Biden must pay farmers to store more carbon
In his first 100 days in office, President Biden has advanced a tectonic shift in American climate policy. He has ushered in an ambitious American Jobs Plan meant to spark the creation of renewable energy jobs and bolster a green American infrastructure, and he has pledged to halve U.S. emissions by 2030. But beyond wind turbines and electric vehicle charging stations, the Biden administration is eyeing a new frontier for a sector that is critical to curbing dangerous levels of carbon emissions: agriculture.
Farmland covers almost half of the United States, is responsible for about 10 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions, and yet farmers wield a unique capacity that very few others can boast — an ability to capture carbon from the atmosphere through practices known as “carbon farming.”
By using soil amendments like rock dust, compost and biochar, rotating crops, planting trees and shrubs alongside crops, and reducing tillage, farmers can capture and store atmospheric carbon in soils — benefitting our climate while offering new economic opportunity for rural communities.
If American farmers adopted just some of these carbon farming practices today, they would not only reduce their current greenhouse gas contributions, but actually capture and store an amount of carbon equivalent to 15 percent of our annual emissions. In the long term, carbon farming can even increase resistance to drought, cut fertilizer costs, and boost crop yield.
The glaring problem is that farmers in America today can’t afford to embrace these practices — at least not enough of them to make a measurable impact. Committing to new practices presents financial risks for farmers already stressed by economic hardship and weather extremes.
Biden’s Department of Agriculture put out a call for ideas to bolster carbon farming, and the solution lies in changing its financial incentives.
We argue that the USDA should establish a 10-year financial incentive, through direct payments, grants, loans, subsidies, or tax offsets, for the adoption of carbon farming practices. An immediate limited-term USDA-led program would uniquely provide the necessary momentum, expertise, and centralization to ensure that the rapid adoption of carbon farming, and development of a carbon credit economy, is safe, just, and effective.
Existing financial incentives for carbon farming require farmers to verify they’ve stored carbon in soils. Consequently, farmers need certainty that a newly adopted practice will substantially increase soil carbon, making it worth the investment, and they need reliable methods to verify and report their carbon storage. However, we still don’t know which practices drive the greatest carbon storage across variable farm sizes, soils, crops and climates — and methods for verification are still being developed.
These barriers can be overcome by incentivizing the practices upfront, on top of existing rewards for carbon stored.
By incentivizing the adoption of practices, farmers can begin carbon farming now, and work with scientists through the USDA and university extension to monitor outcomes, integrating real-world results into predictive models that can inform best practices in the future. Similarly, risks and unintended consequences from the practices can be examined, supporting farmers to more quickly adjust and optimize, while building knowledge that can be spread to other farmers.
This new incentive model would also help to develop the monitoring technologies and reporting framework required for a reliable carbon credit economy.
The USDA’s existing infrastructure and reputation with farmers can help optimize a soil carbon monitoring and reporting scheme that considers farmer’s resources and capacities, including labor, broadband, and economic viability. Such collaboration would ensure that carbon commodification rewards farmers equitably, and enable future farmers to both grow food and store carbon as central to their business model.
Incentivizing farmers in this way would also have strong social justice and equity implications, providing economic opportunity for smallholder and BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) farmers who have historically been pushed out of agricultural economic opportunities. The current incentive for carbon storage inherently allows wealthier, larger farms to generate more carbon-capital: more land to store carbon on — more money to accommodate risk. Meanwhile, smallholder farmers, young farmers, and farmers without extra capital or land are left with less access to the carbon economy. By incentivizing the practice, all farmers — regardless of farm size, resources, or historical treatment from USDA — can benefit from carbon farming and help solve our climate crisis.
Establishing a carbon-farming practice incentive for the next 10 years is a feasible use of the USDA’s funding and financing capacities. With it, the Biden administration has an unrivaled opportunity to fight climate change, empower farmers, support rural communities, and stimulate an equitable carbon commodification economy. Let’s take this feasible step and demonstrate to the world our leadership on a carbon economy, climate solutions, and the future of farming.
Benjamin Z. Houlton is the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. His his research interests include global ecosystem processes, climate change solutions, and agricultural sustainability.
Garrett Boudinot, Ph.D., research associate at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and community science fellow with the American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange, contributed to this piece.
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