Vilsack: Agriculture unfairly blamed for climate change

Source: Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register • Posted: Wednesday, April 23, 2014


U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said today that agriculture tends to take the brunt of criticism about climate change, but the industry contributes only 9 percent of the greenhouse gases blamed for a warming planet.

“Everyone assumes what’s happening globally is happening nationally,” said Vilsack, a keynote speaker at Drake University forum on climate change. “Clearly, there are challenges globally in terms of agriculture and its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. That’s not necessarily the case in the United States.”

By comparison, farming contributes a smaller percentage that other industries, said Jeffrey Ball, an energy policy columnist at The New Republic, interviewed Vilsack.

The New Republic, along with Drake, hosted the forum, and the League of Women Voters, sponsored the event. About 160 people attended.

For example, transportation contributes 28 percent of the nation’s greenhouse emissions, public utilities, 32 percent, and other industries, 20 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Still, Vilsack said the nation is confronting several environmental farm issues, including severe drought and dwindling water access in some areas.

“Our challenge is to educate farmers about the vulnerability of agriculture,” when it comes to climate change, he said. “We’ve seen temperatures increase since 1970 accelerate at three times the rate prior.

“So there are warning signs,” he said.

That’s one reason why the agency has created seven climate hubs across the country, including Ames, to look at the ramifications of climate change and what actions should be taken to mitigate them.

Ball pressed Vilsack on whether ethanol and other renewable fuels are an environmental benefit, referring to a University of Nebraska study released this week that says cellulosic ethanol creates 7 percent more greenhouse gases than use conventional gasoline.

“The study started with an assumption about the way corn stover would be removed from the land. The problem with the assumption is no farmer in the country would actually take that much crop residue,” he said.

“When you start with a faulty assumption, you end up with a faulty conclusion,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack said renewable fuels development is about more than reducing greenhouse gases. It’s also about reducing national dependence on foreign oil, reducing smog and other air emissions when blended with gasoline, and creating jobs in rural areas.

“The biofuels industry has been very craftily attacked by the petroleum industry,” Vilsack said. “It’s clear that the oil industry sees this as a threat.”

But Ball said increased access to domestic oil and gas has reduced the argument for improving national security and the nation’s dependency on foreign oil.

“Do you sense that there’s as much interest in biofuels as there was 10 years ago, when we were importing our oil from somewhere else” Ball asked.

Vilsack the industry has not cultivated the support it has in the Midwest in other areas.

“Are biofuels widely seen in this country as an answer to climate change or are they seen as an economic development tool,” he asked.

Vilsack said the motivating factor was not so much for the environment as much as the rural economy.

“To me it’s more about the economics than it is about the environment, but it needs to be done in an environmentally sound way,” he said, adding that plants are being built that are not only providing renewable fuel but generating excess energy for the grid.

“That’s got to be good,” he said.