Don’t Fear the Reaper

Climate change legislation may sound concerning, but farmers could benefit
| December 02, 2010

While cap-and-trade legislation may seem ghostly white, it is definitely not dead. A new study has emerged from the University of Tennessee’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, and with it, the ghost of the now-seemingly defunct climate change legislation. The good news is the study’s findings are nothing close to scary. Titled “Evaluating Possible Cap and Trade Legislation on Cellulosic Feedstock Availability,” the study looked at the possibility of linking climate change legislation with the policy goals of the renewable fuel standard. “We wanted to make a model of how the two would interact,” says Chad Hellwinckel, a UT assistant professor and coauthor of the study.

The team from UT ran a series of tests in an economic modeler and calculator for a wide range of possible payment plans including biomass crop practices, no-till practices and one for the two together to find the most valuable carbon reduction methods that could eventually receive funding. “What we knew beforehand was that biomass policy is by far more of a benefit to agriculture then climate change policy,” he says. But, if done right, climate change policy can also be a good thing for agriculture.    “We found the best policy was one that restricted residue removal to the carbon neutral level and paid incentives to no-till practices and biomass crops for their carbon sequestration values,” he says. While the reaffirmation that biomass crop practices are a benefit to the atmosphere, Hellwinckel says that farmers who have gained a revenue stream through the practice of residue removal don’t need to be scared. “By restricting residue removal,” he says, “it shifted the burden of meeting the biomass policies onto dedicated energy crops like switchgrass, and that acted to increase land use competition and increase all crops across the board by about 6 percent.”

Unfortunately, as Hellwinckel points out, there is not going to be a climate bill in the next few years, so any impact this study might have in shaping a biomass and crop residue policy that could ultimately benefit agriculture, isn’t going to happen. But, even a never-was piece of legislation apparently can create a positive, and this study might have revealed why. Will climate change legislation happen this year, next year or anytime soon? It’s not expected, but if or when it does, there’s no reason to fear that specter hovering about, at least if we listen to Hellwinckel. “The big take home message from our study,” he says, “is that it (climate change legislation) can be a big benefit to agriculture.” 

—Luke Geiver