June 23, 2021
The climate crisis is reaching a crucial tipping point. The past decade was the hottest on record, rife with extreme weather events and unparalleled natural disasters that highlight economic inequity and expose instability in our food and farming systems. Now more than ever, the urgency of this crisis requires bold steps to build resiliency, responsibly manage resources, and protect and equip frontline communities. The urgency of the crisis must be met with effective solutions.
Although the problems of climate change are increasingly complex, research and experience clearly showcase the need for a holistic approach to land management as part of our national response. After years of experiencing the impacts of a changing climate, farmers and ranchers are committed to being part of the solution. Their willingness to adapt and implement climate-stewardship practices has never been greater.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s (NSAC) alliance of grassroots organizations supports a range of policies and programs that form a comprehensive response to ensuring farmers and ranchers have the tools and resources they need to meet this crisis, by addressing air and water quality, biodiversity, and resiliency while protecting farmer livelihoods. As far back as the 19th century, philosopher Rudolf Steiner warned that consolidation in farming would replace diversity. This is because farming practices cannot be broken into component parts but rather must work as a harmonious system. History has shown this over and over again.
Many climate-beneficial practices, such as cover crops and rotational grazing, trace back to Indigenous, African, and communities of color. These farmers worked the land harmoniously for centuries and played a critical role in developing agricultural innovation that we now recognized as the core principles of sustainability, regenerative agriculture, and land preservation. When Dr. Washington Carver of Tuskegee University conducted his pioneering research on the use of crop rotation in combination with nitrogen-fixing legumes to regenerate soil, he was reviving these types of traditional practices . While research and evidence point to effective programs that create the infrastructure and tools farmers need to meet the demands of the changing climate, a growing emphasis is being placed on the role of carbon markets in agriculture, raising some important questions about the path forward.
NSAC recently outlined some key concerns about the increasing focus on carbon markets in agriculture. Carbon markets are a system where farmers can voluntarily integrate climate-friendly practices (processes that may contribute to carbon sequestration) to generate “credits” that are then purchased by industries to offset the pollution they create. The most compelling argument for the creation of a carbon market that trades credits produced by improvements to farming and ranching practices is the ability to bring private capital into play to support more farmers to institute conservation practices. For systems like these to work, there must be a clear financial benefit for farmers and a reason for polluting industries to purchase credits – often a policy mandating greenhouse gas emission reduction. However, for markets that have already been established, the transaction costs have been too high and the price of carbon too low to ensure robust participation by farmers and ranchers. Often the few farmers that have benefited from markets have been large-scale, industrial producers and not small- and medium-scale farmers, a phenomenon exacerbated by acreage minimums and other requirements. Also, the information necessary to document the quantities of carbon sequestered by farmers – from modeling and remote sensing – is not widespread and can be difficult to scale to smaller farm sizes which limits the tools market operators require for monitoring and evaluating success.
Carbon sequestration results vary greatly by region, climate, and soil type which presents additional technical barriers to the integrity of these markets. Overall, carbon markets have not significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions and do not present a complete and immediate response to the layered climate-driven challenges faced by farmers. Given the difficulty of accurately measuring carbon sequestration, the current tools and methodologies in use may overestimate the carbon sequestration benefits of practices. However, research finds that a variety of practices that maintain soil and ecosystem health in many instances also result in some amount of carbon sequestration. Carbon markets do not account for the multiple ecosystem services that integrated soil health practices deliver. They look narrowly at agricultural soils and do not properly compensate farmers and ranchers for the multiple environmental benefits that climate stewardship and soil health practices deliver.
Beyond the technical issues and myopic focus on carbon alone, carbon markets may aggravate issues of racial and economic inequity in agriculture by prioritizing high returns on investment which can only be provided by large-scale operations which will likely contribute to further consolidation in the sector. No existing carbon market programs have ensured that the financial and environmental benefits are equitably distributed to BIPOC farmers, small- and medium-scale farmers, and other farmers facing barriers to participation, who are already vulnerable to unregulated polluting industries.
Many advocates are concerned that by focusing too heavily on carbon markets in federal and state policies, crucial resources could be pulled away from other types of solutions, like public programs that emphasize increasing crop and livestock diversity, managing nutrients, and producing on-farm renewable energy. Focusing on one aspect of soil health, while ignoring all of the other practices proven to help farmers transition to a more resilient climate future, could prove to be a reductionist and ineffective approach. Investments in conservation, research, rural development, and renewable energy programs can address the crisis without allowing polluting industries to sidestep reductions in their own emissions. Clearly more research is needed to understand the effectiveness of carbon markets in the long run. But time is running out.
Given the lingering questions about carbon markets and the urgency of the climate crisis, a better path forward is the expansion of existing working lands conservation programs that provide immediate and effective solutions directly to farmers and ranchers. NSAC praises the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to creating a more equitable and resilient agricultural sector, setting the goal for U.S. agriculture to be the first to reach net zero, and its emphasis on scaling-up programs that serve farmers. We also applaud recent calls from Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) to increase conservation spending. Investing an historic $50 billion in conservation as part of the infrastructure package is exactly the type of funding commitment that will help farmers address this crisis.
The Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA) and the Climate Stewardship Act are two pieces of legislation that call for increased investments in existing programs and structures and create the framework for a farmer-focused, research-driven path to net zero agriculture. The ARA refocuses federal conservation, research, renewable energy, and rural economic development programs on climate resilience and empowers farmers and ranchers who are eager to implement a range of climate change solutions on the ground. It is a comprehensive piece of legislation on climate and agriculture and supports the criteria and infrastructure that farmers urgently need to tackle the climate crisis. In addition to a robust agriculture title, the Climate Stewardship Act also includes provisions on forestry and wetlands to encompass holistic climate mitigation and adaptation of various natural resource systems beyond agriculture.
The current preoccupation with expanding carbon markets diverts attention away from other sustainable approaches that help farmers address current challenges. We should prioritize expanding existing programs that have a proven record of success and this can be done without the construction of a carbon market which would require industry sector specific emissions reduction targets, a national or global financial platform to conduct offset trading, a governmental regulatory oversight body, and policy to define, assess and monitor the value of credits and practices implemented in millions of acres of farm and ranch lands. We must absolutely support research to better understand soil carbon sequestration, but avoid doing so at the expense of urgent, comprehensive investments that farmers need now.
Farmers and ranchers face immediate challenges from the climate crisis. Solutions need to keep farmers on the land, enhance the sustainability of their operations, and promote thriving rural communities. In its report, NSAC affirms that “Policymakers should invest in programs with the longest successful track record of addressing on-farm stewardship – the farm bill conservation, research, renewable energy, and rural development programs – as the primary strategy to advance and scale up climate beneficial farming practices.”
There is an urgent need to scale up the robust producer-focused policies that are proven to incentivize climate stewardship practices. These practices will help sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and also build resilience, reduce soil erosion, and protect natural resources and biodiversity. Congress faces a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in agriculture through climate and infrastructure packages. We need significant investments in rural communities that empower farmers and ranchers to be a part of the solution. Adapting U.S. agriculture to the rapidly changing climate is key to transforming the climate-change story from one of hopelessness and resignation to one of renewal and regeneration.
 Leah Penniman, Farming While Black, (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018), 3.