The Department of Agriculture (USDA) is seeking to advance President Barack Obama's climate-change agenda with the establishment of seven regional climate hubs -- none of which the nation's farmers are asking for.
The hubs will serve as regional centers that will give advice to farmers about which crops are best suited for a changing climate and how best to reduce their carbon footprint. But critics say the hubs add an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy, while farmers fear additional government intrusion into their private operations.
The USDA push for the climate hubs continues Obama's first term objectives and advances the "national climate action plan" he outlined in a major policy speech June 25 at Georgetown University.
"Farmers see crops wilted one year, washed away the next; and the higher food prices get passed on to you, the American consumer," Obama said as he listed problems he said stemmed from climate change.
Stymied by Congressional inaction in his first term, Obama is now directing federal agencies to take actions that don't require approval from Congress. At Georgetown, Obama said he directed the Environmental Protection Agency to enact new pollution standards for power plants and the Department of the Interior to open up public lands to permit renewable energy projects.
The USDA is doing its part to further the president's goal, saying the climate hubs will "provide accessible regional data and interpret climate-change forecasts for hazard and adaptation planning."
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said on June 5 "the hubs will enable us to carry out regionally appropriate climate-change risk … and get data out to the field more quickly. Practically, the hubs will deal out advice to farmers and forest owners on ways to reduce risks and manage change."
But critics wonder why the hubs are even needed.
"That is just symptomatic of the attitude in Washington -- that farmers and ranchers … are too stupid to maximize their efficiency is something that really boggles the mind," Patrick J. Michaels, director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute, told Newsmax.
"If it gets hot and dry, corn culture will switch to sorghum culture. And the amount of protein and carbohydrate in sorghum is almost exactly the same in amount and quality as it is in corn. They don't need the USDA to tell them that," Michaels said.
Michaels said there are already federal services that gather such information.
"That's what the agricultural extension service is for," Michaels said. "Why are we having to put another layer of bureaucracy in this? You call up Virginia Tech if you're in Virginia, and say, 'Hey, I've got a little issue here,' and somebody will get you to the right person."
Bill Hohenstein, director of USDA's Climate Change Program in the Office of the Chief Economist, dismissed many of the concerns raised about the climate hubs.
"In fact, we're not trying to create a new layer of bureaucracy," Hohenstein said. "What we're trying to do is utilize the existing infrastructure," including the agriculture extensions, the land-grand universities, state conservation offices, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and Farm Service Administration field offices.
Hohenstein said additional expertise about climate change was needed by federal officials dealing with the agricultural sector.
"The experts in the field don't know a lot about climate change. They don't know what type of advice to give farmers in terms of how to manage to reduce risks from climate change," Hohenstein said.
Hohenstein noted there were benefits to global warming for agriculture, including longer growing seasons, some regions of the country getting more moisture, and new cropping opportunities for some areas.
"The interesting thing about how climate change plays out in agriculture, it's not simply negative consequences, it's looking at everything in balance," he said. While CO2 is a greenhouse gas, "it's also essential to plant growth, and higher CO2 … can cause increases in productivity."
However, farmers are skeptical about the climate-change program and need more information about the hubs.
"Agricultural resources and the tools are important, but does USDA need a climate hub, I don't know," said Andrew Walmsley, director of Congressional relations with the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington, D.C., told Newsmax. "There hasn't been clear explanation to our members on exactly how these hubs are going to operate and what is the need for them."
USDA closed "an internal competition" to determine which facilities would hold the hubs on August 21, and the will announce its selections in mid-to-late October, Hohenstein said. "They will all be at existing locations," he added.
Part of the USDA's efforts includes its online Carbon Management and Evaluation Tool (COMET-Farm) which, according to Vilsack, will "help farmers understand the greenhouse gas footprints of their operations."
With COMET-Farm, producers "will input information about their land and current and past management practices to establish a baseline. The tool will let them select from a list of alternative conservation practices to see how each one changes their greenhouse gas emissions and carbon capture," he said.
COMET-Farm can help producers and "serve as a gateway for future efforts to help producers participate in voluntary carbon markets," Vilsack said.
Many agricultural producers are wary of government intrusions into their operations, fearing that what at first may be offered as unasked for help could turn into something more.
The Farm Bureau Federation is "opposed to regulatory-type stuff, cap-and-trade, carbon tax," Walmsley said. "I think there's definitely concerns, too, when you look at the document USDA released last week on looking at a carbon footprint of a farm or your emissions."
"I think there's a concern from our folks that we're not being regulated now, but USDA is … putting these pieces together. Who knows where we'll be in the future?" Walmsley said. "If we're getting down to a farm-level emission-type, how can that possibly be used against us?"
Walmsley said, "We don't necessarily want any more government, we don't want folks telling us how to farm, and any more intrusion. That's the double-edged sword, and I think that's where some of the concern might be going forward, especially with some of this carbon-calculator and on-farm-type level of analysis."
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