Why Farmers Should Worry about Global Warming

Published September 1, 2003

You might think the biggest worry farmers should have about “global warming” is the effect it would have on their crops. Environmental advocacy groups, after all, predict floods, droughts, blistering hot summers, more violent weather, and other kinds of mayhem.

But concerns over weather are greatly overblown. Scientists say whatever warming takes place will be very small, occur mostly at night and during the winter, and in higher latitudes (i.e., Canada and Siberia). Global warming would probably be accompanied by more precipitation and higher levels of carbon dioxide in the air, both contributing to higher yields. Farmers (and their customers) in the U.S. would actually benefit if global warming occurs.

Rather than worry about its effect on weather, farmers should worry about new laws passed in the name of preventing global warming. Such laws typically call for voluntary or mandatory emissions reporting, increased use of renewable energy sources, explicit caps on utility emissions, incentives for capturing or “sequestering” carbon, and initiatives aimed at reducing car and truck emissions.

Ten states have biological carbon sequestration programs in place, 13 have renewable energy portfolio mandates, and three have caps on stationary sources of greenhouse gas emissions. At the federal level, the Bush administration’s Global Climate Change Initiative (GCCI) seeks to reduce greenhouse gas intensity (emissions per dollar of GDP) in energy production and consumption by 18 percent over the next 10 years.

Emission reduction programs are very expensive and slow economic growth. Reducing emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2010 would reduce gross domestic product (GDP) by $300 billion to $400 billion a year and destroy 2.4 million jobs. Energy prices would rise 55 percent to 85 percent. Average annual household income would fall approximately $3,300 (in 2001 dollars) below baseline levels.

Farmers would be especially hard hit by the higher energy prices. Raising energy prices equivalent to a tax on gasoline of approximately 50 cents per gallon (the amount estimated to be necessary to cause emissions to fall) would cause net profits for farmers to fall by between 15 and 44 percent, depending on the crop. Total annual U.S. farm production expenses would rise more than $23 billion, causing net national farm income to fall by 51 percent.

Because emission reduction costs are so high, policymakers are turning their attention to biological carbon sequestration programs. This may appear to be beneficial to farmers and ranchers, since it offers to pay them to do what many are already doing voluntarily. But carbon sequestration faces daunting problems of its own.

Many farmers and ranchers would pay more for emission permits and other regulations than they would earn by sequestering carbon. Total greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural activities in 2001, according to EPA, were 35 times greater than the net amount of carbon sequestered in agricultural soil that year. Organic soils are net emitters of carbon and probably cannot be managed to store more carbon. Livestock production, including dairy farming, is a particularly large net source of greenhouse gases.

Environmentalists will be disappointed, too. Agricultural soils in 2001, net of their emissions, sequestered less than 1 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Even doubling or tripling the use of no-till cultivation would offset only 2 or 3 percent of total emissions. Once soil is saturated with carbon there could be no more gains, meaning biological carbon sequestration is not a long-term solution.

Proposals to control greenhouse gas emissions, in short, pose a very serious threat to agriculture in the U.S. Proposals to pay farmers and ranchers to sequester carbon in their soil are superficially more appealing, but they are likely to lead to higher energy costs, new regulatory burdens, and emission permit costs that exceed whatever revenues might be earned. Farmers and their allies should forcefully oppose greenhouse gas control programs at both the national and state level.

Joseph L. Bast is president of The Heartland Institute and coauthor of a new Heartland Policy Study addressing the implications of greenhouse gas control for agriculture. His email address is [email protected].