Farmers around the world have a ripe opportunity to earn extra money while also contributing to a more sustainable future. In previous articles, we have looked at the opportunity for carbon credit markets to grow around forests and marine ecosystems. But what if there could also be an agricultural carbon market? In addition to improving livelihoods along the supply chain through the sale of resulting carbon credits, the incentivized shift to regenerative agricultural practices would usher in environmental benefits like decreased greenhouse gas emissions and industry-related benefits like higher quality soil and a more reliable food supply. As Paul Zorner of Locus Agricultural Solutions told Civil Eats, “most growers realize the land is their legacy, and if they can do something to improve their yields and get additional farm income, they will adopt these practices.”
There are a lot of opportunities to make the agricultural industry more sustainable and cut down its current carbon footprint. With methane released from growing rice and from the digestive processes of livestock, and nitrous oxide released from fertilizing the land and burning crop residue, greenhouse gases flow steadily from the sector. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes that in 2019 agricultural activities in the US emitted 628.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gases – 9.6 percent of total US emissions. “[Globally], agriculture, forestry and other types of land use account for 23 percent of human greenhouse gas emissions,” says Jim Skea of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). More specifically, agriculture accounts for half of methane, three-quarters of nitrous oxide, and 10 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. There is much room for improvement, and enhancing sustainability now is important in the long run. Besides being essential for meeting global climate targets, increasing emissions negatively impact agricultural productivity if left unchecked, according to the 2018 National Climate Assessment: “climate projections to the year 2100 suggest that increases are expected in the incidence of drought and elevated growing-season temperatures,” thus reducing future yields of important crops, a major problem in the buildup to the expected 2050 global population of 10 billion people.
In the words of Kiyoto Tanabe, the Co-Chair of the Task Force on National Greenhouse Gas Inventories, “the choices we make about sustainable land management can help reduce and in some cases reverse these adverse impacts.” And while agricultural projects have long been excluded from carbon markets, thus only accounting for 2.5 million credits between 2013 and June 2020, the tools and knowledge were not there yet to bring the idea to life. Now, with regenerative agriculture all the rage – adopted by such big players as Danone, General Mills, and McDonald’s – companies from all sorts of industries are buying carbon credits on their way to net zero. So, it just makes sense to cross-pollinate the two.
There are a plethora of different practices at a farmer’s disposal. Avoiding soil tilling, planting cover crops, adding soil amendments like compost, and incorporating animal grazing and planting of trees through silvopasture or agroforestry are just a few options that contribute to healthier soil with increased capacity for carbon sequestration. According to Regenerative International, “just transitioning 10-20 percent of agricultural production to best practice regenerative systems will sequester enough CO2 to reverse climate change and restore the global climate.”
A professor at Texas A&M, Dr. Richard Teague, is cautiously optimistic: “All the data we’ve collected suggest that the more people that manage their soil better, either in grazing or cropping systems, the more carbon will be in the ground. And that is a really significant factor.”
A system for farmers instituting such sustainable policies to earn carbon credits and sell them to companies that need to reduce emissions would benefit both parties. Plus, the bipartisan support for such a system is there: with the Growing Climate Solutions Act reintroduced in the Senate in April, at least 43 Senators and more than 70 organizations have made it clear that both sides of the political aisle support adding a certification program to the US Department of Agriculture so farmers can be rewarded for eco-friendly actions. Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa commented that “carbon credit markets provide our ag community with an avenue to capitalize on their ongoing commitment to sustainable farming, and it’s critical that we dissolve any obstacles standing in the way of this untapped potential.”
Notably, there are already several organizations operating in agricultural carbon markets. Indigo Agriculture, headquartered in Boston and operating across 21 states in the Midwest and Southeast, operates a voluntary, private market called Indigo Carbon. The company calculates the carbon credits owed to farms via measures like carbon modeling and annual soil samples, has them verified by third parties, sells those credits to corporate buyers, and then pays the farmers at an expected price of $15 per verified ton of carbon sequestered. As an additional benefit, Indigo Research Partners can also connect farmers with new methods and technologies that are tested and replicated across 120 enrolled growers and one billion data points daily.
Seattle-based Nori’s Carbon Removal Marketplace works in a similar manner but with some caveats: it allows farmers to enter all their data into the Nori COMET-Planner app and measures sequestered carbon using modeling that is based on a system of 1,200 federal sites for soil sampling and testing. After being verified, “a new Nori Carbon Removal Tonne (NRT)—equivalent to a ton of CO2—enters a queue in blockchain where it can be purchased,” which allows farmers in the platform to sell directly to buyers at their own prices and then get paid in Nori tokens. Those tokens can later be exchanged for cash or other forms of cryptocurrency. One major upside from a cost-savings perspective is that the platform does not take a profit off listing or maintenance fees, but rather a 15 percent transaction fee when a buyer makes a purchase.
And most recently, Farmers Edge – based in Canada and with offices in Nebraska – launched a Smart Carbon program across North America. Entire farms are digitized in a “true connected acre” and data flows into the FarmCommand® platform to enhance the ease of data monitoring and record verification that takes place before conversion into carbon credits and sale. Wade Barnes, the founder and CEO, stated in a press release, “As stewards of the land, farmers play a leading role in ensuring [the] stability of the global food supply and the health of our planet; they need collective support to do this. . . Farmers are part of the climate change solution.”