As more extreme droughts and floods and other climate effects threaten food production and the survival of rural communities, there’s a debate about whether sustainable agriculture can be achieved through new federal policies or shifting markets.
Agriculture is both hard hit by climate change and a contributor: around 8 percent of direct greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. It’s largely from synthetic fertilizers, concentrated manure storage and cow burps, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Jeff Schahczenski, an economist with the National Center for Appropriate Technology based in Butte, Montana says new federal policies could help make agriculture climate-neutral. That means the industry wouldn’t release any more greenhouse gas emissions than it takes in.
“Agriculture is poised, I think, to be a solution. It can do a lot to help mitigate the future and at the same time, create robust and viable rural communities,” Schahszenski said.
Schahczenski is the principal author of a new report with about 30 federal policy recommendations. They range from incentives to increase carbon sequestration in the soil to decentives for using synthetic fertilizers and feedlots.
But other economists say the companies buying products often have a bigger impact on how farmers and ranchers grow or raise food than a government agency with a new policy.
Anton Bekkerman is an associate professor of economics at Montana State University and the Associate Director of the Montana Ag Experiment Station.
“If Miller Coors says, ‘Look, we’re only going to buy barley, for example, from producers who manage their operations in a way that we feel as a company will align with how we want to go into the future, producers are much more likely to respond to those incentives,” Bekkerman said.
That’s because if they don’t, the barley farmers may not get a contract next year. He says changes on the demand side of the food supply chain can also happen a lot faster than implementing policies.
Bekkerman says the report is useful in laying out a lot of the research that looks at the relationship between agriculture and climate. But many of the recommendations assume “if you build it, they will come.”
“What I didn’t see in the report is anything that mentions research or assessment of behaviors and adoption behaviors. So yes, we can certainly set a higher threshold for carbon sequestration than the international recommendation,” Bekkerman said.
But he says, that doesn’t mean farmers and ranchers will go for it.
Vince Smith, a professor of economics at MSU and the director of agricultural studies at the American Enterprise Institute in D.C., says that’s where federal crop insurance policy comes in. He says it encourages producers to take big risks, rather than learn how to adapt.
He says taxpayer money used to subsidize crop insurance could be better spent on research and development to create more sustainable food systems.
“If you took the $2.5 billion that currently we as taxpayers give effectively to the crop insurance companies, you’d almost double the USDA total budget for funding research at land grants, at USDA institutions, at other research institutions,” Smith said.
Jeff Schahczenski, one of the report’s authors, says federal crop insurance should be reformed but not reduced. He’s an advocate of Whole Farm Revenue Protection, one of the policy recommendations in the report. It provides insurance for the income generated by a farm rather than a specific commodity and is intended to support more diversity in crop and livestock production.
“People could argue about whether we should be doing any of this, subsidizing any of the crop insurance of farmers, but agriculture is special. Food is important. It’s certainly important for the economy of Montana. We want to see people keep farming. We want to see rural communities survive,” Schahczenski said.
The report was submitted to every member in Congress, including the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.
It updates a report from 2009. None of the policies promoted there were adopted outright.
Schahczenski says the new report will play a role in the drafting of several bills about climate change that are expected to be introduced in Congress early next year.