This month, as farmers see many summer crops begin to ripen, a new round of negotiations on a treaty to control global warming is taking place in Bonn, Germany. In spite of allegations that such a treaty would harm American farm families, failing to address global warming will prove far worse. Negotiated in 1997 and each year since, the Kyoto Protocol is a framework, a work in progress by more than 165 countries struggling to equitably address the most pressing global environmental issue of today.
|Whats your opinion? With President George Bush winding up his second major European visit, and a United Nations convention on climate change underway in Bonn, Germany, the Kyoto protocol and global warming are being widely debated. What do you think about these issues? Tell us in a Voice of the Reader letter of 300 words or less. We will publish Gazette readers letters on global warming on Aug. 1. Letters may be mailed to Voice of the Reader, P.O. Box 36300, Billings, Mont. 59107; faxed to (406) 657-1208 or e-mail to email@example.com|
basic structure of the treaty — binding targets and timetables for industrialized countries to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions — was established in 1997, but the rules for implementation are not yet finished. The decision by the Bush administration to declare the treaty dead has been decried by our allies, bipartisan members of Congress, domestic and international scientists, environmentalists, and U.S. and multinational businesses.
Sadly, the world will suffer from this delay, but perhaps no other U.S. sector stands to suffer more than agriculture. As a business conducted largely outdoors, agriculture is dependent on the weather and vagaries of nature for success and — inevitably — potential failure. This dependence stands to be hit hard by global warming. International and U.S. scientists alike have declared, after decades of study, and with ever-greater certainty, that global warming is occurring, at a more rapid rate than previously predicted.
A United Nations panel of over 3,000 climate experts, and a separate U.S. panel at the National Academy of Sciences have concluded that human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, are a leading cause of global warming. The predicted effects of drought, wildfires, severe storms and flooding are occurring worldwide even now.
For agriculture, changes in regional weather and precipitation patterns can be devastating. While warming at some latitudes could increase yields for certain crops, overall stresses such as reduced water availability and soil moisture, drought, increased pestilence and disease due to warming, and severe weather events can impact or even wipe out yields. Drought-stricken fields are more susceptible to pests. Heavy precipitation, also predicted from global warming, causes significant soil erosion and nutrient and pesticide runoff, exacerbating the effects of warming and creating additional water quality issues. The impacts of weather variability and plant growing cycles make planning difficult for farmers, in addition to affecting yields and net income.
The good news? Agriculture can play a significant role in offsetting the damaging effects of global warming. Soils, crops, and trees have the ability to absorb carbon — the main global warming culprit — from the atmosphere. And agricultural biomass used for fuel and energy production reduces fossil fuel consumption, while also increasing rural and farm incomes. Soil carbon sequestration can not only help the U.S. reduce emissions of global warming pollutants, its actually good for agriculture. Priceless, in fact.
Soil carbon is what makes agricultural and prairie soils black, rich, and fertile. Soil carbon improves soil fertility and productivity, reduces erosion and runoff, and improves water retention. A market in soil carbon improves economic and environmental outcomes, and provides low-cost offsets for industrial sources of greenhouse pollutants.
One of the unfinished rules of the Kyoto Protocol would establish how much credit U.S. farmers can receive for forests, croplands, and prairie lands. But even short of that, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Congress are already considering the many benefits of promoting domestic policies to further this agenda. Industrialized countries are the focus of the Kyoto treaty simply becausethey have created the problem.
The U.S., for instance, with less than 5 percent of the worlds population, contributes nearly 25 percent of the global warming pollution. Yet the protocol envisions that developing countries will take on commitments once the industrialized world acts, and many of them have already taken far stronger steps to reduce global warming emissions than the U.S. Meanwhile, the impacts of global warming will fall heavily on the poorest countries, making them unable to purchase U.S. agricultural exports and creating a double whammy for American farmers.
But the risks of climate change to agriculture are real. The role of agriculture in helping to combat climate change is also real, however, and U.S. farmers need to realize that inattention to the problem is their worst enemy.Debbie A. Reed is legislative director for the National Environmental Trust (www.environet.org).