Carbon Credits Are Coming!! Carbon Credits Are Coming!

You can’t pick up an ag magazine or listen to a farm report without hearing SOMETHING about all the news in Washington D.C. about carbon sequestration and carbon markets. Heck, you can hardly listen to ANY news source without hearing how soil health/regenerative agriculture is going to play a major role in our nation’s strategy to combat climate change.

Personally, I think this focus is a good thing—for some time now I have been pushing the benefits that practices like no-till, cover crops, grass plantings on highly erodible and improved grazing practices can have when it comes to sequestering carbon in the soil and reducing emissions. 

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I at one time was the executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts and helped create and run a state based carbon credit program that, at its peak, had over 50,000 acres enrolled. I’m a firm believer that anything that encourages conservation work on the ground and rewards farmers and ranchers for their stewardship is something worth pursuing.

All this said, however, I sometimes get a little concerned that all of this focus on carbon dioxide reduction has the tendency to push aside any discussion of the multiple other benefits the soil health/regenerative ag practices can generate both for the environment and for the bottom lines of farmers and ranchers.

There is no doubt that encouraging more soil health work on the ground will have a positive impact on the climate — if nothing else, just getting more folks to switch to no-till would greatly reduce the amount of diesel burned by producers and generate a corresponding reduction in emissions. That, in and of itself, is definitely good.

Still, we should be remember that there are multiple benefits beyond greenhouse gas reductions that come from having producers switch from conventional farming and ranching practices to a soil health/regenerative ag approach.

Take soil erosion: This, to me, is the great unsung environmental catastrophe that is coming at us like a freight train. Everything rests on an inch of topsoil. Civilization cannot exist if it loses the capacity to feed itself.

Right now, some of the best topsoil in the world is under concrete and asphalt because that’s where the major cities sprang up. In addition, we continue to lose soil at an alarming rate. In the U.S. alone, it’s estimated that soil disappears 10 times faster than it is naturally replenished. 

A Cornell University study estimated that the rate of loss of soil to erosion in the U.S. equaled nearly 1.7 billion tons of farmland per year. And a 2015 United Nations report estimated that 33% of the worlds farmland was degraded thanks to soil loss. 

I’ve done the math myself and in Oklahoma alone we lose around 3 pounds of soil annually for every pound of wheat we grow. This is a real problem.

As it turns out however, the practices that folks are pushing to reduce greenhouse gasses — no-till, cover crops, grass plantings on highly erodible land, better pasture management — are the same practices that we want to encourage producers to use to reduce soil erosion. 

This alone is of great benefit if we are going to feed and clothe a world of nearly 10 billion people by mid-century, but we should also remember that with reduced erosion comes reduce runoff, which leads to benefits to address another major challenge: water quality.

Soil health/regenerative ag practices can have a huge impact on reducing non-point source pollution in water.

In my home state of Oklahoma we have successfully taken over 80 streams off the EPA impaired list  for issues like turbidity, bacteria, nitrogen and phosphorus — the most of any state in the nation – largely by working with farmers and ranchers in targeted watersheds to implement those same practices that many are now promoting as ways to address climate change.

And Oklahoma is not alone. A handbook from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture reports that converting to no-till can reduce soil erosion by over 90% and phosphorus loads by over 60%.

This same publication says that cover crops can cut nitrate loads in half, that pasture management can reduce sedimentation by nearly 50%, nitrogen loads by over 60% and phosphorous loads by 70% and that grass plantings and buffer strips can reduce nitrogen by over 80%. 

All of this and I still haven’t talked about soil health/regenerative agricultures contribution to water QUANTITY protection in the form increased water absorption rate and soil water holding capacity, its ability to improve fertilizer efficiency, its positive effects on wildlife habitat, or its contributions to farmers’ and ranchers’ bottom lines — but I think you get the picture.

I guess where I am going with all this is that I hope that while we are discussing the ability of soil health/regenerative agriculture to help mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration and avoided emissions that we don’t lose sight of all the other multiple benefits that this approach can and does bring to both production agriculture and the environment.

Many farmers and ranchers have been working to be better stewards of the land for many years now. The benefits we all get from the good work they do, regardless how long they have been doing or where in the United States they are located, should be recognized and included in the discussion. 

The soil health and regenerative ag movement does a lot of good — let’s make sure we talk about all of it.