Greenhouse debate could affect farms

What do Himalayan Mountain glaciers, fermentation of straw in rice fields, flatulent cows, and Al Gore have in common? Answer: All are part of the ongoing controversy over global warming - an issue that could have an increasing impact on agriculture in the United States.

The operative word is "could," since neither Vice President Gore nor Governor George Bush has exactly inundated us with their positions/thoughts on agriculture. It is a bragging point for Gore, however, that he was a key proponent of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, and he has been quite vocal in his support of a host of environmental/"green" issues. Bush does not support the Kyoto Treaty, but beyond that not a great deal is known about his stance on agriculture and related issues.

Stirring the global warming pot further was the recent report in the journal Science that analysis of glacier cores deep inside the Himalayas at the 26,000-foot level shows both the past 100 years and the last 50 years to be the hottest periods of the past millennium. The Ohio State University/National Science Foundation team says "this is alarming," and "clearly shows a serious warming during the late 20th century - one that was caused, at least in part, by human activity."

This mountain warming, they say, is leading to more rapid melting of high altitude ice fields in Asia, Africa, and South America. Since melt from these ice masses feeds major rivers and provides water to agriculture and cities along those rivers, the shrinking ice fields is a concern for future water supplies, the scientists say.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which has been described as the most ambitious environmental agreement ever attempted, is getting down to the wire in terms of developing rules for the world's developed nations to significantly limit emissions of the gases said to contribute to global warming.

"The time to put in place the legislation, institutions, and investments necessary to shoot for these targets is becoming uncomfortably short," United Nations spokesman Michael Cutajar says. Some are calling for the agreement to be simplified; others want it delayed - which, observers contend, could result in the entire process falling apart. A major bone of contention is whether there should be sanctions against countries that don't live up to their commitments. The final round of talks is set for mid-November at The Hague.

In a report earlier this year, the World Wildlife Foundation said its studies show global warming could fundamentally alter one-third of the world's plant and animal habitats by the end of this century, causing the extinction of numerous plant and animal species. In the northern latitudes, where warming is predicted to be most rapid, it says up to 70 percent of habitat could be lost.

On the other hand, many reputable scientists say the "greenhouse" scenario is overblown. They see no evidence that human activity is responsible for significant global warming, and they question the accuracy of ice core data, as well as the conclusions drawn from them - which they contend are based on debatable science.

They note also that while surface temperature records show rapid warming over the past century, atmospheric data from satellite/weather balloon studies show little or no warming.

While the Kyoto Protocol focuses on gases from fossil fuels and other human-generated sources, more than one scientific study has been devoted to the impact on global warming of methane emissions from rice fields and flatulence from the digestive systems of millions of cows. Methane in the atmosphere, much of it from rice fields, has more than doubled over the past 200 years, one study notes.

As far-fetched as all of this may seem in the workaday farming world, there is still a substantial bureaucratic machine dedicated to keeping the global warming issue in the forefront. And how the candidates stand on this could, down the road, affect the way you farm.

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