USDA chief stresses long-term benefits to majority of farmers
By WES SANDER
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the U.S. must move forward on climate legislation despite its expected impacts to specialty agriculture.
"I think it is fair to recognize that different producers will be affected and impacted differently," Vilsack said in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, Dec. 2. "Overall, we think more farmers will benefit than not."
Legislation introduced in September by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and John Kerry, D-Mass., would set up a market for trading carbon-emissions credits earned by sequestering carbon on farm operations.
But specialty-ag interests decry a lack of available data on the amount of carbon an orchard or vegetable field can sequester.
Vilsack said future technologies will address those concerns. Meanwhile, federal programs -- including incentives in the 2008 Farm Bill, USDA's Environmental Quality and Incentives Program, and those contained in a bill by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. -- will help offset the impacts, he said.
"I think it's important to realize that no change is really not good for the agriculture industry," Vilsack said.
Lawmakers have said the Senate legislation would be delayed until spring. Meanwhile, Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., held a climate policy hearing on Wednesday.
"I think it's easy to get folks riled up about change, but the reality is the world is not static," Vilsack said. "I think there are a multitude of opportunities here for American farmers. There are some really exciting innovations taking place on American farms today."
In the short term, agriculture as a whole will see small bottom-line advantages from the climate legislation, Vilsack said. Over the long term, agriculture will see $10 billion to $20 billion of additional income, he said.
Like a bill passed earlier this year by the House of Representatives, the Senate bill would create a program through which researchers and farmers would develop techniques to reduce emissions and sequester carbon. The resulting carbon offsets 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, leaving out specialty crops.
While agriculture is exempted from caps on carbon emissions under the House bill, farmers' costs would likely increase as makers of inputs like fuel, fertilizers and pesticides are forced to alter production practices.
Vilsack said changing climate policies are vital to the future health of global markets for U.S. agriculture.
"I can guarantee you that if America were to punt on climate change ... our competitors will use that against us in discussing with possible competitors where products ought to come from," he said. "That would be a persuasive thing for a lot of countries, in terms of where they purchase (commodities)."