Tuesday, January 6, 2009

New cash crop for farmers could be carbon trade

From: www.fredericknewspost.com
Published January 5, 2009 08:43 AM (ENN)

Carbon emissions are increasingly at the forefront of policy issues, and experts say agricultural practices could play a role in decreasing emissions while providing farmers with a new cash crop.

"You can't go to a newsstand today without seeing major publications with sustainability, climate change or energy on the cover," said Jim Mulhern, a founding partner of Watson/Mulhern and veteran policy strategist and communicator with 20 years experience in Washington public policy issues.

Mulhern addressed the role of agriculture in sustainability, climate change and energy at a joint meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association and Pennsylvania Dairy Promotion Program.

Sustainability is both an environmental issue and an energy issue. Farmers must be able to provide consumers with the nutritious food they want in a way that makes the industry, people and the earth better off economically, environmentally and socially now and for future generations, Mulhern said.

Productivity will also remain important due to increasing population. Growing populations in China and India have a growing appetite for a Western diet.

In addition to remaining sustainable while meeting productivity challenges, agriculture will also have a growing role in decreasing carbon emissions.

There are several approaches to decreasing companies' carbon emissions, Mulhern said. Companies could be simply required to decrease them, or a tax mechanism put in place to discourage carbon emissions. These options may lead to costs being passed to consumers.

The last option, called cap and trade, is to implement a cap while at the same time giving companies flexibility on how to decrease emissions.

"We're going to see cap and trade," Mulhern said, but probably not in the near future. He estimates cap and trade will be in place by 2010.

This option allows companies to take steps themselves or purchase credits from another party. Agriculture could be in a good position to sell carbon credits.

Both presidential candidates supported cap and trade, which is a green job creator.

President-elect Barack Obama's choice for agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, wrote in an op-ed column that carbon credits can be sold by farmers in the same way they sell soybeans or hogs, Mulhern said.

According to Vilsack, carbon trading will allow diversification of family farms and generate a revenue stream and new cash crop that will save farms.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently formed an Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets to promote ecosystem markets.

According to USDA, agriculture producers provide many ecosystem services historically viewed as free benefits to society, including clean water and air, wildlife habitat, carbon storage and scenic landscapes. Lacking a formal structure to market these services, farmers, ranchers and forest landowners are not generally compensated for providing these benefits.

Agriculture can offer several practices for offsetting carbon emissions, Mulhern said, including the following:

n No- or low-till planting;

n Cover crops, tree plantings and conservation practices; and

n Methane capture from dairy manure.

"Dairy is the low-hanging fruit," Mulhern said. "We're sitting on a valuable product."

The dairy industry has already taken steps to decrease carbon emissions at each stage in the production chain from grass to glass, he added.

The industry held a sustainability summit last year. Participants identified quick changes that can be done now as well as changes that can be made to systems, such as whether cold pasteurization of milk, which would decrease energy needs, is possible.

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