At last, farmers and foresters might have a seat at the carbon market table. Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in both the Senate and the House of the United States Congress to help farmers and foresters receive credits for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing soil organic matter—carbon.
Note: The text of this post was published as an oped in the Virginia Mercury on 9/10/20.
USDA to Develop a Suite of Programs
The “Growing Climate Solutions Act” will empower the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop a suite of programs for farmers and foresters that support greenhouse gas reductions and carbon sequestration. This bipartisan legislation was introduced on the House side of Congress by Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) and Don Bacon (R-NE). In the Senate, it was introduced by Mike Braun (R-IN) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).
As a longtime soil health professional, a farmer, and an environmentalist who cares about the future of our planet, I totally support the legislation and encourage others to study and support it as well.
If enacted and carried out, it will reduce greenhouse gases, improve soil health, reduce soil erosion, and give those who work the land credits and payments for good stewardship—creating a pathway to address climate change while ensuring more sustainable farms and forests.
Our Soil Is the Second Largest Carbon Sink on the Planet
Oceans are the largest carbon sink on Earth, followed by our soil and forests. Plants—trees, bushes, flowers, grasses, corn, soybeans, seaweed, algae—all of them literally take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in their tissue (sequestration). Yep, good ol’ photosynthesis. Plant residues left on the land or incorporated into the land put that carbon into the soil—the second largest carbon sink on earth. Trees, of course, the third-largest carbon sink, store carbon as wood and roots.
Sustainably raised livestock also play a key role in advancing carbon sequestration. Grazing cattle and other ruminants are essentially mobile carbon sequestration enhancers and fertilizer factories. When the plants they eat come out the back end, they are placing digested grass back on the land, carbon and all.
Putting carbon on and in the soil increases soil organic matter. That’s a good thing, because soils higher in organic matter can retain more moisture, resist erosion more efficiently, and recycle nutrients faster. Generally speaking, the higher the soil organic matter, the healthier the soil.
A 1 Percent Increase in Soil Organic Matter Can Sequester Eight Tons of Carbon per Acre
It has been shown that a 1 percent increase in soil organic matter can sequester about eight tons of carbon per acre. Using plants to take carbon out of the air and then leaving most of the plants on the land will increase soil organic matter. For example, a farmer that grows corn for grain can harvest the ear of corn and leave the cornstalk on the land. That dead cornstalk is loaded with carbon. Left on the land it will intercept the erosive energy of raindrops, helping reduce soil erosion. When the cornstalk decomposes, it adds organic matter to the soil. In soil conservation-speak, this is referred to as plant residue use.
Other plant residue use practices include leaving wheat straw and soybean stubble on the land after the grain is harvested and feeding hay to cows.
The “Growing Climate Solutions Act” lists the following practices that may qualify for greenhouse gas reduction credits or carbon sequestration: plant residue use, emissions reductions derived from fuel choice or reduced fuel use, livestock emissions reductions, on-farm energy generation, energy feedstock production, fertilizer reductions, reforestation, forest management, avoidance of forest conversion, grassland management including rotational grazing, and other practices deemed appropriate by a newly formed advisory council.
Farmland Soil Can Sequester 650 Million Tons of Carbon per Year
Overall, U.S. farmland soil is capable of sequestering 650 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, offsetting 11 percent of America’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report published by the Soil Science Society of America.
The soil and forests are the most practical and available carbon sinks. And it makes sense to motivate those with the most soil—farmers and foresters—to use plants to capture carbon from the air and store it.
The “Growing Climate Solutions Act” is supported by a wide range of farm, environment, and industry organizations including the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, the Virginia Agribusiness Council, the United States Cattleman’s Association, the Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation, the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and many others.
I urge you and your grassroots organizations who are concerned about the future of agriculture and our planet to contact your representatives in Congress and encourage them to support this commonsense legislation.
I disagree. The practices enumerated are I believe all good ones, but carbon credits are a destructive dead end road to false solutions. A carbon credit is bought by a polluter in order to justify continuing to pollute–to putting out the CO2 or other GHG that, if all this were done, could be removed to the tune of 11%. We need to stop those emissions, not allow them to continue for a price. Yes, we should encourage farmers to adopt these practices, and payments might be one way (though I wonder about accounting and gaming the system) but I think we need more old-fashioned command and control. Like, break up the monopolies that are killing family farms, ban dangerous pesticides, and ban CAFOs. CAFOs are destructive to local air quality, they waste manure and it eventually pollutes water bodies, and they are such an invitation to pathogens that they have to use antibiotics constantly, thus rendering them ineffective. If the end of CAFOs means Americans can’t eat as much meat as they are accustomed to, so be it. I don’t agree with those who think we all need to be vegans; meat can be raised sustainably, but not via CAFOs. Oh, also terminate subsidies for ethanol, a false solution that wastes corn/farmland.
Mary, thanks for your comments. You bring up some very good and worthy issues. No programs have been developed yet with this legislation. The legislation empowers the Secretary of Agriculture to develop a suite of programs to reduce barriers for farmers to enter into carbon markets and for them to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase soil organic matter. We all will have an opportunity to comment on any proposed programs. Reducing emissions and putting carbon in the soil are solutions we desperately need. Confined Animal Feeding Operations do create problems. Some good news though, the U.S. has banned the use of antibiotics in animal feed, and all CAFOs are regulated. There is a greater potential for gaming the system with animal feeding operations that are not regulated. It’s not how big or small the operation is that causes problems, it’s how they farm. I’ve seen some small farming operations that cause more environmental problems than big ones. Many of the issues you raise are because on many farms they have exceeded the carrying capacity of their land, hence the need for a CAFO. And that is a much bigger issue and I’m grateful you brought it up.
Yes. I agree completely with Mary Wildfire. The Growing Climate Solutions Act will create a carbon market as an incentive to utilize these practices when we will already have two mechanisms to incentivize farmers to incorporate these practices. And, many small farmers, organic farmers and other coalitions oppose the act because it’s another way for Big Ag to make money. And, we don’t need to encourage the building, expansion or even the continuation of CAFOs which cause enormous environmental degradation including to groundwater, air quality and more. Oh yeah, they’re also torture chambers for animals. People need to look at the Agriculture Resilience Act and let’s get the grassroots effort out to get behind it. It does what the Growing Climate Solutions Act purports to do without creating a carbon market.
I wish I could be optimistic about the passage of this legislation in a timely manner. As more families fall into dire straits due to Covid-19 Congress cannot even pass a simple relief package without tacking on pet projects which immediately cause partisanship and failure. But I am grateful their is a person like you, and many others, who will champion legislation that helps the planet.
Thanks, Charlie. You are the eternal optimist. I’ve heard this legislation will not get out of committee during this session. Too bad. This is some win-win progress for everyone.
I think the legislation is a great idea and if we continue to support it I think we could create a huge pathway to mitigating climate change while supporting sustainable farms. In order to support this I think we need to bring awareness to the issue and inform people that soil is the second largest carbon sink on Earth. If more people knew this I think it could make a huge difference for our planet!
This is an interesting yet complex passage. I can understand the benefits of rewarding farmers for good stewardship. I am a bit confused with the “Our Soil is the Second Largest Carbon Sink on the Planet” section. You mention how sustainably raised livestock can positively impact carbon sequestration practices, however, to my understanding, grazing livestock actually has negative affects on greenhouse gas emissions because they release methane into the atmosphere through their digestion and waste. Do the soil benefits outweigh the emissions released from cows through digestion and waste?
One of the most useful tools I’ve gotten out of the ISAT program is systems thinking. Although the mental models we use are not even close to perfect, they are great tools for helping us solve problem like that of increasing carbon concentrations in the atmosphere. Even though properly manage farmland can sequester 11% of americas greenhouse gases, this is about 1.5% of global yearly CO2 emissions. When viewing the problem through a one dimensional solution like soil carbon sequestering, the numbers don’t look so good. Although, given what I’ve learned about systems, this 1.5% is only a small part of the overall solution. When this 1.5% when combined with countless other measures, it can truly make the difference in mitigating climate change. Before learning about systems thinking, the 1.5% would have seemed puny and insignificant, but I now see it as a salient piece of a larger solution.
I hope this legislation will make a positive difference on carbon sequestration and climate related issues. Often, I think legislation unfortunately is all talk and no action, just to appease certain groups of people. After reading this article, I am hopeful that actual change may occur. Though continued carbon emissions are an issue, programs like the ones stated above can spark change, even if it means we have to just take baby steps in the right direction.
Any legislation that promotes a more sustainable future is a victory for the environment, but especially this one. The fact that soil is the second largest carbon sink should be utilized to the best of our ability, so helping farmers do that needs to be a priority. I look forward to the implementation of this legislation, but I think patience will be required with the government spending during this pandemic. Hopefully, when things become more normal, the focus can shift back on a green future.