December 15, 2009 / 7:35 PM / 10 years ago

Tom Vilsack says USDA climate report outdated

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack downplayed his own department’s analysis of U.S. climate legislation on Tuesday, saying “more current” studies do not foresee carbon-capturing trees taking over millions of acres of farmland.

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama (L) listens to former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, his nominee for secretary of agriculture, during a news conference in Chicago December 17, 2008. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes

Up to 59 million acres of pasture and cropland could be converted to woodland by 2050 under a cap-and-trade system, according to the Agriculture Department analysis. Trees, to control greenhouse gases, would be more lucrative than crops.

If farmland shifts to trees, there would be smaller output of crops and livestock. Critics such as Nebraska Senator Mike Johanns say climate legislation means higher energy and feed prices “will likely drive many producers out of business.”

“I think there are other models that are more current and complete, that might lead to significantly, and will be significantly, different conclusions,” said Vilsack when asked about the USDA study. “We think there can be improvements to the modeling that was used in the past.”

The USDA analysis was based on material from the Environmental Protection Agency.

As an example, Vilsack pointed to a Nov 11 report by a University of Tennessee think tank that bioenergy crops could blossom under a cap-and-trade system and would not shift cropland to forests.

Agricultural economist Bruce McCarl of Texas A&M told a House Agriculture subcommittee on Dec 3 that if carbon offsets are not widely available, “the market would likely be restricted to increased demand for biofuel and bioelectricity feedstocks.”

USDA concluded 85 percent of the revenue from agricultural offsets for greenhouse gas emissions would arise from afforestation of pasture and cropland, if contracts paid at least $10 per ton of carbon that is captured.

The forestry offsets would be worth $3 billion a year, USDA estimated, while higher crop and livestock prices, due to less farmland, would add an average $20 billion a year to farm income.

There are 920 million acres of land in U.S. farms, with 325 million acres planted to field crops. The USDA analysis said at low carbon prices, tree-planting would occur mostly on pastureland. As prices rise, cropland would account for half, or more of the conversions.

Reporting by Charles Abbott

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