Vilsack downplays inconvenient truth

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

Editorial

We've often questioned the research the USDA has used to justify its claims that farmers and ranchers will gain more than they lose from the climate change legislation passed last year by the House and now awaiting action in the Senate.

We have found the agency's effort wanting. Now, it seems, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack agrees. Or, more specifically, he disagrees with disturbing conclusions based on a model developed by Texas A&M University researchers for the department.

The cap and trade schemes Congress proposes will increase the cost of fuel, fertilizer and other farm inputs. On that point everyone agrees.

An Environmental Protection Agency analysis says fuel prices will rise 9.3 percent, while fertilizer prices will jump 17.6 percent. When the bill's full emission reductions take place in 2050, increases in inputs could cost farmers $4.6 billion in lost net income each year.

But USDA has always maintained that much of what farmers do -- planting crops and maintaining grazing lands -- also sequesters carbon. With some modification in their practices, so the story goes, farmers could sell credits to polluters and more than offset any losses caused by the legislation.

While it is true that annual row crops can capture carbon, the emissions inherent in planting, harvesting and processing crops produced with even the most favorable tillage practices wipes out some of what has been offset. Trees, on the other hand, store increasing amounts of carbon as they grow over the course of decades, and require minimal inputs. Enter FASOM -- Texas A&M's Forest and Agricultural Sector Optimization Model. USDA's economists used it to figure out how farmers could realize the bonanza promised by the cap and trade promoters.

The results have proven a bit troubling for Vilsack, and just about everyone else who either grows or eats food in this country.

FASOM predicts that increasing amounts of farm and pasture land will be turned over to forests as emission standards become more strict and carbon credits become more valuable. Specifically, 35 million acres of cropland and 24 million acres of pasture will be planted in trees by 2050. That's roughly equal to the combined land mass of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

That represents a game-changing scenario for agriculture. Landowners who now lease ground to farmers will find it more profitable to plant trees and sell the credits than collect cash rents. The cost to buy or rent ground that is still available will be dear. Grain prices will be higher, but there will be fewer farmers to enjoy the benefit.

USDA envisions less food being produced in the U.S., leading to more imports and higher prices for American consumers.

That's not the endorsement Vilsack desired.

Though FASOM is the basis of a report issued last month by his own chief economist, Vilsack now says the model's assumptions inaccurately reflect the proposals in the climate legislation, and that other analyses predict financial gains without "significant" loss of farmland.

But if Vilsack lacks confidence in the data that provided the underpinning for assertions his agency and the EPA made to Congress about the impacts of the climate bill, what faith should we place in rosier documents that contradict it?

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