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Vilsack Defends Ag on Earth Day

With Congress doing little to address climate change, those who care about the issue are looking to states and cities to act. So, on the 44th Earth Day, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack found an opportunity to explain agriculture's role in dealing with and adapting to that challenge.

In Des Moines, Iowa -- the state where Vilsack served as governor and helped launch a revolution in wind energy and biofuels -- the ag secretary spoke to a mostly urban audience at a Drake University event, "The Frontier of Climate Change: State and local action in the Heartland."

Vilsack said that agriculture's contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is about 9% of the nation's total output. Much more comes from transportation and electric power generation.

"That's significantly less than it is globally," Vilsack said. And, if you include the nation's forests, the production from U.S. lands is a carbon sink, he added. Tree growth more than offsets any emissions from agriculture.

Vilsack followed the mayors of Carmel, Indiana, and Des Moines, both national leaders in saving energy at a local level, and the CEO of MidAmerican Energy Company, which has invested $1.9 billion in wind generation, making Iowa the state with the highest percent of electricity from that energy source.

Vilsack shared his concern about the effects of climate change on agriculture, however. Since 1970, temperatures have risen at three times the rate they were rising before then, he said. Last winter USDA announced it is creating seven regional Climate Hubs at existing USDA research stations to help agriculture and forestry prepare for increasing climate change.

Vilsack told a group of about 200 that USDA researchers are seeking practical ways to help farmers and ranchers adapt to climate change with more efficient irrigation, seed technology for more drought-tolerant crops, better soil health, and other technology.

Vilsack said that USDA is also working with farm organizations that are voluntarily working to reduce greenhouse gases.

"The dairy industry has been quite progressive and practical about this," Vilsack said. Working with grocers, that sector of agriculture aims to lower greenhouse gas emissions 25% by 2020, from the farm to the store dairy section. USDA has provided financial assistance for capturing methane, a greenhouse gas with heat-trapping potential that is 20 times greater than carbon dioxide over 100 years.

Vilsack was interviewed by Jeffrey Ball, a Stanford University energy scholar and columnist for the New Republic magazine, which along with Drake University and the League of Women Voters, sponsored the meeting.

Ball asked Vilsack about a letter Senator John Thune (R-SD) and 15 other Republican senators sent to him and the heads of EPA and the Department of Energy questioning the Obama Administration's new strategy to reduce methane emissions. Thune and the others wrote that "if this plan leads to heavy-handed regulations or mandatory guidelines, farmers and ranchers would likely face a steep increase in production costs."

Vilsack said he hasn't seen the letter yet -- that senators often put out a press release about their letters, and he gets them two weeks later. But he's aware of it, of course. "I think it is important to note, what the administration is proposing is initially a voluntary effort," Vilsack said.

And because the dairy industry is already on track to meet administration goals for methane reduction, "there is in that space, no need for mandatory rules."

Vilsack said that some dairy farms are benefitting from capturing methane. One large dairy is looking at using what is essentially natural gas to power its trucks, he said.

"To me, this is not so much an opportunity to mandate but to innovate," Vilsack said.

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