Pat Roberts believes in climate change, but he won’t tell farmers what to do about it

Leave American cattle ranchers, dairy farmers and their cows alone. That was the clear message from witnesses and lawmakers who assembled in Washington Tuesday for a hearing on climate change and the agriculture industry.

Sen. Pat Roberts, the Senate Agriculture chairman, had promised a hearing since last year, following release of a massive federal report that warned about the potentially devastating economic impact of climate change on rural communities.

Roberts has bristled at criticism that Republicans are ignoring the issue.

The Kansas Republican told The Star in April that he confronted Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer after the New York Democrat delivered a floor speech stating that “no Republican had acknowledged that there is climate change, second, that part of the problem is caused by humans and third, we’ve got to do something about it.”

“And as he was walking out, I said, ‘No, here’s a Republican who believes all that.’”

But the message from Roberts and witnesses Tuesday was that the best approach for the federal government was hands-off — allowing farmers to pursue voluntary conservation measures rather than enacting new regulations to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

“Rather than a silver bullet, it is like a recipe that includes many ingredients — biotechnology; precision agriculture; voluntary conservation practices such as no-till farming; veterinary care; livestock nutrition; and genetics — all of which help U.S. producers improve environmental sustainability,” Roberts said in his opening statement. “Importantly, these efforts have been self-initiated and largely self-funded by American farmers and ranchers.”

The committee’s Democrats, who represent agriculture-dependent states, touted environmental programs in last year’s farm bill. But they also praised voluntary sustainability efforts by farmers as the best course.

“No farmer wants the government telling them how to farm their land. That’s not what this is about. We should be strengthening the ways that farmers can benefit from building on the positive steps they are already taking,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the top Democrat on the committee.

Witnesses included a Kansas cattle rancher, a Nebraska farmer, an animal scientist who has been an outspoken critic of tying livestock to climate change and former President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. All advocated for a more market-based approach. There were no witnesses with a specific expertise in climate science.

Vilsack, now president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, said consumers are increasingly demanding that milk and other products be produced sustainably. He called it an economic opportunity for American dairy farmers.

“Our success will not be the result of legislation or regulation, but rather the result of hundreds of thousands of daily, weekly and annual independent, individual decisions made by tens of thousands of dairy producers,” Vilsack said in his testimony.

He called for the Food and Drug Administration to quickly approve feed additives that can reduce emissions from livestock.

The hearing, which focused on what the industry is doing to achieve sustainability, featured relatively little discussion about the long-term effects of climate change and its potential threat to American agriculture.

Zack Pistora, legislative director for the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club, said the hearing highlighted the progress the industry has made on sustainability but failed to delve into the threats it faces from climate change.

“Perhaps no other industry feels the effects of climate troubles than agriculture. In the Midwest, a more volatile climate has caused extreme weather swings of droughts, floods, wildfires, freezes, snows, and winds that have devastated farmers’ fields and ranchers’ herds,” Pistora said in an email.

“In sum, those in agriculture need its industry, and all industries, to significantly step up efforts to curb climate change.”

Roberts said later in the day that his goal was to highlight what he industry is already doing on its own to combat climate change.

“Every witness was replete with stories that they already practice good conservation practices and those are largely unsung unless you have some kind of federal program behind it,” Roberts said. “And just to point out that’s what they’re doing right now, thank you very much, and we don’t get much credit for it. We find ourselves a target when in fact we’re probably the leaders throughout the whole economy in practicing good conservation.”

The hearing comes as progressives seek support in Congress for the Green New Deal, an ambitious proposal championed by New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, that would set a national goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions within 10 years.

Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, specifically referenced the legislation during the hearing and voiced her opposition. Witnesses echoed the importance of avoiding new regulations.

Debbie Lyons-Blythe, a cattle rancher from White City, Kansas, pointed to a statistic from the Environmental Protection Agency that beef cattle were only responsible for 2 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the country and warned against policies that target cattle producers.

“As ranchers we have always been focused on conservation… as my grandpa used to say, ‘Leave the land better than you find it,’” Lyons-Blythe said.

Frank Mitloehner, a professor in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis, testified that a flawed 2006 United Nations report has led to a persistent overstatement of livestock’s role in carbon emissions.

“It’s staggering how many people continue to think that merely giving up meat — even once a week — will make a significant impact on their individual carbon footprints,” Mitloehner said, contending that if everyone in the U.S. practiced “meatless Mondays” it would only lead to a .3 percent drop in greenhouse gas emissions.

“The carbon footprint of a glass of milk is two-thirds smaller today than it was 70 years ago,” said Mitloehner, arguing that advances in technology have enabled American dairy farmers to produce more milk with fewer cows.

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