Climate Change Legislation And Specialty Crops

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Congress is currently considering aggressive federal programs to combat the causes of climate change. Many within the specialty crop community are wondering how the debate over climate change reached this point. In the time it has taken for a new administration to take charge, the dominate public policy perspectives for climate change have changed. Skepticism about the likelihood of global warming and a belief that the U.S. was ill-advised to take the lead has given way to the belief that something needs to be done quickly and that this country should be a world leader in initiating new policies to reduce the emission of greenhouse gas (GHG).

The U.S. House of Representatives passed ambitious legislation to cap GHG emissions and put in place a complex marketplace for credits based on the ability to sequester carbon. Production agriculture escaped the cap side of the equation. While the emissions from production agriculture will not be capped, agriculture will experience sharp increases in the cost of energy related inputs. Some sectors of production agriculture expect to offset the energy cost increases by creating and selling carbon credits.

Currently, most of the techniques for sequestering carbon for production agriculture are related to utilizing no-till or reduced-tillage practices. This is unlikely to provide income opportunities for many specialty crop producers. While there is no hard data to confirm this idea, the likely reasons will be clear to most specialty crop growers. It is certainly true for potatoes and with the exception of permanent fruit and nut crops, tillage is an essential production practice. Permanent specialty crops will have their own set of issues regarding the value of carbon offsets. Those issues will revolve around the status of existing plantings qualifying to get credit for “new” sequestration activities. There will also be a strong disincentive for participation by high value crop producers. Since the market value of sequestered carbon will be relatively low compared to the market value of most, specialty crops growers are unlikely to make significant changes to production practices to capture small increases in per acre returns from participation in carbon markets.

Senate Version Of Climate Change

The Senate is working on its version of climate change legislation and, assuming that health care reform is completed, will consider a bill this year. For specialty crops, the Senate offers the opportunity to address the unique needs of growers that will be unable to participate in the carbon market but will have real and immediate energy cost increases when climate change legislation becomes law. To provide offsets to these cost increases, the specialty crop community is attempting to develop offset and mitigation programs appropriate to specialty crop production.

At the same time, specialty crop groups are encouraging USDA to conduct research on how the various climate change proposals will impact specialty crop producers. While similar data has been gathered for most major row crops, there is no available data on specialty crops. It is particularly important that this data be gathered for postharvest practices since those activities for specialty crops are energy intensive and unlike postharvest activities for the major row crops.

So while many in agriculture might prefer to continue the debate over whether this is the right time to address GHG emissions, for many reasons that has passed us by. Now the only option is to work with specialty crop supporters in Congress to develop ideas for inclusion in the final climate change bill that help specialty crop producers offset the energy cost increases that are on the horizon.

Keeling is executive vice president and CEO, National Potato Council.

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