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Proven programs, not false hopes — engaging farmers in climate solutions

Proven programs, not false hopes — engaging farmers in climate solutions
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Farmers should be rewarded for their efforts to become climate stewards. From building healthy soil to on-farm renewable energy to organic production and more, there are diverse agricultural solutions to the climate crisis. Our food security depends upon this fundamental transition in how farmers manage the land.   

Many in the climate policy space point to carbon markets as the solution to provide the necessary financial resources for farmers to make a significant transition to climate beneficial farming. But despite nearly 15 years of both private and regulatory carbon market attempts in the United States, they have never delivered the resources needed to support farmers.

The country’s first carbon market, the Chicago Climate Exchange, attracted a record number of farmers who signed up over 3 million acres, primarily in the upper Midwest. The market collapsed in 2010 because of market volatility and more offset credits than buyers. This left farmers, who had taken on additional risk and cost implementing new practices, in the cold. 

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Eight years ago, California created the country’s most comprehensive compliance carbon market. However, only the largest dairy operations in the country receive carbon credits by building costly methane digesters. High transaction costs combined with low carbon prices and a limited number of eligible project types make it nearly impossible for most farmers to participate in the California market. 

Now, a private, voluntary carbon market created by Indigo Ag claims that it will offer farmers $15 per metric ton of carbon sequestered. But a review done by CalCAN found that paying $15 per metric ton fell far below the cost of new farm practices, whether cover crops, compost or other soil management practices to increase carbon sequestration.

Despite a losing track record of carbon markets, some legislators have joined with agricultural trade groups and Big Green organizations to promote carbon markets as the way to deliver agricultural solutions to our climate crisis.

In 2020, House and Senate leaders introduced a number of bills aimed at advancing climate legislation focused on farm solutions. One such bill, the Growing Climate Solutions Act, received a lot of attention for its efforts to develop a federal carbon market for agriculture. Unfortunately, as currently written, the bill does not incorporate the lessons learned from the past and present carbon markets.

Among the bill’s shortcomings is its approach to certification of carbon projects on farms. It allows private consultants, working with farmers to develop projects for the newly proposed federal carbon market, to also certify those practices as eligible for credits on the market. This is a clear conflict of interest. 

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Moreover, the act allows self-registration for anyone who wants to get into the business of developing and certifying agricultural carbon credits. There is no uniform oversight or accreditation of certification service providers to ensure the competency and accuracy of their carbon credits. These provisions violate international norms for quality certification systems and undermine market integrity. 

The act would create the “Wild West” of carbon markets without sufficient integrity, oversight and standards. There are better approaches for incentivizing farmers to adopt practices that boost resilience and sequester carbon, such as public investments in proven working lands conservation and high-integrity organic certification programs. 

When the 1930s Dust Bowl Crisis laid bare the vulnerabilities of agriculture to unsustainable practices, the country rallied to create Soil Conservation Districts and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Together, these agricultural professionals teamed up with farmers to improve soil conservation and keep farmers on the land and it worked. Thirty years ago, Congress passed legislation to establish the USDA National Organic Program, creating a marketplace where consumers can support farmers whose practices sequester carbon.

We can meet the challenge of the climate crisis by scaling up and expanding well-established USDA conservation and organic programs. By providing the research, technical assistance and financial incentives, we will better meet the needs of farmers and the environment. And we can do this work in a way that supports farmers most vulnerable to the climate crisis: small, mid-scale farmers, farmers of color — farmers who are often underserved and left behind. We advance agricultural solutions to the climate crisis in ways that deliver equity and real benefits.

The climate crisis requires urgent action and farmers can be part of the solution. We cannot waste time or resources on approaches that have not worked. It is time for bold, decisive action, building on existing, successful efforts, to ensure U.S. agriculture not only survives in the face of climate change but thrives. 

Jeanne Merrill is the policy director with the California Climate & Agriculture Network, a coalition of the state’s sustainable and organic agriculture organizations.

Chris Schreiner is the executive director of Oregon Tilth, a leading nonprofit organic certifier, educator and advocate.