Agriculture can be part of the Solution to Climate Change

What if the government paid producers to be an effective tool in combat to fight climate change? What if private enterprise paid farmers to sequester carbon or for carbon-credits in a cap and trade exchange?

On October 30th, House Democrats’ climate panel explored what role agriculture can play in the climate crisis. Jennifer Moore-Kucera of American Farmland Trust urged Congress to seize the opportunity to engage ag through either legislation or “a transformational farm bill.” Experts at the committee were unanimous that agriculture can be a big part of the climate change solution through sequestering carbon in the soil. They also supported using the USDA conservation programs to focus on climate-friendly practices and called on more funding for research into this matter. Members of Congress want to know what policies they should adopt to “maximize carbon storage,” as well as “help farmers, ranchers, and natural resource managers adapt to the impacts of climate change.”

The USDA’s Economic Research Service published a study  titled Economics of Sequestering Carbon in the U.S. Agricultural Sector that studies this issue. It found that if farmers adopted conservation tillage or converting some land to either forest or grasslands, it could be economically feasible and could provide low-cost opportunities to sequester additional carbon in soils and biomass. The study took into account if farmers switched to conservation tillage and paid $125 per metric ton for permanently sequestered carbon, that as much as “72 to 160 million metric tons could be sequestered, enough to offset 4 to 8 percent of gross U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases in 2001.” The study also takes into consideration different scenarios for payment amounts, whether payments would be supplemented by current conservation programs, conversion to forestry or grasslands, and found different potentials in the amount of carbon sequestration.

Currently, there are six Democratic candidates in the race for the nomination that are advocating paying farmers to help fight climate change. All have similar means by paying farmers through either grants to convert to more sustainable practices or expanding conservation programs in the USDA. According to Politico, the candidates have not given a price tag on how much they would it would cost to fund their programs. However, Senator Elizabeth Warren has said she would provide $15 billion a year to USDA conservation programs. Former Vice President Joe Biden said the program should be part of potential carbon markets by allowing corporations, individuals, and foundations to contribute funding to offset their emissions.

There is one corporation currently that is paying farmers. A four-year-old startup called Indigo Ag wants to feed the world and pay farmers to be a part of the climate change solution. Via the Indigo Carbon marketplace, companies can pay farmers $15 to sequester one metric ton of carbon dioxide in the soil. The chief executive, David Wells, has lofty goals through regenerative agriculture, and the use of their products, half to 100 percent of the carbon dioxide could be sequestered. A more realistic goal was presented by Rattan Lal, a soil scientist who heads the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University. He says the maximum soil sequestration that can be achieved, under ideal conditions, is nine billion tons. Indigo Ag makes non-GMO seed treatments that help farmers maximize their yield on row crops, including soybeans, rice, wheat, corn and cotton. The treatments consist of naturally occurring microbes, like plant-friendly bacteria and fungi. Farmers apply them to their seeds as a spray or powder coating before planting. In 2018, they had roughly 5,000 producers throughout the globe on 4 million acres. The company has also expanded into a sort of eBay, called Indigo Marketplace, and into assisting farmers using geospatial satellites. Incorporating this technology allows Indigo Ag and its customers to monitor the world’s food supply and figure out where to focus their efforts next.

Paying farmers and ranchers make sense from an environmental standpoint and an economic standpoint as well. As commodity prices have been at their lowest, paying producers would give offset their costs and encourage them to practice sustainability. As we lose 27 acres of prime agricultural land every minute to development, developers should bear the costs of degradation of these lands and helping to further contribute to climate change. Agriculture is a viable solution to carbon sequestration and climate change, and we should look further into this possibility.

Climate Change Could Alter Farming Landscape in the U.S.

If 2019 is any indicator of what is to come, then producers will need to adapt their practices to climate change.

The impact could change production levels depending on the region, with some states becoming less productive, and others will see little to no change.

In an article published by the USDA for their magazine Amber Waves, they found a correlation between climate change and agricultural productivity. Changes in temperature and precipitation can have different effects on crop and livestock production. For crops, the Oury index is a measure of aridity and rainfall with regards to temperature, which is an effective indicator of climate conditions and crop growth. Heat stress to livestock fertility, weight, and feed efficiency are measured with a Temperature-Humidity Index. It found that “changes in THI (Temperature-Humidity Index) and the Oury index varied by U.S. region.”

The map below shows the potential impact on ag productivity, assuming a 2-degree Celsius temperature increase and a one-inch decrease in precipitation. The TFP, or “total factor productivity,” accounts for both production and the cost of inputs like seed, irrigation, fertilizer, labor, equipment, and other factors.

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The USDA states that some states have gradually adapted to the changes in average climate conditions over time and have adopted, “technologies or practices that can mitigate damage from adverse weather.” While average changes in temperature and precipitation may not have severe impacts on productivity if they fall within historical fluctuation ranges. In contrast, “unexpected weather shocks, such as severe droughts that fall outside the range of historical weather fluctuations, have more significant impacts on regional productivity.”

While the above is true, it appears that the USDA is avoiding some of the underlying causes of these fluctuations. In an article written by Helena Bottemiller Evich for Politico, the “topic has historically been too politically toxic in the traditionally conservative agriculture sector, which fears more regulation while also being extremely reliant on government programs.”

The same article also points out that the USDA currently is spending less than 1% of its budget to fight climate change. Bottemiller Evich theorizes that the reason could be the current administration’s hostility towards discussing climate change. She states, “When new tools to help farmers adapt to climate change are created, they typically are not promoted and usually do not appear on the USDA’s main resource pages for farmers or social-media postings for the public.”

Farmers and ranchers could be a major player in the effort to reduce climate change. Currently, there are USDA climate hubs that were established to assist farmers to deal with “weather extremes” (climate change) that are operating on a shoestring budget. There are studies by the government stating that, perhaps, we should pay producers to sequester carbon by changing their tillage practices. What if private companies paid producers?

These ideas will be discussed in the next few posts as they merit talking about them in-depth. Agriculture could be the solution and not the problem as people may perceive.






The Story Behind California’s Proposition 12 and its Impact on Out-of-State Producers

Update: Judge Christina A. Snyder ruled against the lawsuit brought by the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) stating Proposition 12 was in violation of the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

California’s Proposition 12 could potentially impact the way out of state producers of eggs, pork, and veal do business with the state.

The proposition establishes new standards for confinement of certain farm animals and bans the sale of products that do not comply with the new confinement standards in the state. Specifically, Proposition 12 requires that all eggs sold in the state come from cage-free hens by 2022, and it also bans the sale of pork and veal in California from farm animals raised in cages that do not meet new minimum size requirements. Therefore, farmers across the country who sell eggs, veal, and pork in California will be required to comply with Proposition 12.

Currently, the North American Meat Institute has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the proposition stating that it is a hindrance to the “interstate commerce” clause of the Constitution.

However, Proposition 12 was not the first effort by California voters to establish standards for animal housing. In 2008, California voters passed the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act by a wide margin. The purpose of that ballot measure, known as Proposition 2, was “to prohibit the cruel confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs.”

As a result of the proposition passing, egg producers challenged the vague language in court as it did not define the specifics of “cage-free.” As a result, the industry created its own guidelines for housing known as “enriched colony housing systems.”

According to Poultry World in 2011, JS West & Company, a family-owned egg farming business in California, installed and opened the first enriched colony housing system for layer hens in the United States. American Humane Certified, the nation’s largest and oldest third-party certification of farm animal welfare, certified the new system installed at JS West.

The Big Dutchman AVECH housing system installed at JS West & Company included 10 rows and 6 tiers with each row measuring 498 feet long that housed approximately 150,000 birds with 116 square inches per bird.

After the law took effect in 2015, egg prices rose by as much as 33 percent, according to a study by Perdue University. By July 2016, the study found that the number of laying hens decreased by 35 percent, and prices stabilized to nine percent higher. Prior to the proposition going into full effect, eggs were being imported from several states to make-up for the production loss. The state legislature in an effort to enforce its standards on other states passed A.B. 1437 in 2010. The bill shifted the legal burden of Proposition 2 from egg producers to vendors, requiring that all eggs sold in California comply with the new standards, regardless of where they are laid. Six states at the time filed a lawsuit against California on the grounds that Proposition 2 violates the Commerce Clause by imposing state regulations on interstate trade. Federal courts rejected this challenge despite several appeals.

Since the passage of Proposition 2, twelve other states have brought similar propositions to the ballot similar to California’s Proposition 12. A 2016 Massachusetts law bans the sale of products from illegally confined animals is mired in lawsuits from other states, citing a violation of interstate commerce rules.

Proposition 12 requires 144 square inches per hen (current rules are 116) until December 31, 2021, and then bans the use of any cages. Sows confined to gestation crates during pregnancy have 24 square feet of space, and veal calves 43 square feet. The passage of the measure could potentially set a new standard for cages and crates for other farm animals, a standard that would mark an increase over the average space available to these animals nationwide.

Previous lawsuits regarding the Commerce Clause could be a barometer for the lawsuit brought by the North American Meat Institute. California tends to set the national agenda for social and environmental policy. The consideration of the agenda set by Proposition 2, and now, 12 asks two questions. Will the regulations improve the lives of animals and their facilities? Second, will this legislation continue to set a precedent for other states and lead to comprehensive animal improvements?