February 6, 2009

Back Door Reform

In the waning days of the Bush administration, the USDA created the Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets and named the number two person at the Forest Service, Sally Collins, as head of the new office - a position she has retained. They didn't do it out of the goodness of their hearts, of course - its creation was mandated by the 2008 Farm Bill. As then USDA chief Ed Schafer described it in a December press release:
Our Nation's farms, ranches and forests provide goods and services that are vital to society - natural assets we call "ecosystem services..." The Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets will enable America's agriculture producers to better compete, trade their services around the world, and make significant contributions to help improve the environment.
To me this smacks a bit too much of the right's steamy love affair with cost-benefit analysis and its attempt to put a dollar value on every public good. That said, coming from a group that typically looks at a tree and sees the wrong kind of green, I guess it represents progress. The press release seems downright resentful that landowners whose properties provide "clean water and air, wildlife habitat, carbon storage, and scenic landscapes... are not generally compensated for providing these critical public benefits." Poor, unappreciated landed gentry. I guess we're all bleeding-hearts now.

Sadly, no matter how desperately you may want to discover the dollar value of bison habitat, the OESM (or however you shorten that mouthful of a name) will instead start its work with carbon sequestration, which is probably a good thing. As the Christian Science Monitor explains:
the focus is on cataloging land-use activities that trap carbon and developing an acceptable standard for measuring them. The first step is setting up verifiable national standards -- eco-bean counting for carbon sequestration as a 21st-century commodity crop.
Now, when you throw in various comments Tom Vilsack has made regarding the role of carbon sequestration in agriculture and forestry, one interpretation is that forests and farms will play a central role in an offset regime as part of an Obama administration cap-and-trade system. The idea, as I've explained before, is that companies would purchase the right to emit carbon by paying other companies to reduce their carbon emissions by an equivalent amount. Unfortunately, such programs really don't work. Offset regimes are easy to game and hard to measure. Europe's offset program has been an unmitigated disaster and is likely to be phased out within a few years. Why then are we laying the groundwork for our own?

It makes even less sense when you realize that Big Ag isn't exactly what scientists would call a "carbon sink" - rather it's responsible for a significant chunk of US carbon emissions. And all that nitrogen fertilizer running off those monocrop fields doesn't make the water any cleaner. And those livestock ranches? Don't get me started.

But I think Vilsack and Obama something quite different in mind. This isn't meant to be the next ethanol boondoggle. It's designed to be a big fat juicy carrot. Through this office, the USDA will officially take a position on ag sector greenhouse gas emissions. We're not just going to get a list of the good practices, we're going to get a list of the bad ones, too. The CSM article hints at where all this is leading:

The idea is to nurture food- and fiber-producing activities that are more climate-friendly. Over time, Collins says by phone from Washington, "Where we go from here will alter the discussion of how the country thinks about natural resources."

The program will be similar to payments farmers currently receive to rest their land in order to preserve the soil, restoration of wetlands along rivers by municipalities to promote water quality and flood control, and "biodiversity banks" in which landholders that affect habitat for endangered species are required to provide equal or greater amount of habitat elsewhere.

How's that for flipping the farm subsidy system on its head? The government will pay you to farm sustainably. Vilsack himself suggested as much in an interview in the Des Moines Register on the shrinking number of mid-size farms:
Increased payments to farmers for land-conservation measures should help keep smaller operations in business, and those farms also could get checks in the future for reducing carbon emissions, he said.
That would be downright radical. Its not a frontal assault on Big Ag - it is rather quite an elegant flanking maneuver. If you can start increasing the pot of subsidy money available for low-carbon farming, it strikes me as at least conceivable that you could start squeezing the old-school commodity crop subsidies without the same level of outrage (Collin Peterson notwithstanding) you might otherwise incite.

Tie all that in with a just-announced pilot project that will allow farmers who receive commodity crop subsidies to plant some of their acreage with vegetables (usually illegal) and you start to see the beginnings of where Vilsack might be headed. Giving commodity crop farmers a "way-out" of the subsidy system without having to go cold turkey combined with additional financial incentives to move toward sustainable farming? I'm now officially intrigued.

Photo by Ed Yourdon used under a CC license

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Blogger Frymaster Speck said...

I agree about compensating big landholders, but if the alternative is subdivision, it is, as you say, progress. Plus, I wouldn't give the GOP too much credit here. It was the Democratic majority after 2006 that pushed this kind of thing into legislation, right? The Bushies *had to* create the Office.

Here's a short film about urban food issues in the greater Providence region. It's for a ongoing independent visioning project run by our progressive think tank.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree about compensating big landholders

Blogger Unknown said...

**"They didn't do it out of the goodness of their hearts, of course - its creation was mandated by the 2008 Farm Bill."**
That's not true. Section 2709 of the 2008 farm bill (easily found online) directs the Secretary of Ag to establish guidelines for measuring environmental services benefits. The law doesn't say anything about creating a board or about creating OESM.

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