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President Biden, Please Do Get into Carbon Farming

recent piece in Wired by Robert Paarlberg argued that President Biden should reject carbon farming as a climate solution and instead see it for what it is — a give-away to Big Ag. While Paarlberg raises some valid concerns, we cannot solve climate change if we ignore agriculture. Instead, we must turn skepticism into solutions and start farming like the climate depends on it.

Paarlberg makes a few key arguments against carbon farming: That regenerative farming practices are not new and were not invented as climate solutions. That the benefits can be lost if farmers go back to their old ways. That measuring soil carbon is hard. That carbon credits from agriculture will let big companies keep polluting. And that “Republican-leaning” farm groups are supporting it, so it must be bad.

Skepticism is understandable, but should be deployed to help achieve better outcomes, not torpedo an entire raft of solutions.

Paarlberg is right that cover crops and reduced tillage have been in use for decades (or more) and were invented for other purposes. Likewise, solar panels were first created in 1883, long before anthropogenic climate change was widely recognized, yet they remain a critical tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The climate crisis demands that we use every tool at our disposal, whether they were invented for this purpose or not.

We agree with Paarlberg that permanence is a critical issue. Any carbon farming scheme must include provisions to ensure that practices are maintained far into the future. Luckily, carbon registries have been operating for years now, building expertise that can help design a credible system.

And indeed, measuring soil carbon (and changes in it) is challenging, as we at American Farmland Trust have emphasized in the past. Yet it does not follow that carbon farming is being promoted because it is hard to verify the changes, as Paarlberg claims. On the contrary, we are promoting carbon farming because abundant science shows that good farming practices can take carbon out of the air and hold it in the soil, while simultaneously boosting productivity and cleaning up lakes and streams. Climate win-wins like this are rare — and must be seized.

Perhaps the strongest point that Paarlberg raises is that companies could use carbon credits from agriculture (and elsewhere) as a free pass to keep polluting. The answer to this is good policy design. If carbon credits are used as part of a cap-and-reduce system, they pay for rapid on-farm climate gains while companies retool for a carbon-neutral future.

And if carbon farming helps bring conservatives to the table to support climate action — and maybe get a bill through a 50-50 Senate — this should be celebrated. The alternative of no climate bill would be a historic missed opportunity.

American Farmland Trust is committed to working with Congress and the Biden Administration to develop policy incentives that realize climate wins on the farm. Carbon markets are only one potential tool. Whatever the mechanism, we will fight to make sure that it is:

  • Fair to farmers, so that 3rd parties do not siphon off the benefits;
  • Open to all, regardless of farm size and production system;
  • Real and verifiable, using carbon registry best practices;
  • Transitional for the economy, so that big polluters stay on the hook;
  • Designed for permanence, with appropriate safeguards in place.

To maintain anything like the climate we know today, we must embrace lasting, transformative change across the economy. In agriculture, that means deploying “old” practices like cover crops on an unprecedented scale, even as we innovate new solutions. Not for one year, or 10, but for as long as it takes to rebuild the carbon in our soils and reverse runaway warming.

About the Author
Mitch Hunter, PhD

Research Director

mhunter@farmland.org

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