Breadbasket farmers weigh costs of lost crops in a warming climate

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 Farmers worry about the increased cost of energy and fertilizer under climate change legislation, but the costs of crop loss would be far greater, according to the Environmental Working Group. Source/credit MEDILL

Farmers worry about the increased cost of energy and fertilizer under climate change legislation, but the costs of crop loss would be far greater, according to the Environmental Working Group.
Source/credit: MEDILL

by Annie Snider
Oct 8, 2009

Not acting on climate change poses a greater economic threat to American farmers than the controversial climate bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives this summer.

That’s the conclusion of a study published Wednesday by the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C.

Numerous climate studies predict altered rainfall and more heat waves in breadbasket states such as Illinois. That would mean new pests to battle and more crops lost.

“A very small loss in crop yields would cost farmers far more than climate change [legislation] would,” said Craig Cox, Midwest vice president for the Environmental Working Group and co-author of the study.

But the increased costs of crop production predicted by the group are a fraction of those estimated by the Illinois Farm Bureau.

The House bill calls for a reduction of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to 17 percent of 2005 emissions by 2020. Meeting this goal would likely increase the cost of energy, fertilizer and crop sprays — major factors for farmers.

And it’s not just farmers who have a stake in getting the economics right. When ethanol subsidies diverted large amounts of agricultural land to corn earmarked for energy production, consumers saw the price jump for staples such as bread and milk.

The Environmental Working Group study synthesizes data from U.S. Department of Agriculture economic analyses and studies by institutions including Duke University and the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute.

Its conclusion: the House climate bill will produce a negligible cost increase. For example, it predicts that soybean production would become 45 cents more expensive per acre by 2018. That’s an increase of less than one percent.

The study then compares this increase with potential crop loss due to climate change. If climate change caused crop yields to drop one-half of one percent per acre, the study said, those losses would outweigh the extra costs associated with the climate bill.

Higher temperatures could cause yields of corn and soybeans to decrease between 30 and 63 percent by the end of the century, according to a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Illinois Farm Bureau agrees climate change poses a threat, but it takes issue with the USDA cost projections.

“Our view is this bill would have a very negative impact on farmers” said Lori Laughlin, director of issue management for the Illinois Farm Bureau. Laughlin cited statistics from the American Farm Bureau Federation, which predicts a $9.91 per acre production cost increase by 2020 under the House bill. That’s about 22 times higher than the USDA estimate.

“Based on all the analyses we’ve seen, this legislation would have a negligible impact on climate change,” Laughlin said.

Laughlin said her group is not opposed to acting on climate change, but that farmers should have a place at the table when that action is decided.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is one group trying to bring farmers to the national table, though it does not oppose the House bill.

Martha Noble, senior policy associate with the coalition, said acting on climate change is a “win-win” for farmers and the environment.

“There are a lot of things farmers can do in their systems,” Noble said, “some of which, like crop rotation, they used to do.”

Some of the changes farmers could make, such as changing tilling methods, would sequester carbon dioxide in the soil. The House bill includes an offsets program that would allow farmers to gain income for using these methods.

As the policy debate moves forward, agriculture may not be the sector with the loudest voice, but its fate will be felt by every American.

“Farmers are environmentalists,” Laughlin said. “You could call them the original environmentalists.”
The scientists share a passion for studying climate change on a massive geographic and historic scale, but they recognize the impact that day-to-day individual actions can have on keeping the planet healthy.

Travis takes up the challenge to reduce the Comer retreat’s carbon footprint by using horses for horsepower and building into the hillsides. Here are a few top priorities for a low-carbon lifestyle.

Sustainable fuel. Travis has used horses, not horsepower, to haul wind-felled wood from the forest blanketing the hills on the farm since 2005. That lumber feeds two high-efficiency wood-fired boilers capable of heating at least two buildings. And while the lights in the main building and along pathways stay on to keep guests safe during the conference, Travis shuts off all unneeded heat and electricity for most of the year.
Sustainable food. A garden and greenhouse bursting with beets, squash and eggplant provide enough organic produce to sate Travis, his staff and the Comer family. This year, Travis’s onions, herbs and tomatoes added flavor to the hungry scientists’ plates, too. (And like the food, the plates, cups and utensils used at the conference complex are all compostable.)
Sustainable construction. Most of the buildings at the complex, including an airplane hangar used for conference sessions, are built into a hillside. That keeps them naturally insulated in the winter and cool in the summer. Travis said little material goes to waste in updating the facility. “When we take down a building, we recycle everything that we can,” he said.

The least energy efficient building is the “climate change hotel,” a log cabin purchased from a neighbor that now houses 16 of the scientists during the conference, Travis said. Even though the cabin lacks the eco-friendly features of the rest of the buildings, it plays a key role in making the conference unique, Travis said.

“What it’s done for the science group is pretty great,” Travis said, because the cabin’s secluded location, surrounded by trees, wildflower meadows, trout streams and woodland paths, gives them a chance to unwind in a natural setting.

Philanthropist Gary Comer founded Lands’ End in 1962 and ran the popular apparel company for 40 years before selling it to Sears. After that, he devoted his self-made fortune to support the Comer Children’s Hospital at the university of Chicago, climate change research worldwide and education.

Comer recruited Travis, a Wisconsin native who had been working at Lands’ End for six years, to help build and manage the retreat in 1993. Originally used for business meetings, it now gives forward-thinking climate scientists from across the world a comfortable and inspiring place to meet and hash out ideas about the planet’s history and future.

“It’s this non-traditional environment where you can get out and walk and talk and speak freely,” Travis said. “It’s this interchange of ideas and research among them that really seems to create this energy level they don’t see other places and brings them back.”

The scientists, who see the impacts of climate change in their fieldwork, understand the stakes.

Irene Schimmelpfennig, a post-doctoral researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said the Swiss alpine glaciers she studies could disappear entirely in the next few hundred years if the current warming trend continues. The actions she takes to reduce her emissions include composting, using public transit and conserving electricity. That’s not enough to avert the melting but individuals do have a role to play in slowing warming trends.

“If everybody had the consciousness to make this effort, it could have a significant impact,” Schimmelpfennig said.

Another Lamont scientist, Aaron Putnam, said taking personal responsibility for carbon emissions isn’t just a nice thought. It’s a necessity.

“We need to ultimately find a way of leveling emissions off,” Putnam said, “so it’s going to require everyone to work together.”

And as long as Putnam, Schimmelpfennig and the other scientists keep coming back to work together, Travis will be there to welcome them with local Wisconsin beers and cheeses, hugs and how-are-you’s, and a space built to sustain their work and the planet they study.

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