Experts: Ag climate change policies important, but impacts still uncertain
During a three and a half hour conference at the American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday, two panels of agricultural experts said climate change is important to agriculture because it has reduced yields, but it is unclear yet whether the current policies will achieve the goals of governments to hold back temperature increases, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and assure food security.
On a first global panel, Mark Rosegrant, a research fellow emeritus at the International Food Policy Research Institute, said that rising temperatures have reduced yields, but the impact has been greater in tropical areas than in temperate climates and wheat yields have actually risen in higher latitude areas.
David Zilberman, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said he is more worried that climate change will lead to migration than he is worried about the food supply.
“Humans are bad at dealing with migration,” he said, also noting that the impact varies from place to place.
The Paris Agreement to address climate change “looks nice but there is not a lot of action,” Zilberman said.
Agriculture can play a huge role in solving climate change and there are opportunities for agriculture in climate change, but agriculture’s role depends on “the bioeconomy,” he said.
The old bioeconomy, Zilberman said, was based on fermentation, while the new bioeconomy is based on molecular biology and information technology.
While the European Union has established the “Farm to Fork” policy, which is based on reducing some inputs, the United States has a policy of “food plus” based on technology, he said. The U.S. policy will work only if regulators allow the use of new technology, he added.
If new discoveries such as CRISPR, a technology that can be used to edit genes, are not used, productivity won’t rise much, he said.
The cost of approval for new technologies is too high and the cost keeps small companies from entering or staying in the field, he said.
Zilberman also said that the CGIAR global system of agricultural research institutions based in Montpellier, France, “needs tough love” because it is run by donors for whom political preference, not science, prevails.
Justus Wesseler, a professor and head of the Agricultural Economics and Rural Policy Group at Wageningen University & Research and Research Institution, said the EU Farm to Fork policy may benefit farmers because productivity will go down and food prices will rise.
The policy will be a “loser” for consumers, Wesseler said. In an interview he noted that the analysis is based on food prices rising and said that economists have not figured out how to incorporate other values into analyses of the impact on consumers.
The impact of Farm to Fork on climate change is “questionable,” he said.
On a second panel, William Hohenstein, the director of the Office of Energy and Environmental Policy in the USDA Office of the Chief Economist, gave a detailed slide presentation on the Biden administration‘s climate-smart program.
Hohenstein noted that agriculture’s percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the economy has risen from 6% to 10% because the energy and electricity sectors have reduced their emissions while agriculture has not. U.S. agricultural emissions come mostly from fertilizer and manure, he said.
The biggest opportunity to reduce emissions quickly, Hohenstein said, is manure management.
Will Martin, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, noted that there an has been a large-scale increase in food productivity in the last 60 years, but that recently productivity has been slowing down and there is more volatility.
Martin made a detailed presentation on farm subsidies country by country, noting that China is now by far the largest provider of support.
While many scholars have criticized subsidies that address commodity prices, Martin said shifting subsidies around won’t have much of an impact unless “green innovations are introduced.”
Barry Goodwin, a professor at North Carolina State University and an AEI nonresident fellow, asked “Is climate-smart agriculture really that smart?”
Goodwin said more detailed research is needed, and pointed out that crops today do not resemble those that existed 50 years ago, which he said casts doubt on output projections over the next 50 years.
Deborah Atwood, executive director of AGree, a Washington-based research institution, said that no matter what the scholars say “we are not going to get rid of all these subsidies.”
Instead, she said, it is important to work on changes within farm programs that will address climate change.
The farm bill debate in 2023 will be regional, she said, and if the budget is no larger than at the present time, the question will be how climate change can be addressed.
AGree, she noted, has brought together all kinds of stakeholders and focused on data collection, crop insurance and banking and finance.
Atwood asked whether water quality practices should influence whether a farm gets a loan.
Scott Faber, the senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, noted that agriculture is the only sector in the U.S. with increasing emissions.
Too much conservation spending goes to address problems in animal agriculture, while animal protein should be replaced with plant-based protein, he said.
“We all have to change what we feed ourselves,” Faber said.
The panels were organized and moderated by Vincent Smith and Eric Belasco, who are both professors at Montana State University. Smith is director of agricultural policy studies at AEI while Belasco is a nonresident fellow.
Smith, Belasco and the panelists agreed that investments in policy research and technological development will be crucial for addressing the climate impact of agriculture and ensuring food security into the future.
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