2009's Top Ten Ag/Climate Stories
1. Climate Change will Hammer Agriculture. It's Already Affecting Common Sense
The damage to agriculture from shifting weather patterns, crippling droughts and devastating floods linked to climate change will seriously challenge our ability to produce food and fiber. Yet the American Farm Bureau Federation, which boasts that American agriculture feeds the world, opposes ground-breaking legislation to slow climate change. The Bureau and its friends in Congress claim that climate legislation will cause farmers' production costs to skyrocket, despite reams of studies that prove otherwise.
Climate legislation still has to run the Senate Agriculture Committee's gantlet. On the House side, Ag Chairman Collin Peterson has threatened to "bring the climate bill down" unless he secures concessions for ethanol and industrial agriculture. What's amazing, or baffling, is that the debate has focused on the cost of protecting agriculture. Should scientists' projections prove true that climate change will lessen our ability to grow food, it'll be hard enough to feed ourselves, let alone the world.
2. Corn Ethanol's Addiction to Subsidies
Despite growing evidence of corn ethanol's limitations as an alternative to gasoline, the fuel still receives two thirds of all federal subsidies and tax breaks for renewable energy. The federal government subsidizes ethanol to the tune of 45 cents per gallon, far more than subsidies for wind, solar and geothermal power. We're told that continuing to support corn ethanol is building a bridge to the next generation of biofuels, which are just around the corner. Next-generation biofuels, however, seem to have been just around the corner since the 1970s, and some of the savviest investors are betting that ethanol won't be the biofuel of the future. Moreover, no one has been able to prove that using cropland to grow fuel instead of food is a good idea, or that the production of biofuels will provide a net reduction in greenhouse gases.
The well-funded and politically connected ethanol lobby's need to scrape more kernels off the cob doesn't end with subsidies. First it was a widely panned attempt to cull bailout money from the government during the financial crisis. Now it's a full court press to get the ethanol blend limit raised by 50%. Thankfully, the Environmental Protection Agency has done the right thing in not letting politics trump science as it studies how increased blends will damage engines (see #9).
3. Conservation Funding Loses Ground
Advocates for federal farm program conservation funding have been fed a steady diet of broken promises. Meanwhile, the environmental damage caused by modern agriculture -- the very damage that conservation programs help fight -- continues unabated. The damage is in part encouraged by federal commodity crop subsidies that support cultivation of water-, fertilizer- and pesticide-intensive row crops like corn and soybeans.
The newest crisis? Conservation Reserve Program acres are expiring at an alarming rate. CRP is little known, but it is the largest public/private conservation partnership in America. Among its numerous environmental benefits, the program helps fight flooding in highly cropped areas and preserves wildlife habitat. The land is also ideal for sequestering carbon. In September alone, 3.4 million acres were taken out of the program, and hundreds of thousands of those acres went right back into production.
While discouraging, the news on the conservation front hasn't been all bad...
4. USDA Is Trying to Do Right by the Gulf "Dead Zone"
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack intends to provide $320 million in dedicated pollution cleanup funds to the 12 states in the Mississippi River Basin.
Dead Zones are a growing environmental crisis from the Chesapeake Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. Agriculture is the primary source of the pollutants that swell these oxygen-starved areas every season. As cultivation of pesticide- and fertilizer-intensive crops increases, there is a growing need for an ecological balance in funding priorities -- or else our streams, rives and lakes will remain heavily polluted.
5. California's Air Resources Board Ignites the Indirect Land Use Debate
On April 23, at the urging of the Union of Concerned Scientists, California's Air Resources Board ruled that indirect land use changes would be a factor in determining whether biofuels meet the required greenhouse gas emissions limits to be set under California's Low Carbon Fuel Standard. The news was an opening salvo in the debate over global land use. There is no doubt that diverting cropland from food to fuel has an impact on emissions, but quantifying the effect has been elusive.
6. Obama Administration's Failed First Try at Farm Subsidy Reform
In one of his first public speeches after being elected president, Obama singled out waste and abuse in the farm subsidy system as ripe for reform. Unfortunately, the administration's proposals came out flat and were widely scorned. Bush vetoed the farm bill over subsidies, and deficit reduction will be on the front burner next year, so look to the administration to give the lavish programs for big profitable growers a tougher once-over.
7. Dr. John Boyd, Head of the National Black Farmers Association, Continues to Fight
The unflappable and determined NBFA leader has received well-deserved recognition for his influence in Washington, including being named to Ebony Magazine's Top 150 Power List. Now if Congress and the Obama Administration finally make things right after years of legal wrangling, maybe he can relax his hectic lobbying schedule, bring closure to the thousands of black farmers denied claims after years of discrimination, and concentrate on his own farm.
8. First Lady Michelle Obama Sends a Message with a White House Garden
Seeing the First Family promote healthy and sustainable foods has many Big Ag lobby groups craving the days of corn syrup-sweetened Jelly Bellys. But the Mid America Crop Life Association, which represents pesticide manufactures, overreached in its criticism of the garden. Its messenger was rightfully BBQ'd on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
9. Ethanol Is A Losing Proposition for Consumers
The ethanol industry's push to blend 50% more corn ethanol into the gasoline supply would vastly expand its market, but it's a lose-lose proposition for consumers. A 2009 Department of Energy study found that E15 lowered gas mileage by 5%.
Worse, it's well established that burning E15 can seriously damage small and off-road engines such as those in snowmobiles, outboard motors, lawn mowers and chain saws. That's why the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute and National Marine Manufacturers Association both oppose the blend increase.
In may, the Environmental Working Group sent a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson laying out EWG's concerns that raising the ethanol blend limit could have an adverse impact on engines.
Despite fears that higher blends might spontaneously start chainsaws or the 150 complaints the state of Virginia logged this summer from car owners who experienced engine problems from uneven blends, the leading ethanol lobby group, Growth Energy, continues to claim that "cars and trucks on the road today can run on higher blends of ethanol without modifications."
10. Chesapeake Bay Executive Order
Here's yet another sign that the new administration gets it when it comes to protecting water sources from agricultural pollution. After a quarter century of failed initiatives, the Obama Administration issued an Executive Order aimed at asserting leadership on cleaning up the Bay. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md) followed by filing the Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act. Cardin's legislation would give state and federal governments more power and funding to clean up pollution from agricultural sources and from metropolitan storm run-off.
If any plan is to succeed, however, it is critical to recognize that voluntary programs have had a limited impact and that the Chesapeake Bay states must be equal partners with the federal government in regulatory and funding efforts .