U.S. farmers can plow fertile ground for climate solutions

As climate and seasonal weather patterns grow increasingly unpredictable, might farmers be rising leaders in the battle against climate change?

The climate community has long recognized the importance of engaging the agriculture sector in tackling the climate crisis. With the U.S. agriculture industry contributing nearly 10 percent of total national emissions, solutions involving this sector have a critical role to play in achieving climate goals.

While reducing the emissions we release into the atmosphere is essential, solutions that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere are now recognized as a must, and have been garnering increased bipartisan support. Here’s where farming comes in. The world’s soils can hold more carbon than the atmosphere and all living plant cover combined. Soil carbon sequestration, which refers to practices that accelerate the uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by agricultural soils, has the potential to transform agriculture into a key tool for carbon removal.

The total carbon stock across all U.S. croplands currently sits at an estimated 18.9 gigatons, according to a study published in Scientific Reports. Today’s conventional agriculture, however, is largely dependent on intrusive, industrial practices that deplete soil microbial diversity and strip soils of their capacity to retain carbon. The majority of U.S. agricultural soils to date have lost an average of 30 to 50 percent of their original organic carbon content.

To increase soil carbon concentrations, farmers can adopt a variety of regenerative agriculture practices. The 2020 Netflix documentary Kiss the Ground takes a deep dive into the details of regenerative agriculture and its carbon drawdown benefits. Key techniques include reducing mechanical soil disturbance (i.e. minimizing or eliminating tillage), maintaining living plant cover on soils year-round (i.e. cover cropping), retaining crop residues as surface mulch, and using nutrient-rich compost or manure instead of chemical fertilizers. With widespread adoption of these kinds of practices, U.S. soils have the capacity to sequester an additional 0.25 gigatons or more of carbon dioxide per year, according to a report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. That’s nearly 5 percent of our annual carbon dioxide emissions.

Carbon-sequestering soil management practices also offer widely recognized co-benefits for overall soil health, crop resilience, and field productivity. By increasing the complexity and diversity of agricultural ecosystems, regenerative agriculture makes the soil more fertile while retaining more water. It also reduces erosion, enhances nutrient cycling, and boosts resilience to pests and drought.

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has also identified soil carbon sequestration as the lowest-cost method of carbon removal currently available. A recent study published in Carbon Balance and Management estimates that around 93% of the total soil carbon sequestration potential of U.S. croplands could be captured for less than $87 per metric ton. And, switching to regenerative agriculture can help U.S. farmers increase their profits by over 70 percent.

Achieving effective soil carbon sequestration at scale will not come without addressing near-term and longer-term challenges, however. For one, the accuracy of existing soil carbon measurement methodologies remains shaky. For soil carbon storage programs to succeed, accounting tools and procedures must be able to reliably verify that claimed sequestration levels have occurred. Only then can we ensure that sequestration projects actually produce net carbon reductions. As C2ES’s recent Policy Priorities for the New Administration and Congress report states, there is a need for greater federal investment in research and data collection to improve the technologies and methodologies necessary for accurate carbon accounting.

In the longer-term, the relative impermanence of soil carbon sequestration compared to other forms of carbon removal presents an obstacle. Policies must be designed to encourage sustained application of these practices, and procedures must be put in place to account for potential carbon losses. Soil carbon sequestration can become a stable and consequential tool in our suite of climate solutions, but only with strong, continual support at the policy level.

Herein lies the current challenge. Despite the many advantages of soil carbon sequestration, federal support has historically been largely inadequate. Factoring in policy uncertainty and a lack of sufficient financial and technical assistance, one can understand why farmers who may be inclined to adopt sustainable practices might be deterred from doing so.

In order for the agriculture industry to reach its carbon removal potential, the federal government must increase funding for USDA programs that actively promote carbon sequestration, and establish more robust incentives for farmers across the country to embrace these practices. The USDA does have in place conservation and land management programs administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and authorized under the Farm Bill, but few address soil carbon storage specifically. Notably, however, the 2018 Farm Bill updated several existing conservation programs to include carbon sequestration as a newly designated objective, and outlined funding for a pilot project to pay farmers to implement sequestration practices. The FY 2021 House Appropriations Bills also include unprecedented levels of funding for carbon removal. The House Agriculture Appropriations Bill in particular explicitly highlights the importance of carbon storage in agricultural soils, and outlines funding for six programs related to soil health and soil carbon.

Washington can do more to sway farmers toward participating in these kinds of programs. C2ES’s recent Climate Policy Priorities and Getting to Zero reports recommend policies including increasing the enrollment capacity of existing USDA programs, expanding the education services available to farmers, authorizing sequestration projects to produce sellable carbon offsets, reducing federal farm loan interest rates and crop insurance rates, and offering equipment subsidies. Farmers should receive sufficient financial incentives as well as the training and technical assistance necessary to successfully implement new soil management practices.

The potential for widespread carbon removal by agricultural soils presents an opportunity for the agriculture sector to make significant contributions toward national climate change mitigation. Successful policies will complement traditional emissions-reduction solutions and provide economic incentives that chart a clear path toward accelerating carbon drawdown and improving the sustainability of our agriculture system. As climate change escalates, positioning and empowering farmers across the country to implement critical carbon-removing solutions will be an important component of achieving a cleaner and more resilient future.