Climate Change and Ag: Still a Hot Topic

December 17, 2009 06:00 PM

Roger Bernard, Farm Journal Policy & Washington Editor

Washington ag policy circles have had lots to talk about this week on the hot topic of climate change. And the roots of this go back to early December.

Dec. 2-3, USDA Chief Economist Joe Glauber delivered two days (and 60 pages) of testimony to a House ag subcommittee on the updated USDA analysis of the House-passed climate-change legislation. In that analysis, he noted that if carbon credit prices would approach $70 per ton in 2050, it could mean 59 million acres of crop and pasture-land could be planted to trees, including ground in the fertile Corn Belt.

A half hour before Glauber's testimony, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack held a teleconference with reporters to "preview" Glauber's coming appearance. In that session with reporters, he offered no concerns or questions about the USDA analysis that Glauber was about to offer up to lawmakers.

Now, fast-forward to this week. Vilsack tells USDA Radio, "The conclusions of that report obviously depend to a certain extent on what model is used and what your starting point is. The model that was used, the EPA model, candidly I think that there are other models more current and more complete that might lead to significantly, and will lead to significantly, different conclusions. And we've already seen the impacts of those models in programs [studies] in the University of Tennessee, I think there's a study out of Kansas and we just talked to the (National) Corn Growers (Association) and they're telling me they have an economic analysis coming out soon that talks about very little, if any, loss of cropland and negative impact. So it very much depends on where you start."

This raised a lot of eyebrows -- and concerns -- among aggies in Washington. For one, it was surprising to shocking to see a USDA Secretary question the analysis done by his own department. That's something that wasn't lost on a senator who used to occupy the top post at USDA -- Mike Johanns (R-Neb.).

In a letter to Vilsack, Johanns said, "What did you mean when you stated you ''think there are other models that are more current and complete,' that 'might' lead to 'different conclusions?' Are you discounting USDA's own testimony before the House -- testimony that most certainly went through the White House interagency clearance process with review and sign-off by the Office of Management and Budget, Environmental Protection Agency, Council of Environmental Quality, and the President's climate czar, among others? Are you saying that the analysis USDA reported to have completed only two weeks ago is not current or complete? How are members of Congress to interpret your Chief Economist's testimony, now that you have called the underlying analysis into question?"

Today, Vilsack issued a statement addressing the analysis issue, also noting the full analysis by Glauber is available. Vilsack admitted that the indications of significant chunks of land being taken out of crop production and put into trees did cause concern. "If landowners plant trees to the extent the model suggests, this would be disruptive to agriculture in some regions of the country," he noted.

So, to address those concerns, Vilsack revealed he has now "directed Dr. Glauber to work together with EPA to undertake a review of the assumptions" in the model used and to update that model "and develop options on how best to avoid unintended consequences for agriculture that might result from climate change legislation."

And the two ranking Republicans on the House and Senate Ag Committees -- Rep. Frank Lucas (Okla.) and Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) also added their voice to the situation, writing to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. In the letter, the lawmakers said, "If there was a flaw in the analysis, then it would be prudent to correct the model and perform a more current and complete analysis on both HR 2454 and S 1733. Moving forward with flawed studies will only result in bad policy and legislation." The two also asked for EPA and USDA to provide the panels with a briefing "regarding updates to the model and results from any future analysis."

So there is another update coming at some point on climate-change legislation impacts for agriculture. And hopefully, the analysis this time won't be called into question -- by Vilsack or anyone else.

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