Fighting Climate Change Offers Recovery, New Revenues for America’s Farms
Most initiatives to fight climate change today focus on reducing fossil fuel emissions from electricity generation, transportation, and buildings. But to avoid the worst impacts of climate change we must also significantly reduce the atmospheric carbon that has already been emitted. While efforts are underway to develop new and high tech mechanisms to accomplish this, there is an immediately available and economically viable pathway for atmospheric carbon removal—one that provides a compelling new value proposition for farmers to revitalize their soils and get paid for doing it.
Regenerative agriculture methods such as cover cropping, crop rotation, low-till or no-till practices, and reduced reliance on fossil-fuel based inputs can mitigate climate change by drawing down atmospheric CO2 and sequestering that carbon in the soil, while improving microbial soil health, and increasing soil fertility, crop yield and resilience. These practices also produce multiple additional economic and environmental benefits.
For most of the past decade, agriculture has been one of the most challenging sectors of the U.S. economy. American farmers have had to endure plummeting crop prices, trade-war tariffs, rising costs for inputs like fertilizer, and increasing crop and livestock losses from extreme weather events and less predictable growing seasons—an estimated 85% of U.S. crop losses are due to extreme weather events. Then came COVID-19, disrupting supply chains, upending markets such as restaurants, schools, and institutional food, and further dimming farmers’ prospects with a likely extended recession. According to the Food and Agriculture Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri, net farm income could plunge by 19% ($20 billion) in 2020.
But climate-smart agriculture and soil carbon drawdown are in the nascent stages of ushering in a potentially gamechanging chapter in 21st century agriculture. Through strategic direction of Farm Bill funds and other state and federal policies, partnerships with private sector companies seeking to go carbon-negative, and increased consumer demand for low-carbon food, fiber and fuel, regenerative cultivation practices can deliver four significant economic, environmental, and political opportunities for the U.S. farm economy.
AN OPPORTUNITY ON FOUR FRONTS
Farm Profits and Economic Recovery
Climate-smart agricultural practices offer a path to economic recovery and long-term profitability for hard-hit farmers by delivering increased and more consistent crop yields, reduced costs for inputs (fertilizer, fuel, pesticides) and crop insurance, and the opportunity to participate in markets for soil-based carbon removal. ‘Reduced carbon’ or ‘negative carbon’ crop outputs and the products derived from them may also have increased market value as consumer awareness and demand increases for products with these attributes.3 Healthier soils also make farms and ranches more resilient in the face of increasingly common extreme weather events.
Ag Tech & Job Creation
“Ag tech” is one of the fastest-growing technology sectors, with investors from across the financial sector funding startup companies creating highly skilled jobs in technologies such as microbial soil additives, advanced sensors, drones, monitoring software, GPS mapping, genomics, AI, and data analytics. The demand for accurate soil data measurement and analysis is strong, and college programs to train new ag tech professionals are growing throughout the Farm Belt. Additional innovation is taking place in the creation of agricultural carbon trading platforms, establishing carbon as a new farm commodity.
Valuing Carbon Removal & Ecosystem Services
While storing carbon from the atmosphere in agricultural soils can be a key factor in the battle against climate change, the practices that sequester carbon also deliver a wide range of other environmental benefits—including improved water quality and conservation, improved air quality, greater biodiversity, and reduced toxic inputs. Markets and other opportunities that monetize these practices are emerging, creating new revenue streams for farmers and ranchers across the U.S.
Bridging Partisan Divides
Support for policies to incentivize agricultural carbon sequestration has bridged the historically contentious divide between the environmental and agricultural communities because the practices that restore and enhance soil carbon produce both economic benefits for farmers and natural resource benefits to society. In 2017, for instance, an unprecedented coalition of environmental, business, and farm industry groups helped forge and recruit bipartisan Congressional support for the Soil Health Demonstration Trial in the 2018 Farm Bill, a key soil health enhancement and soil carbon measurement program. Since then, numerous policies building on that provision have been proposed at the state and federal levels by lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle, as diverse stakeholders recognize the benefits of valuing agricultural carbon removal.
ABOUT THE REPORT
Healthy Soils and the Climate Connection: A Path to Economic Recovery on America’s Farms provides a roadmap for how climate-smart agriculture policies could provide profit boosts for farmers and climate wins for advocates.
The complete report is available for download at this link.