Farmers and ranchers should prepare to deal with new policies designed to counteract global climate change, the head of USDA’s Global Change Program Office told attendees of the National Farm Bureau’s annual convention.

Bill Hohenstein said farmers and ranchers must recognize that “at the policy level the question is not whether climate change is occurring. The debate is over what to do about it.”

Hohenstein said in the future all sectors of U.S. economic life, including agriculture, will be affected by policies intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Current federal policy does not impose a mandatory cap on such emissions, but national lawmakers give every indication they are moving toward adopting a policy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Hohenstein said, noting that at least nine separate proposals that address the issue are now before Congress, some of which contain caps.

While many researchers and policy makers are convinced climate change must be mitigated, how mitigation might be effectively achieved is a matter that awaits extended analysis and debate, Hohenstein said. At the moment there is no agreed-upon national or international formula for the task.

Any proposal for an international strategy on climate change likely will encounter strong opposition from leaders of developing nations, who have previously indicated they will reject mandatory reductions of greenhouse gas emissions in their respective countries.

The Bush administration has pledged it will not impose mandatory domestic caps. In addition, the president has promised to hold harmless business owners who voluntarily take steps to reduce emissions.

But U.S. farmers and ranchers will surely be called on to reduce emissions on their properties, Hohenstein said.

In response to policy discussions, USDA staff members have developed a method for voluntary calculation of a given farm’s “footprint for greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. Once refined for use by the individual citizen, the system will facilitate a calculation. In a second step, the user may submit the information to the USDA or another federal agency.

“Having consistent rules is quite important,” Hohenstein said. “The same rules must apply in Iowa and in any other state.”

Voluntary pursuit of reductions is the goal. “USDA will encourage practices that will either reduce greenhouse gas emissions or implement carbon sequestration,” he added.

Meanwhile, California officials have approved a bold program of emission reductions with the state Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. Under this measure, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced 30% by 2020 (at 1990 levels) and 80% by 2050.

Cynthia Cory, director of environmental affairs at the California Farm Bureau and a presenter at the conference, said agricultural producers will be required to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 31 million metric tons by 2020.

By employing a variety of techniques from orchard and vineyard management for carbon storage to the use of farm byproducts in biofuel production, farmers and ranchers might be able to reach the target.

“We think we can do it,” Cory said. “I don’t want anyone to think it will be easy.”

California officials also plan to require that all diesel vehicles, including those used on the farm, must have engines built in 2007 or later. Like business owners in other economic sectors, farmers and ranchers have been examining how they will respond to the requirement.

Cory said the challenge is not limited to California. She predicted that national lawmakers will take action on the matter soon. “I am not a betting woman,” she declared. “But there will be a national climate change policy, regardless of who is elected president in 2008.”

Hohenstein admitted that the scope of the problem warrants much more than simple solutions. “It will take a lot nationally and internationally to stabilize carbon emissions,” he said.

Reductions will cost money, whether they are required or voluntary. According to one estimate, the U.S. economy will have to devote from $9 billion to $42 billion solving the problem during the next 50 years.

Editor’s note: Richard Brock, The Corn And Soybean Digest's Marketing Editor, is president of Brock Associates, a farm market advisory firm, and publisher of The Brock Report.