Extreme weather could prove costly for taxpayers

Thousands of acres of farmland in Mississippi County, Mo., rest underwater as a result of historic flooding this spring.

Jeremy Hobson: Well another round of tornadoes swept through some midwestern states last night, injuring dozens of people and damaging property. This is shaping up to be a record year for tornadoes in the U.S. But lest we forget, there are some major, though less dramatic, natural disasters going on right now as well. Historic floods and droughts are causing big headaches for farmers.

And as Harvest Public Media's Tim Lloyd reports, they're likely to boost the cost of crop insurance.


Tim Lloyd: Federal crop insurance was created after the Dust Bowl. The fear then was Mother Nature could wipe out parts of American agriculture. And even today, taxpayers subsidize around 60 percent of farmers' crop insurance premiums. Now, extreme weather brought on by climate change could up the ante.

Bill Murphy: You know, the unknown presents risk. Because, insurance, what you're doing is that you're looking at the past and you're trying to use that to predict your future.

Bill Murphy oversees the Risk Management Agency, a subset of the USDA that regulates the crop insurance industry. Farmers now rely on that insurance to ride out tough years. And banks that lend to farmers rely on it, too, as way to protect themselves from a bad crop season.

Scott Gerlt is a crop analyst at the University of Missouri.

Scott Gerlt: If there's more risk in the marketplace, we would expect to see premiums go up, which would increase the government subsidies.

So, here's the domino effect: Climate change means more risk. More risk means higher premiums. And higher premiums mean more tax dollars. Then there's the unknown. There are models that forecast how climate change will affect insurance, but most focus on America's populated coasts.

That's a problem because most crop policies are held in the Midwest. And the price for crops like soybeans, corn and cotton have never been higher. And that much money means there's that much more too loose.

Just ask Richard Oswald. Oswald's tractor idles as he stands at the edge of his Missouri farmland that runs five generations deep. In 1993, his fields were underwater.

Richard Oswald: What a lot of farmers confront -- farmers I've known who've quit farming -- if we have two years in a row like that, everything you've worked our whole lives for can be gone.

And that vulnerability has record numbers of farmers signing up for crop insurance. Even without projections for more extreme weather, the Congressional Budget Office expects crop insurance to cost the federal government a whopping $77 billion over the next 10 years. That's almost twice what it was over the previous decade.

In Kansas City, I'm Tim Lloyd for Marketplace.

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