To date, there have been plenty of opinions floating around regarding the political climate in the nation’s capital going into 2010. But perhaps no one has summed it up better then Dr. Barry Flinchbaugh, professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University.
“What can we expect from Washington in 2010? Who the hell knows,” said Flinchbaugh, speaking at the 2009 Mid America CropLife Association (MACA) annual meeting in St. Louis.
Looking at agriculture itself, Flinchbaugh discussed several trends that could impact the marketplace in the coming year. First is the issue of climate change. According to studies, Flinchbaugh said agriculture is responsible for emitting between 6% and 7% of greenhouse gases. Yet, when surveyed by their trade associations, 70% of the nation’s growers said they believed climate change was a hoax perpetrated by the environmental movement.
“Agriculture will not beat climate change,” he warned. “There’s an old adage in the political world: You can get into the tent and spit out or stand outside the tent and spit in. If you do that, you will get spit on. We’ve got to get into this tent and help develop this legislation.”
But, he added, agriculture may have found a friend in the White House — or at least someone who understands the marketplace. “In a recent speech, President Barack Obama said the following: ‘Small farms, the niche marketers, and the organic producers can feed the community and those who want to buy local, but only the large commercial farmer can feed the world, and a well-fed world will not be a terrorist world,’” said Flinchbaugh. “That’s coming from a man whose wife has planted an organic garden. He gets it.”
According to another MACA speaker, Dr. Stephen Johnson, former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, the nation has never seen a year like 2009. “We are living in extraordinary times,” said Johnson. “We are at war; there are terrorists out there that vow it is their mission to harm us; we have the worst economical crisis since the Great Depression; the nation’s deficit is $9 trillion; unemployment is at double-digits, and we are bailing out the nation’s banks and automakers. The issues are overwhelming, and their ultimate resolution will affect every single one of us.”
In this kind of unstable environment, Johnson said it was crucial for the agricultural community to not sit on the sidelines and wait for the major issues to settle out on their own. “To achieve the best outcome for all of us, we have to be informed and be involved,” he said. “You should identify those opportunities you have to be a solution to the issue at hand and pursue those aggressively.”
Taking the political temperature in Washington, Johnson said there are a few areas that agriculture will want to keep an eye on in the coming months. The first of these is air quality.
“The Obama administration has made a commitment to climate change through cap and trade,” said Johnson. “In my judgment, I do believe greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane are a problem. How we address these without negatively impacting our economy, energy, security, and businesses is the question.”
Under the current air quality rules, regulation of these greenhouse gases would fall under the Clean Air Act. Unfortunately, as it is written, this would regulate all sources of greenhouse gases, which would require significant capital investment on the part of any industry covered by the act.
“The only way for agriculture not to be subject to regulation — and ridiculous regulation — is if you all help to get legislation that makes sense passed,” said Johnson. “Make sure you are taking part in the legislative process.”
The next issue to watch is water quality. As droughts become more common, particularly in the Western states, the federal and state governments will become increasingly protective of water use and quality. At present, agriculture is listed as the fifth leading cause of Total Maximum Daily Loads in the nation’s bodies of water.
“In general, homeowners and agriculture are the biggest users of water in this country,” said Johnson. “If you are a member of the legislature and you are taking up this cause, do you think you will want to go after homeowners or agriculture with your legislation? Get ready.”