On June 26th, the House of Representatives voted on the Waxman-Markey Bill to address climate change. It passed narrowly with 219 aye and 212 nay votes. The American Clean Energy Security Act (as it is otherwise known), sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Ed Markey (D-MA), aims to cut emissions below the 2005 level by 80% in 2050. The bill is enormous, and is divided up into four sections; Clean Energy, Energy Efficiency, Reducing Global Warming Pollution, and Transitioning to a Clean Energy Economy. You can read more about the details of bill here from Grist and here from the NRDC.
While the original bill made little to no mention of agriculture, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN) had urged representatives of big agriculture states to vote no on the bill unless changes that he favored were inserted. These changes included payment for certain carbon sequestration methods and definite exemption from the cap and trade limits, even though agriculture contributes between 18 to 20 percent of global warming gases - a higher level than transportation. As Tom Philpott of Grist reports (and he has reported very extensively on the bill), companies such as Monsanto, DuPont and Bayer have been working to create their own system of classifying these offsets, lending much suspicion to their credibility. They have also spent over $2 million lobbying around this bill.
Rep. Peterson was successful in pushing his agenda through. Sustainable Food News reported on June 29th that the climate bill will pay ranchers and farmers for carbon sequestration. It is undoubtedly true that farming does have the ability to curb carbon pollution. Reduction in nitrogen-rich fertilizers (which pollute water) may be eligible for offsets as well as switching animals to more natural feed such as grass which curbs methane production. Some of the other methods that the climate bill suggests are extremely suspect, however, an example being the Big Ag approach to pesticide and fertilizer-heavy "chemical no-till" farming.
In traditional farming, farmers till the soil to decrease weeds. They also add mulches, compost, and manure to help naturally fertilize and build organic matter in the soil. A 2008 Rodale study showed that a field using traditional organic farming had the potential to store up to 2000 lbs of carbon per annum. In some areas, too much tilling causes erosion, but institutes such as Rodale have been working on methods of organic no-till to prevent this problem.
"Chemical no-till", on the other hand, depends on heavy herbicide use, which can be extremely toxic to both humans and the land. Few claims have been made that "no-till" methods sequester carbon, but there are many peer-reviewed studies which refute this. "No-till" may even release more nitrous oxide from the soil, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon. Companies such as Monsanto produce vast amounts of herbicides used in "chemical no-till" such as their Round-up product, so the bill, in rewarding farmers for using these methods, is indirectly supporting their bottom line.
The Waxman-Markey Bill truly has its ups and downs. It is the first United States bill that takes a stance on dramatically reducing global warming emissions. It also includes some measures that reward organic farmers. On the other hand, the bill is a shadow of its former self. It has been heavily watered down by Rep. Peterson’s amendments and gives many recessions to industrial farmers who heavily impact pollution. The amendments have taken power from the EPA and concentrated it with the USDA, which in the past has been heavily influenced by Big Ag. How the bill is perceived in the Senate and beyond is yet to be seen. Many government decisions and non-governmental influences will effect how it plays out in the real world; one can only hope that it will affect some positive change.