change that was praised by ag groups. The National Farmers Union and National Association of Wheat Growers declared support for the House bill once Peterson's amendments were added.
But it wasn't enough to gain AFBF's support, Krause said. And since the Senate bill starts at a point similar to where the House bill started, AFBF likewise anticipates opposing it, he said.
"We don't have a lot of confidence that EPA is going to be trying to solicit input and participation from agriculture," Krause said.
The National Farmers Union expressed opposition to the Senate bill because it lacks provisions that were ultimately added to the House bill, including USDA oversight and the factoring of pre-existing carbon sequestration efforts when awarding offsets.
"It is important the U.S. Senate begin the process of developing climate change and renewable energy legislation," NFU President Roger Johnson said in a statement. "However, the language unveiled today fails to address the unique role agriculture can play."
If passed by the full Senate, the bill would be reconciled with the version passed by the House.
Staff writer Wes Sander is based in Sacramento. E-mail: email@example.com.