The View(s) From Farm Country: Numerous Ag Issues Go Under-Reported

Impacts. Mitigation. Adaptation. Politics. Economics. Food security. Public health.

Those are just some of the key elements that mix together in the broad region where concerns about climate change and agriculture intersect. It’s an area with ample, and untapped, opportunities for news reporting and analysis.

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‘Cow Tax’ — a trumped-up issue?
Photo Credit: Sue Roedder, Contemporary Realist Painter, Berks County, PA.

Consider a few of the developments of recent months that prompted coverage regarding regulation, legislation, and research:

  • The farm lobby successfully planted the idea that rules to limit global warming could entail a “cow tax.”
  • Among other concessions, the Waxman-Markey bill that narrowly passed the House in June would exempt agriculture and forestry from its carbon caps.
  • Questions have persisted about whether farm interests might kill the bill in the Senate.
  • In early September, new Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas warned that passing a climate bill this year would be “a heavy lift,” noting the prospect of higher costs for farmers.
  • Just a few days before the House vote on Waxman-Markey, the U.S. Global Change Research Program issued the first major federal appraisal of regional impacts of climate change since 2000, including familiar warnings about negative impacts on crops and livestock.
  • Against the backdrop provided by that synthesis report, researchers drew attention with announcements about new agriculture-climate findings, such as a British study linking warming temperatures to smaller sheep.
Digesting the Varied Coverage
Of Bovine Belches, Burps, Whatever

What sort of job have journalists been doing in covering the broad range of agriculture-related aspects of climate change? The Yale Forum sought the appraisals of four individuals whose work at the confluence of agriculture and climate collectively involves activities in science, communication, and policy.

Views of a Federal Ag Department Plant Physiologist

“There are so many different aspects, you couldn’t possibly cover them in a single news story,” said Lewis Ziska, a research plant physiologist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Crop Systems and Global Change Lab in Maryland. “It’s frustrating trying to communicate all the ramifications and get people to comprehend them.”

Ziska’s own research occurs in three main areas – food security and climate change, including questions about adapting agriculture to new conditions; issues such as the implications for weed management and invasive species; and public health concerns, including links among climate change and crop biology as they relate to things like ragweed pollen and plant-based medicines.

Because they bring the general subject home for people, such health-related issues can be an effective starting place for discussing other subjects under the broad umbrella of agriculture and climate, Ziska has concluded.

Having logged “a fair degree” of interviews with reporters at news outlets including such national organizations as National Geographic, The New York Times, and CNN, Ziska thinks some reporters do an excellent job on climate-agriculture topics, “and some don’t do so well.”

“From the press point of view, it’s a very difficult job having to take scientific aspects and translate them into something people can understand,” he said. “It takes a fair amount of skill to do that. Scientists are often stuck in their own jargon and have trouble communicating to a lay audience.”

One common journalistic pattern concerning Ziska: there is often “a blip of coverage” when a story breaks, sometimes accompanied by a day’s worth of calls from reporters seeking comment. But not much in the way of follow-up reporting.

“There’s strong short attention, but not sustained coverage,” he said. “It’s news, as in the news of that hour, that day, or that month, but then it goes away.”

The world food price crisis of 2007-08, which produced food riots in some unexpected locations, is a case in point, he said.  ”There was a fair amount of focus on food security, and we were very interested in how it was being reported and that people knew we were working on that,” he said. “Overall, the press did a very good job.”

Still, despite banner crop yields and the subsiding of the crisis and attendant coverage, core food security issues remain – “the number of people in food deficit hasn’t changed, it has gone up,” he said.

Food security as an under-reported issue

Food security is one of three major subjects related to climate change and agriculture that Ziska believes should receive more coverage. The second is what a changing climate and the presence of more fertilizing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will mean for food quality, such as protein levels in grains. The third is food safety, including questions such as how warming and events such as extreme precipitation will affect bacteria growth.

A Former Reporter’s Take: Media Focus on Polarization

Like Ziska, Tom Kenworthy, a former reporter for The Washington Post and USA Today, voices unhappiness with the political polarization that often dominates public discourse on the climate issue.

Kenworthy, who, after leaving USA Today, helped start a now defunct progressive think tank called Western Progress, joined the liberal Center for American Progress in March as a senior fellow, where one focus of his work is agriculture issues. His activities in that role have included writing about climate change and agriculture and participating, along with key Obama Administration officials, in a June conference call for journalists on agricultural aspects of the report by the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

Kenworthy said that despite some exceptions, such as reporting by the Des Moines Register‘s Washington-based Philip Brasher, he has generally noted a focus on “tactical” political angles in much climate-agriculture reporting during recent months as the Waxman-Markey bill was making its way through the House.

“In defense of the press, [climate change and agriculture] is a complicated story,” he said, but “a lot of things don’t seem to get much reporting.”

Kenworthy pointed to some recent studies that typified the sorts of things he believes merited more coverage than they got:

One was a paper, published in late August in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in which economists from North Carolina State and Columbia universities calculated that U.S. yields of corn, soybeans and cotton could decline over the next 100 years by 30 to 46 percent in a slow-warming scenario, and by 63 to 82 percent under the fastest warming scenario.

The second paper [pdf], written by university and other researchers for Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, concluded that cap-and-trade policies to limit greenhouse gas emissions “could result in significant revenue for U.S. agriculture, which is a potential source of low-carbon bioenergy and low-cost abatement alternatives to fossil fuel emission reductions (i.e., offsets) through terrestrial sequestration, afforestation, and reductions in nitrous oxide and methane emissions.”

“I covered Capitol Hill and did tactical stories,” Kenworthy said, explaining that he understands the traditional journalistic considerations that may deprive such research of the wider media attention he thinks it warrants.

But he perceives an additional, contributing factor in recent news industry trends that involve major cuts in resources devoted to news-gathering.

“Part of the problem is that the national newspapers don’t really cover agriculture anymore,” he said.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s farm-country tour in support of Waxman-Markey in August, focusing on allaying concerns about increased agricultural costs, “hasn’t gotten a lot of attention in the big papers,” Kenworthy observed.

“I don’t know how effective he’s been. He got a good deal of coverage in the regional press, but he’s running up against the skeptics.”

Researcher: More Focus Needed on Pests, Disease

David Wolfe, a professor in the Department of Horticulture at Cornell University, is involved in both research and science communication.

Among other areas, his research interests and expertise include the impacts of climate change on plants, soils and ecosystems. His “education outreach” includes communicating with farmers, policymakers, and the public. This part of his work involves projects such as the Climate and Farming website, which is aimed at “promoting practical and profitable responses” to climate change, “frequent interaction” with the news media and his own writing for the popular press.

Typically, Wolfe said, he is interviewed by a reporter who contacts two or three scientists for the story, along with farmers in the community served by the news organization.

While he considers it appropriate for a journalist to seek several scientists’ viewpoints, he said he is bothered by some reporters’ persistence in crafting stories that present a “balance” between one scientist whose views are shared by 95 percent of the scientific community and one “rare scientist” who disagrees. He calls such climate science reporting “irresponsible and misleading.”

He looks with far more favor on stories with a mix of different viewpoints among farmers, including those who are skeptical about human-induced climate change, so long as the reporter tries to ensure that the chosen quotes reflect the broader range of such opinions within the farming community.

That mix of viewpoints has been changing, Wolfe said, though he believes it is unclear what role the news media have played in causing the shift.

Based on his anecdotal impressions from interactions with farmers in the Northeast, he said he thinks about 20 to 30 percent simply don’t want to think about climate change, while a majority now believe it is a real phenomenon, though they may not be sure human beings are contributing to it.

Farmers are witnessing climate change impacts on their own farms – things like earlier bloom dates for plants and insects formerly confined to more southerly locations now showing up in the Northeast, he said.

“Farmers say to me, only God can change the climate,” he said. “But the whole issue of who’s causing it, I let that go. I just say it’s happening and you need to realize it’s not some baloney developed by people who want to get research money or environmental groups – that it can affect agriculture in a real way.”

Wolfe said he has noticed both more news coverage and more interest among farmers and agricultural marketing officials about how farmers might profit from climate concerns through activities like mitigation practices and the planting of biofuel crops. The trend, he said, is probably a result of increased attention to the climate issue in Washington.

One agricultural subject that deserves more coverage is the increased risk of pest and disease problems in some regions, he said.

“This could be a major factor that we see fairly soon affecting agriculture, especially in the northern half of the U.S. – also weeds – which could lead to more pesticide use, with environmental implications.”

View from Nebraska: Too Much ‘Food Fight’ Coverage

Jon Bailey, a staff member at the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs, looks more positively on the communication efforts of agricultural scientists than he does on recent news reporting on climate change and agriculture.

Bailey is director of the Rural Research & Analysis Program for the nonprofit group, headquartered in small Lyons, Neb. The organization focuses largely on the upper Midwest and Great Plains in its efforts to improve rural communities and help family farmers and ranchers and other small businesses.

“Most scientists seem to be doing a great job in promoting ways to address climate issues,” he said.

“I think a lot of farmers are listening, but that information is not getting out into the mainstream media, particularly what the public institutions are doing to help them to adapt,” he added. “What you get instead is a typical journalistic food fight between opposing sides in Congress.”

Recent climate-agriculture coverage in the region has not just focused on the cap-and-trade legislation generally, but “on so-called tax issues – that it would be a tax on agriculture, basically a rural tax,” Bailey said.

“There hasn’t been a lot of discussion about the implications [of climate change] for rural areas, about what can happen to agriculture and to rural communities.”

For instance, there has been little coverage “in the broader media [on] the activities of places like the University of Nebraska and other academic institutions regarding how to modify agriculture to adjust to climate change,” although western Nebraska has been experiencing a long-term drought, he said.

The Center for Rural Affairs itself, typically able to attract regional journalists’ attention to its activities, struck out in 2007 with “Climate Change and Agriculture,” a report drafted by a task force, mainly comprising farmers and ranchers, that the group had established.

The task force recommended policies such as “harmoniz[ing] the economic and environmental benefits of building soil carbon,” rewarding “practices that are proven by good science to build soil carbon,” and considering a carbon-emissions market to pay “those who sequester carbon that offsets those emissions.”

“We usually get pretty extensive coverage, mostly in the Midwest and Great Plains” for such reports, but the climate recommendations received no coverage that he could recall, Bailey said.

The reason, he believes, is that the report was ahead of its time – “talking about an issue that probably hadn’t gained a lot of prominence, particularly in the public discourse.”


Digesting the Varied Coverage
Of Bovine Belches, Burps, Whatever

Reporting on methane emissions from cattle – cow burps, bovine belches, whatever – has gained some traction as a result of the farm lobby’s over the past year having suggested a “cow tax” looms.

Cattle belches and burps a focus of farm belt media.

The University of Pennsylvania’s nonpartisan FactCheck.org firmly declared last December that the American Farm Bureau Federation’s claim that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency might levy fees on cows (and pigs) to limit greenhouse emissions was “hokum” and “misleading”:

Q: Is the EPA considering a tax on cows and pigs?

A: No. The farm lobby warned that EPA “could” push for such a tax, but EPA never proposed any such thing and says it lacks authority to impose one anyway.

“This one is a case study in how lobbyists sometimes justify their own salaries by loudly fighting against hypothetical but non-existent threats from Washington.”

Even so, the idea of a “cow tax” has continued to show up in news accounts in rural areas, representing one key focus of the local climate-agriculture coverage produced there in recent months.

The Southwest Daily News of Sulphur, La., reported in July, for instance, that a Louisiana representative of the National Federation of Independent Business would speak on “Federal Legislation (that the federation) deems harmful to Small Business such as the Cow Tax (a.k.a. the Poop Legislation).”

The story added that “the Cow Tax will regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act by levying a tax on livestock.”

Also in July, the Wilson County News of Floresville, Texas, published an overview story about proposals in Congress, including a provision in the American Clean Energy and Security Act (“ACES,” the Waxman-Markey bill) that would “assist the ag industry” with exemptions from fees on greenhouse gases.

That story began: “Farmers and ranchers have been discussing the cattle gas tax since the proposed taxation was introduced in July 2008, because of changes in the Clean Air Act.”

(Before the House narrowly passed the Waxman-Markey bill in June, the Associated Press credited the “cow tax” meme as a key reason that measure exempted agriculture and forestry from carbon caps. The headline: “The influence game: Excuse me! Lobby wins on burps.”)

In September, the Daily Star of Oneonta, N.Y., reported the Senate had voted “to prevent (a) ‘cow tax.’” That story started with this passage:

One worry for area farmers was laid to rest Thursday with the passage of the Senate’s Interior Appropriations bill. It included a proposal, introduced in March by Sen. Charles Schumer and others, to prevent a ‘cow tax,’ according to a spokesman for Schumer.

Meanwhile, editorializing about the same Senate vote, the Daily Republic of Mitchell, S.D., praised the legislation “to kill the so-called ‘cow tax.’”

Continuing in the circumspect vein signaled by that “so-called” modifier, the editorial added: “Although we acknowledge that such a tax was never officially proposed, we appreciate the efforts made in recent months to keep it from ever becoming reality.”

On September 30, the Environmental Protection Agency attempted to put the “cow tax” story to rest.

Announcing that the EPA is moving ahead with rules to regulate greenhouse emissions from large power and other industrial plants, Administrator Lisa P. Jackson stressed that the rule would not apply to cattle.

The New York Times reported: “The rule would not, as critics contend, cover ‘every cow and Dunkin’ Donuts,’ Ms. Jackson said.”

Taxation, moreover, was not the only angle dominating stories about cow methane in recent months.

Coverage extended in various instances to agricultural innovation and research to address that source of greenhouse emissions, along with the role that livestock methane may play in a carbon offset market.

Some examples:

  • A refreshing idea for barnyard odor / Methane digester may reenergize dairies, if only farmers can afford them in the Boston Globe. ( “The machine, called a methane digester, has been popular in Europe since the 1970s, but the idea is just catching on in the United States.” )
  • Surf’n'turf, hold the methane in the Sydney Morning Herald. ( “Australian cattle are to be served up a diet of seaweed in the hope this will reduce their flatulent emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.” )
  • Using offsets to push climate bill in the Albany (N.Y.) Times-Union. ( “When Connie Patterson began expanding her Auburn, Cayuga County, dairy farm in the 1990s – growing from 100 cows to a 950-cow operation – she went from spreading manure over fields to housing the liquid waste in lagoons …. Now, instead of entering the atmosphere, the methane from her cattle helps power the digester itself, the cow milking station, milk parlor, and the lights on her farm.” )
  • Greening the herds – Trying to limit cows’ ‘emissions’ in The New York Times. ( “Chewing her cud on a recent sunny morning, Libby, a 1,400-pound Holstein, paused to do her part in the battle against global warming, emitting a fragrant burp.” )

In a wide-angle examination, a pair of authors (former and current World Bank staff members) argue in the November-December issue of World Watch magazine that reducing livestock products could be an effective way to attack climate change:

Whenever the causes of climate change are discussed, fossil fuels top the list. Oil, natural gas, and especially coal are indeed major sources of human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHGs). But we believe that the life cycle and supply chain of domesticated animals raised for food have been vastly underestimated as a source of GHGs, and in fact account for at least half of all human-caused GHGs. If this argument is right, it implies that replacing livestock products with better alternatives would be the best strategy for reversing climate change. In fact, this approach would have far more rapid effects on GHG emissions and their atmospheric concentrations – and thus on the rate the climate is warming – than actions to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.


Bill Dawson

Bill Dawson is an independent journalist who edits Texas Climate News, an online magazine published by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Houston Advanced Research Center. He was previously environment writer for the Houston Chronicle.
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