Proposed climate change legislation will increase average costs for fruit and vegetable growers by about 2% in the short term and close to 4% over several decades, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

USDA economist Joe Glauber testified Dec. 2 before the House Agriculture Committee, subcommittee on conservation, credit, energy and research about costs associated with climate change legislation. Though his testimony was focused on cost consequences of climate change legislation, Glauber said opportunities to provide carbon offsets to other industries would make climate change legislation a net positive for the farm community over the long term.

The cost analysis wasn’t as comprehensive as produce industry lobbyists had hoped.

“The way the USDA data came out, they characterized it as relatively minor increases in production costs for fruits and vegetables,” said Kam Quarles, vice president of government relations and legislative affairs for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.

“However, their analysis only looks at on-farm production, and the reason that fruits and vegetables are disproportionately affected by increases in energy costs through climate change or other factors is because our energy consumption is huge once it leaves the farm,” Quarles said.

Quarles said United Fresh and other members of the climate change coalition had asked the USDA to look at the entire supply chain, not one that stopped at the farm gate.

He said United Fresh and other advocates of fruits and vegetables will continue to urge lawmakers to have a “360 degree” perspective of the issue.

“It is important to know the cost increases and opportunities that are on the farm, but it is also important to focus on the entire supply chain,” Quarles said.

Higher prices could change consumer buying habits at retail and reduce produce consumption.

“You also may be providing advantage to certain countries that are not burdened with the same climate change rules,” he said.

Quarles said the costs must be understood before responsible legislation can be crafted.

He said the Senate will not take up climate change legislation until sometime in 2010, and mid-term election year politics may make the issue contentious.

In a teleconference with reporters Dec. 2, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that if there are crops — he mentioned fruits and vegetables — that would not receive a net gain from climate change legislation, farm programs and legislation could provide other assistance.

“We are supportive of Sen. (Debbie) Stabenow’s legislation, which could provide additional assistance to those areas not positively impacted.”

Vilsack said America must show its leadership in acting to reduce greenhouse gases.

“I can guarantee that if America were to punt on climate change, if (America) is not going to make a meaningful effort to respond to this, I can guarantee that  other countries in trade issues will use that against us,” he said.

Glauber said that in 2007 fertilizer and agrichemicals accounted for about 18% of the variable cash expenses of vegetable and melon farms and 13% for fruit and tree nut farms. Meanwhile, motor fuels and oil used to run tractors, generators and irrigation pumps represented 5% of vegetable costs and 4% of fruit costs. About 4% to 5% of costs were estimated to represent utility services, mainly electricity.