The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is being touted as a big win for climate change as it makes available hundreds of billions of dollars for renewable energy. These industries will have access to loan guarantee and financial assistance programs making expansion viable in the United States. At the same time, it puts a burden on fossil fuels, disincentivizing the industry and expediting the move away from these energy sources. We all know this is a bad deal for West Virginia, but the unknown is how these policies will impact other industries such as agriculture. As the second largest exporter of agricultural products in the world, the United States, just as much as West Virginia, has a lot to lose under this deal.
The quickest to build and the fastest growing sector of renewable energy is solar. In theory, all you need is some panels, land and access to plenty of sunshine. Any farmer understands the importance of the sun. What those farmers also understand is how valuable soil and prime farmland is to the production of crops. These areas are best suited for raising crops because the soil is nutrient rich, flat, gets plenty of precipitation, as well as sun. For those same reasons, solar companies continue to seek these areas for their own type of farming. Now you have two sectors, crucial to the future of the United States, competing for the same resources. The only difference is our federal government is now incentivizing one over the other.
Despite increased funding, the reality is the world cannot solely run on renewables no matter how much folks hate fossil fuels. Fertilizer, for example, is still one of the largest inputs to agriculture production. When energy prices skyrocketed earlier this year, so did the cost of fertilizer. At the same time, diesel prices were typically a dollar more than regular fuel prices which continued to put a strain on farmers who use heavy machinery. Truckers, who transport most of the food in the United States, also saw the squeeze, forcing many out of the industry. As much as folks want to see every vehicle run on electricity, tractors, heavy machinery and much of the agricultural industry just isn’t there yet.
As profits continue to shrink for the farmer due to inflation and rising fertilizer costs, producers may have to make the ultimate decision and take their farm out of production. Then that farmer will do what any reasonable person would and utilize that land in other ways. With an abundance of funding for renewables and a move away from fossil fuels, solar becomes an enticing option for our producers. The problem is once we take that land out of production, we weaken our country’s food system resiliency. As we saw during the pandemic, any major stresses on our food system can have devastating effects on our population. With the world population on the rise, its vital we continue to increase our ability to feed the world. As the saying goes, “with food there are many problems, without there is only one.”
Regardless of where you land on this debate, for our country to be energy and food independent, we must find a compromise utilizing all sources of energy. Increasing domestic production of these two sectors not only lessens our reliance on foreign sources but builds assurance for the American people. If we are truly to make a better America, we must find a way to balance the needs of our economy, environment and trade agreements. The problem with the energy debate right now is we are too focused on the morality of energy sources, instead of using common sense to achieve self-reliance. If the Left wants to bring an end to fossil fuel use in America, that spells disaster for West Virginia’s economy and brings a new threat to American agricultural production – the loss of farmland.
Kent A. Leonhardt
West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture
The West Virginia Department of Agriculture protects plant, animal and human health through a variety of scientific, regulatory and consumer protection programs. The Commissioner of Agriculture is one of six statewide elected officials who sits on the Board of Public Works.