Farmers in Global Warming Alarmists’ Crosshairs

Published June 5, 2007

When politicking in farm belt states, global warming alarmists frequently assert that restrictive global warming legislation will benefit farmers. Farmers are told measures taken to address global warming will encourage more ethanol production and induce industry to purchase carbon sequestration credits from farmers engaging in no-till agriculture.

Once out of the farmers’ earshot, however, alarmists are making it all too clear that farmers are seen as more of a problem that needs correction than a friend who deserves reward.

Stephan Singer, the World Wildlife Fund’s European Head of Climate and Energy Policy, told Reuters on April 30 that beef consumption is a major contributor to global warming, because the methane emitted from cattle is a key greenhouse gas. “The diet of the West has a big impact on the atmosphere,” Singer said.

San Jose State University sociology professor Dan Brook told attendees at an April 16 public lecture that giving up meat is “even more important than switching from an SUV to a Camry” because agriculture is “the number one cause of greenhouse gases.”

Singer and Brook are not out of the mainstream of global warming alarmists. A December 2006 report from the Livestock, Environment and Development (LEAD) Initiative–which is supported by the World Bank, European Union, United States Agency for International Development, and United Nations–claims farmers are doing more damage to the Earth’s climate than all the SUVs in the world combined.

The report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” asserts that the “livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.”

The LEAD report does not acknowledge agriculture as a good-guy mitigator of greenhouse gases. Nor does it envision enriching farmers as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To the contrary, claims the report, “The livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent. This is a higher share than transport.”

Farmers unsure of whether they are seen as friends or foes of global warming alarmists need only consider the following statement in the LEAD report:

“At virtually each step of the livestock production process, substances contributing to climate change or air pollution are emitted into the atmosphere, or their sequestration in other reservoirs is hampered. Such changes are either the direct effect of livestock rearing, or indirect contributions from other steps on the long road that ends with the marketed animal product.”

Indeed, despite promises to the contrary, U.S. farmers are unlikely to be paid for sequestering carbon dioxide. In any cap-and-trade carbon legislation, sequestration would be rewarded only if it exceeds today’s sequestration baseline. Status quo sequestration will receive no reward; only additional sequestration will be rewarded.

Moreover, in any carbon trading scheme, farmers would be net purchasers rather than net sellers of carbon sequestration credits. According to EPA, agricultural soils in the U.S. in 2001 sequestered 15.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, compared to total agricultural emissions of 526 mmtCO2e. Emissions were 35 times as great as sequestration.

Furthermore, to the extent non-farmers may be required to purchase carbon sequestration credits, they will get far more bang for their buck paying for the preservation or planting of forests than they will by giving money to farmers. According to EPA, forests in the U.S. sequestered 50 times as much carbon dioxide equivalent in 2001 than did agricultural soils. Also, the Environmental Defense publication “What Business Can Do about Global Warming” tells businesses that “forests can sequester more carbon more quickly than agricultural lands.”

What about ethanol? Will ethanol revenue compensate for the sacrifices that will be demanded of farmers? The answer is not for long. Corn is already obsolete as an ethanol feedstock. According to the Houston-based CLEAN Energy group, Brazilian-grown sugarcane is more than five times more efficient at making ethanol than U.S.-grown corn.

Any serious ethanol market will funnel money to Brazil rather than to U.S. farmers.

Even in the short term, farmers’ higher corn income will be mitigated by higher costs associated with greenhouse gas restrictions. Agriculture is an energy-intensive industry, and higher fertilizer and fuel prices will militate against higher corn income. Additionally, corn farmers’ gain will be livestock farmers’ loss, as livestock farmers will be forced to pay higher prices for animal feed.

Farmers beware: Greenhouse gas restrictions are nowhere near as farmer-friendly as global warming alarmists would lead you to believe.

James M. Taylor ([email protected])is senior fellow for environment policy at The Heartland Institute.