Establishing a Fair Ag Carbon Market Will Be Complicated, But Worth the Effort

July 29, 2021

The talk among policy makers in Washington to promote a market in which farmers, ranchers and forestland owners can be fiscally rewarded for their efforts to retain carbon in their soil has excited many. The prospect for additional revenue sources is alluring for a high-risk sector whose members can see a total loss of a year’s revenue in a single day due to flooding or fire.

The idea is to reward those who produce our food, feed and fiber and adopt practices that help build up carbon stores in the ground, including reduced tillage, cover crops, rotational grazing practices and others.

While the idea of a soil carbon market is discussed enthusiastically, implementing provisions that reward growers equitably and fairly is proving difficult. As a new report issued this week by Environmental Defense Fund and the Woodwell Climate Research Center highlighted, the 12 published protocols used to generate soil carbon credits through carbon sequestration in croplands all take different approaches to measure, report and verify net climate impacts.

The protocols fail to adequately manage issues like additionality – the proclivity of markets to focus on newly implemented stewardship practices to generate carbon credits, limiting the benefits for those stewards of the land who have long engaged in practices that store carbon.

The current protocols also mostly fail to protect against any carbon storage reversal that might occur as the result of incidents like fires or hurricanes. Nor do they adequately consider the loss of carbon permanence when other practices are implemented on the targeted acreage.

Further complicating the assessment of carbon in the soil is the fact that different protocols among markets means that some programs pay for carbon sequestered at different depths (depending on the crops planted), while some programs pay directly for practices implemented.

As a result, the carbon credit market is bit of a hodgepodge, leaving a confusing scenario where it is difficult to compare credits or even guarantee climate benefits are being achieved.

Given that we looked at ag’s role in carbon sequestration in a study issued in 2009 through our 25x’25 renewable energy advocacy groups, SfL farmer leaders Ray Gaesser and Fred Yoder have long tracked the evolution of carbon markets . They note that the prominent focus on new practitioners of carbon-sequestering soil management essentially penalizes those who have a long history of protecting the soil, building soil health and sequestering nutrients. As Yoder said, “The last thing we should do is reward the bad actors while punishing the early adopters by discounting their continuous efforts to sink carbon.”

Gaesser notes the “great need for better science and data in order for everyone up the carbon chain to allow for more accurate decisions” on working farms, ranches and forestlands.

Underscoring the need to give growers more information to generate involvement is underlined by the findings of a survey commissioned in part by Purdue University of 1,200 Indiana farmers. The poll shows that while nearly 40 percent were aware of opportunities to receive payments for storing carbon on their farms, only 7 percent have actively engaged in discussions about storing carbon and a meager 1 percent have entered into a contract to store carbon.

Both SfL leaders say there must be significant financial incentives to compensate for the costs required to convert to carbon-saving practices. According to researchers at Purdue, prices available to producers seem to range from $10-$20 per metric ton (MT) of carbon sequestered – an amount too low to provide incentives for widespread participation.

Yoder notes that if carbon credits are too cheap, the farmer will not be willing to retool to take advantage of the carbon market. Furthermore, polluters will not be incentivized to make changes when they can buy inexpensive offsets. “This doesn’t move the needle one bit,” he says.

Policy writers can make available tools that will optimize marketing opportunities. Some have suggested an investment tax credit to secure a partnership between tenant and landlord to move forward. A low-carbon grain standard for commodity crops could offer possibilities, with Cargill, ADM and other grain buyers offering, for example, a 10-cent premium for a low carbon corn bushel. Commodity Credit Corporation funds could be used to kick off the program, with the market eventually taking over and turning over thousands of dollars to producers.

SfL acknowledges how complicated and difficult establishing a viable ag carbon market will be as decisions on protocols for metrics and measurement are made. But given the many solutions to our challenges that agriculture can offer, the investment is well worth it.

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