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Kansas farmers would gain from cap-and-trade

  • Published Sunday, Nov. 8, 2009, at 12:07 a.m.

Throughout history, America's farmers and ranchers have embraced the opportunities presented by science to improve productivity and make our country the breadbasket of the world. Today, rural America has the opportunity to once again embrace science and lead efforts to build a clean-energy economy, achieve energy independence, and combat global climate change.

The community of Greensburg is doing just that with support from the Obama administration. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced a $17.4 million loan to help build 10 wind turbines near Greensburg that will supply renewable energy, create green jobs and support the local economy. Greensburg stands out as an example of the promise and potential for farming and ranching communities across rural America to embrace the clean-energy economy.

I know America's farmers are concerned about how climate-change legislation will impact their bottom line. That's why we had top economists at USDA prepare an analysis of the costs and benefits to American agriculture. The centerpiece of the legislation is the creation of a market that will offer opportunities for nonpolluting sectors, such as agriculture, to sell offsets to industries that emit greenhouse gases.

USDA's economists found that the opportunities for farmers and ranchers in a cap-and-trade program will outweigh the potential costs. While a Northern Plains wheat producer might see an increase of 80 cents per acre in costs of production by 2020 due to higher fuel prices, the same farmer could earn an additional $6.40 per acre in offsets by adopting no-till practices. And it's quite possible that he could do even better as we develop science that will increase the production of homegrown energy and he sells his wheat straw to make cellulosic ethanol.

Even under conservative assumptions, the benefits to American agriculture will keep pace with the costs during the initial years of the program. Over the long term, the benefits will far outweigh costs, growing to almost $15 billion to $20 billion in 2040-50. At that rate, agricultural offsets could be worth more than 5 percent of today's total agricultural sales.

To be sure, not every farmer will be affected in the same way by the climate-change legislation. But USDA, as a partner and advocate for farmers and ranchers, will help smooth the transition. Our conservation programs will assist landowners in adopting new technologies and stewardship practices that will be critical to a successful offsets market.

Climate-change legislation is a win for everyone. For American agriculture, the income benefits will outweigh costs, particularly over the long term. For rural Americans, it will help create new economic opportunities and green-energy jobs. For the American people, we will cut our dependency on foreign oil and combat the effects of global climate change.

Once again, America's farmers, ranchers and rural communities will embrace science and new opportunities to help lead the way for the rest of the nation and the world. Our economic and environmental future depends on it.

Tom Vilsack is U.S. agriculture secretary.

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