If there's one thing those of us in agriculture wish we could control, it's the weather. So when talk turns to the issue of climate change, we listen.
Unfortunately, right now we don't like what we're hearing or seeing, especially after the United Nations met in Kyoto, Japan from Dec. 1 through 10 to sign an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which some but not all experts say are causing global climate change.
In the last decade or so, there's been considerable debate about whether or not greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane) are contributing to increases in average global temperatures and adverse changes in the world's climate. There's considerable evidence on both sides of the question and many different views about what to do about the problem, if indeed it exists.
World leaders have been grappling with this scientific debate for years. In 1992, the U.S. and other nations signed the Rio Treaty that called for voluntary, non-binding measures to limit greenhouse gases. However, last year negotiators changed course and embraced "legally enforceable, binding targets" for greenhouse-gas reductions.
Many nations, including the United States, have submitted proposals that spell out timetables for reducing emissions. Some, such as the European Union's, are more stringent than others.
All of the proposals debated at Kyoto were unacceptable. They all would have a dramatic effect on agricultural practices and productivity, hampering one of our most competitive industries.
All of the proposals would mean new laws and regulations. For farmers, those could take the form of new taxes on fertilizer, limitations on production per acre for some crops, requirements for plowless soil preparation, mandatory fallowing of cropland, limits and restrictions on livestock production, restrictions on timber harvesting, and restrictions on the processing, manufacturing and transportation of food products.
Higher taxes, more regulations and red tape translate into higher food prices for all Americans, and economic troubles for food producers. It's not hard to imagine how such a proposal, imposed throughout the economy, could cost our nation billions of dollars in reduced production and services.
To reach the emissions goals of most treaty proposals, the United States would have to adopt a 25-cent to 50-cent hike in the price of a gallon of gasoline, according to most analysts.
In my industry, this would have a devastating effect. Farmers use a tremendous amount of petroleum and petroleum-derived products to produce the nation's food supply. As a result, production costs would soar.
Economists in my organization estimate that a run-up in fuel prices would slash farm income nationwide by 24 percent to 50 percent, depending on the price increase.
Impacts would vary by commodity. For corn growers, production costs would rise 15 percent to 31 percent, depending on the increase in fuel prices. Their returns, or net profits, would plunge 23 percent to 51 percent. Dairy farmers would see less of an increase in production costs 4 percent to 7 percent but their returns would be sliced by 26 percent to 53 percent.
Another recent study, by Sparks Cos., a Memphis-based agricultural consulting firm, painted a similarly bleak picture. Sparks estimates that production-cost jumps and increased costs to others along the food handling and distribution chain will drive up consumer prices for food by nearly 3 percent, doubling the recent inflation trend.
That increase is expected to hurt most the more than one-third of U.S. households that make less than $20,000 per year. Other Americans would be forced onto public feeding rolls by the higher costs associated with the treaty, which would put an additional 700,000 of our citizens in food stamp and child nutrition programs at a cost of $2.1 billion per year.
According to Sparks, the costs imposed on agriculture by a treaty would also mean a drop in farm exports, smaller farmers going out of business and possibly more government aid for farmers to counteract the economic hardships that would result.
American agriculture is an unqualified success story and the envy of the world. Our citizens should loudly question any proposal such as the climate-change treaty that would undermine that success. There are lots of questions from all quarters whether a climate-change treaty will actually help the environment. There's no doubt, however, that it will hurt our economy.
Dean Kleckner is president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.
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