What if the government paid producers to be an effective tool in combat to fight climate change? What if private enterprise paid farmers to sequester carbon or for carbon-credits in a cap and trade exchange?
On October 30th, House Democrats’ climate panel explored what role agriculture can play in the climate crisis. Jennifer Moore-Kucera of American Farmland Trust urged Congress to seize the opportunity to engage ag through either legislation or “a transformational farm bill.” Experts at the committee were unanimous that agriculture can be a big part of the climate change solution through sequestering carbon in the soil. They also supported using the USDA conservation programs to focus on climate-friendly practices and called on more funding for research into this matter. Members of Congress want to know what policies they should adopt to “maximize carbon storage,” as well as “help farmers, ranchers, and natural resource managers adapt to the impacts of climate change.”
The USDA’s Economic Research Service published a study titled Economics of Sequestering Carbon in the U.S. Agricultural Sector that studies this issue. It found that if farmers adopted conservation tillage or converting some land to either forest or grasslands, it could be economically feasible and could provide low-cost opportunities to sequester additional carbon in soils and biomass. The study took into account if farmers switched to conservation tillage and paid $125 per metric ton for permanently sequestered carbon, that as much as “72 to 160 million metric tons could be sequestered, enough to offset 4 to 8 percent of gross U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases in 2001.” The study also takes into consideration different scenarios for payment amounts, whether payments would be supplemented by current conservation programs, conversion to forestry or grasslands, and found different potentials in the amount of carbon sequestration.
Currently, there are six Democratic candidates in the race for the nomination that are advocating paying farmers to help fight climate change. All have similar means by paying farmers through either grants to convert to more sustainable practices or expanding conservation programs in the USDA. According to Politico, the candidates have not given a price tag on how much they would it would cost to fund their programs. However, Senator Elizabeth Warren has said she would provide $15 billion a year to USDA conservation programs. Former Vice President Joe Biden said the program should be part of potential carbon markets by allowing corporations, individuals, and foundations to contribute funding to offset their emissions.
There is one corporation currently that is paying farmers. A four-year-old startup called Indigo Ag wants to feed the world and pay farmers to be a part of the climate change solution. Via the Indigo Carbon marketplace, companies can pay farmers $15 to sequester one metric ton of carbon dioxide in the soil. The chief executive, David Wells, has lofty goals through regenerative agriculture, and the use of their products, half to 100 percent of the carbon dioxide could be sequestered. A more realistic goal was presented by Rattan Lal, a soil scientist who heads the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University. He says the maximum soil sequestration that can be achieved, under ideal conditions, is nine billion tons. Indigo Ag makes non-GMO seed treatments that help farmers maximize their yield on row crops, including soybeans, rice, wheat, corn and cotton. The treatments consist of naturally occurring microbes, like plant-friendly bacteria and fungi. Farmers apply them to their seeds as a spray or powder coating before planting. In 2018, they had roughly 5,000 producers throughout the globe on 4 million acres. The company has also expanded into a sort of eBay, called Indigo Marketplace, and into assisting farmers using geospatial satellites. Incorporating this technology allows Indigo Ag and its customers to monitor the world’s food supply and figure out where to focus their efforts next.
Paying farmers and ranchers make sense from an environmental standpoint and an economic standpoint as well. As commodity prices have been at their lowest, paying producers would give offset their costs and encourage them to practice sustainability. As we lose 27 acres of prime agricultural land every minute to development, developers should bear the costs of degradation of these lands and helping to further contribute to climate change. Agriculture is a viable solution to carbon sequestration and climate change, and we should look further into this possibility.