The damages to agriculture from climate change are already happening and getting worse; and the latest science suggests they will be much more costly than previously thought. One study found that uncontrolled warming could cut the United States corn crop nearly in half.
A landmark United Nations report issued in October included agriculture in its urgent call for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”
Even if carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels declines radically, the scientists who wrote the UN report said, nations also must find a way to achieve “negative emissions” that remove carbon dioxide from the air and store it in the ground.
And in a striking message to the world’s farmers, they said there is no cheaper and more effective approach than through climate-friendly farming practices that can increase farm profits while stashing billions of tons of carbon in the soil every year.
With an all-out campaign to restore soil health, studies have found, U.S. land could absorb half of American agriculture’s carbon footprint. Modest annual improvements to arable soils, if adopted worldwide, could halt the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from all human activities.
“This should be an urgent, societal mission. A Manhattan project,” said Keith Paustian, a scientist who has written extensively on soil carbon.
The Farm Bureau Agenda: Big Subsidies, Less Regulation
Despite the existential threat that climate change poses to farming and food security, the Farm Bureau has never included climate action in its list of priorities. The group doesn’t concede the extent of human influence over the climate, promoting a mindset that has taken root among many farmers.
The Farm Bureau “is not a scientific organization, nor do we have climate scientists on staff,” wrote a spokesman in an emailed response to questions from InsideClimate News. “Our policy positions focus on the regulatory costs-and-benefits of policies in reaction to climate change.”
Those who favor urgent climate action have proposed international and domestic pollution trading rules that would reward enterprises — including farms — that are able to cut emissions most cheaply. Emissions trading, like carbon taxes, puts a price on pollution, as is broadly recommended by economists.
For more than 20 years, the Farm Bureau has said a price on carbon would only raise fuel prices, destroy American farms and do little to curb warming.
The Farm Bureau says it would tolerate market-based emissions trading — a way to reward farmers with carbon credits they could cash in — but only if it is voluntary and doesn’t shift costs to other farmers.
The Farm Bureau prefers direct government compensation for farmers who agree to plant in ways that keep carbon in the soil.
Mainly, the farm lobby has supported a rapidly expanding system of federally subsidized insurance: a safety net to protect farmers from financial losses, including from drought, flood and other climate impacts.
These subsidies flow mostly to large producers of major commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans, fostering an environmentally damaging system of large-scale, monoculture farming.
Millions of acres of American farm country are under the stewardship of farmers who doubt that man-made climate change is real, don’t buy into climate-friendly farming or are financially locked into the status quo.
So even as the United States as a whole began to rein in greenhouse gases from fossil fuels in the past 10 years, global warming pollution from its farms has crept upward. Worldwide, the food system remains the source of roughly a quarter of greenhouse gases. A new study in the scientific journalNature predicted these emissions could nearly double worldwide by 2050.
“The Farm Bureau is saying we’ll go out of business if we have to address climate change,” said Laurie Ristino, a former Department of Agriculture lawyer. “But this is dire. We can’t avert the real, tragic consequences of global warming without agriculture, so how can we come together and create a new system?”
Kindred Spirits: Why Ag Joined Forces with Fossil Fuels
Over the past two decades, the Farm Bureau teamed up with fossil fuel interests in all of the most important fights over climate policy.
“The Farm Bureau was absolutely critical in derailing Kyoto,” said Stuart Eizenstat, President Bill Clinton’s chief U.S. negotiator on the Kyoto Protocol, a landmark treaty that was the first to set emissions targets country by country. The United States ultimately backed out.
After Barack Obama came into office, the Farm Bureau helped defeat comprehensive cap-and-trade climate legislation that passed the House. “We must aggressively respond to extremists who want to drag agriculture back to the day of 40 acres and a mule,” former Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman declaredat the time. “The days of their elitist power grabs are over.” The bill expired in the Senate.
The Farm Bureau contested the science-based endangerment finding that cemented the role of the Environmental Protection Agency in regulating greenhouse gases, convincing farmers that this would extend to agricultural emissions — what it called a “cow tax.” It opposed the Obama-era Clean Power Plan and the tightening of automobile fuel efficiency and emission standards.
“Our opposition to the ‘Clean Power Plan’ is a good example of our approach to advocacy. We opposed that rule because closing power plants prematurely would bring significantly higher utility rates to rural residents who depend on those plants,” Farm Bureau spokesman Will Rodger said about collaboration with fossil fuel interests. “That policy perspective has, on occasion, aligned AFBF with other energy-based associations such as API,” he wrote in an e-mailed response to questions, referring to the American Petroleum Institute.
Some intersecting interests of farming and fossil fuels are obvious. Diesel propels trucks and tractors. Natural gas is used to make fertilizer. Propane and natural gas dry grain and run heating and ventilation of livestock barns. Despite the notable spread of wind and solar energy in major farm states, rural electric coops burn mostly fossil fuels to light up the countryside — and are backing off coal slower than other utilities.
The Farm Bureau has focused on this deep reliance on fossil fuels to argue that policies to cut greenhouse gases would lead to skyrocketing costs and threaten the survival of American agriculture.
But the alliance goes deeper. State Farm Bureaus are the building blocks of the American Farm Bureau Federation, and over the years, they organized local farmers’ cooperatives that run refineries and directly sell billions of dollars of fuel, alongside seeds and supplies. Less visibly, but more significantly, some state Farm Bureaus hold stakes in insurance companies whose for-profit investment funds hold millions of dollars of securities. The Iowa Farm Bureau’s insurance business, through its fund, held investments last year of about $462 million in fossil fuel corporations, according to financial statements.
For decades, these links fostered a powerful alliance between the Farm Bureau and the fossil fuel lobby. Agriculture was historically a conservative force, the more so after the first local Farm Bureaus were set up a century ago as a counterweight to the progressive populism sweeping the Great Plains. Resistance to regulation, like the need for cheap fuel and fertilizer, fed the Farm Bureau’s reliable support for drilling in offshore waters and in the Arctic wilderness.
The emergence of climate change as a pressing international issue in the 1990’s bound the two industries together more tightly than ever.
“They’re concerned about new burdensome regulations,” then-Farm Bureau President Dean Kleckner said of his members during a 1999 Senate hearing on the Kyoto Protocol. “They’re concerned about the higher costs.”
Sowing Confusion: ‘So Many Unknowns’
Kleckner’s testimony also signaled a deep distrust of the emerging climate science in step with the campaign of misinformation being mounted by the fossil fuel industry.
“The controversial nature of the science makes farmers more concerned for the cure being prescribed for them than the threat of global warming,” Kleckner said.
He conceded that “some farmers” had heard “some scientists” describe the climate risks from agriculture’s pollution.
“Boy, have we heard that this morning,” he said scoffingly. “But there is still a legitimate debate, despite what we have heard, about the magnitude of those changes, their significance and the relative contribution of natural versus human causes including agricultural production.”
The group lent the power of its 6 million members to the cause of the Global Climate Coalition, a pan-industry group founded by the oil lobby to oppose the Kyoto Protocol.
“The Farm Bureau has a grassroots network that was immensely valuable,” recalled Frank Maisano, a former spokesman for the coalition.
The Farm Bureau also dispatched two of its staff economists to work as fellows at the conservative Heartland Institute, honing a message that meeting Kyoto’s goals would cut farm incomes sharply, and that carbon trading, which treaty supporters said presented a golden opportunity for farmers, would not work.
One paper, published in 2003, was prepared by the Farm Bureau’s economists along with others from Heartland and the Hudson Institute, another policy center that disputes the mainstream consensus on climate science. It called state or federal regulation of greenhouse gases “unnecessary, enormously expensive, and particularly injurious to the agricultural community.”
Other government and private economists called the Farm Bureau’s economic analysis flawed. They produced evidence that carbon trading, by rewarding climate-friendly farming practices, would offset much of the costs to agriculture.
But like the fossil fuel industry, the Farm Bureau emphasized uncertainties.
“There are so many unknowns and assumptions and estimates,” Stallman said in 2009 Senate testimony about cap-and-trade legislation. “No one can look you in the face and tell you with certainty what is going to happen.”
Pollsters and academics have described farmers as a fertile audience for the denial message.
Many farmers say they are unsure whether the changes they are witnessing are just natural variability, are not convinced that industrial and agricultural emissions are the main cause, and think they will be able to adapt to anything coming their way.
In polls and focus groups, researchers found that farmers’ climate views are broadly out of step with the mainstream scientific consensus. Some noted the Farm Bureau’s influence. On such a fraught topic, peer pressure may be more compelling than peer review.
“When it comes to making decisions, we don’t think about climate by itself,” one farmer told researchers. “We just, we learn from where we’ve been, and we change and modify to take some of those risks away.”
False Sense of Security: The Problem with Crop Insurance
“Farmers believe they will be saved by technology and crop insurance,” said Joe Glauber, formerly the chief economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The most costly piece of the government’s support for farming, the Department of Agriculture’s crop insurance program, pays out billions of dollars a year when crop prices drop or weather damages harvests. Taxpayers subsidize more than 60 percent of the premiums, cover the administrative costs of the program and reinsure the private insurance industry’s losses. The program has cost the government an average of $9 billion annually over the past five years.
Farmers and their lobbyists often say that without it, many farms would go out of business. But the program also powerfully influences how they run their farms.
Insurance doesn’t just insulate farmers from the direct risks of droughts, floods and other weather extremes. The safety net also discourages farmers from adopting the very methods that would contribute to bringing climate change under control over the long term. So this subsidized insurance program actually increases their exposure to climate-driven risk.
Crop insurance stimulates farmers to plant on marginal land — land that’s more prone to erosion, more environmentally sensitive and less productive — because they know they can recoup their losses even if yields are lower.
“We’ve created this monster with crop insurance,” said Seth Watkins, a farmer from southwest Iowa. “You can farm land that shouldn’t be farmed.”
Climate change turns this subsidy of risky behavior into a vicious circle. It brings more extreme weather, which destroys more crops. But unlike car insurance, which goes up after accidents, crop failures don’t drive insurance premiums.
“You’re not getting the full view of what the risk is,” said Claire O’Connor, who researches crop insurance for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The question becomes: Is that really the best use of the farm safety net? Or should we be encouraging farmers to think about how they can adapt their production systems to the realities of a changing climate?”
During the last cycle of negotiations over the Farm Bill, in 2014, lawmakers tucked a conservation trade-off into the legislation: In exchange for subsidized insurance, farmers had to implement conservation plans that limit erosion on wetlands and highly erodible soils.
The Farm Bureau opposed even that modest agreement. Its inclusion was a rare defeat, but critics say it was substantially watered down. (Congress is now bogged down in negotiations over a new Farm Bill.)
“I wouldn’t begrudge some kind of safety net,” said Ristino, the former Agriculture Department lawyer. “But with this ritual of American policy, it’s become an expectation.”
Locked In: Focusing Heavily on Today Creates Problems for the Future
Crop insurance policies also favor larger farms, the kind that tend to grow just one or two crops per season.
That’s because it’s easier to get insurance at better rates for the big four crops — corn, soy, wheat and cotton. Those account for more than 70 percent of the acreage covered by crop insurance. They also take the lion’s share of the insurance subsidies.
These crops now define the American midsection, a vast monotonous sweep of corn, soy and livestock raised in factory-like barns and feedlots. It’s a landscape created by the relentless pursuit of a simplified, consolidated form of agriculture that focuses on producing just a few commodities.
Climate-friendly agriculture is rare in this corn-soy-livestock paradigm, because larger farms operate on thin margins and soil-building practices can put a dent in short-term profits.
“Farmers are absolutely financial in their behaviors, and for the most part, a lot of these practices, with regard to carbon and the climate, are costs to them,” explained Mark Rasmussen, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. “The cost is now, and the payback is in the future. And for any farmer, the future doesn’t matter if you go bankrupt today.”
This doesn’t have to be the outcome.
In a new financial analysis commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund, auditors inspected the books of several farms that had embraced climate-friendly farming and found that these practices could lower costs and boost yields. “Crop insurers, lenders, landowners and others largely ignore the financial value of conservation,” it found.
“There are courageous independent spirits who can do something outside the structure, outside the Farm Bureau,” said Bobby King, a director at the Minneapolis-based Land Stewardship Project. “But we need to change the structure.”
Tom Driscoll, the conservation policy director of the National Farmers Union, said the answer lies partly in encouraging smaller, more diverse farms. The union, not nearly as big as the Farm Bureau, has many of these farmers as members and has long been more supportive of climate action.
“We need different size farms, doing different things,” he said.
Instead, the size of American farms has ballooned, and production has become concentrated in the hands of fewer, wealthier farmers. In 2015, more than half of the dollar value of all agricultural output came from farms with over $1 million in sales.
This consolidation has boosted the profits of the big equipment, seed and fertilizer industries. But it has effectively turned American soil into a government-supported money-making machine, mined for profit and neglected as a climate resource.
“Consolidation doesn’t allow farmers to make the best ecological choices,” said Mary Hendrickson, a professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri, who has studied consolidation in agriculture. “They’re forced into corn and soy.”
Increasingly, many farmers view themselves as victims of an industry that gives them few choices over what to grow and how.
“Everyone’s in cahoots to produce corn and beans,” said John Wepking, a farmer in Wisconsin who grows a variety of grains. “It’s tunnel vision, and there’s so much money in it, it’s hard to change lanes,” he said. “We need programs to grow carbon.”
Top image credit: Paul Horn/InsideClimate News