Late in 2020, the Rodale Institute issued a white paper titled “Regenerative Agriculture and the Soil Carbon Solution.” The authors — Jeff Moyer, CEO of the Rodale Institute, and Tom Newmark, co-founder and chair of The Carbon Underground — kick off the paper by explaining what many of you already know — that agriculture has been identified as being responsible for nearly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Not only that, but modern industrial farming techniques have “accelerated the depletion of soil carbon stocks,” they say, adding that:

  • Most agricultural soils have lost 30-75% of their original carbon to the atmosphere
  • Most corn and wheat cropland contains less than 2% soil organic carbon
  • Overuse of nitrogen (N) fertilizers have led to rising nitrous oxide emissions
  • Intensification of livestock and rice production have increased methane emissions

But these very characteristics suggest that there’s hope for agriculture to be a big part of the climate solution.

“These degraded soils hold the promise for regeneration,” the authors say. “Degraded farm soils are some of the best soils on the planet to achieve carbon drawdown: they are already highly managed, they’re accessible, and they have the capacity to hold a lot of carbon — all it takes are management changes it make this happen”

In fact, the paper theorizes that if all cropland and pastureland were converted to regenerative ag practices, they could sequester more than 100% of global annual CO2 emissions.

The whitepaper authors acknowledge that their analysis represents a “thought experiment,” as the global carbon sequestration potentials are extrapolated from results seen in regenerative cropping and grazing systems in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions of the U.S. Shortly after the paper was released, I asked Moyer how realistic that figure was in a No-Till Farmer podcast.

“If you look at the paper, you'll see that we did support that premise with about 160 or 170 peer-reviewed research papers and … if you do the math, it actually does work. Does that mean that every farmer in the country could expect the same results? No. Could some farms expect much greater results? Yes,” says Moyer.

“But [the data is] telling us that even in the worst case scenario, agriculture has a huge potential to sequester carbon, more than any other industry. You can't take 100% of the carbon out of electric production, because it's not based on biology…But if we rely on the basic biological principles and practices that exist in nature, we can do that.”

Many companies, organizations and even the government have gotten in on the discussion about using agricultural lands as carbon sinks, and a slew of carbon credit initiatives have sprung up to pay farmers for sequestering carbon on their lands. It turns out many long-term no-tillers will find it more difficult to cash in on these programs than farmers who have been using conventional practices, as the programs are largely based on farmers adopting new practices — what they call “additionality” — but some producers, such as Maryland’s Trey Hill and Iowa’s Kelly Garrett, have begun to get paid for following soil-friendly farming practices.

It also turns out there are still a lot of unanswered questions about how carbon is sequestered in the soil, how long it stays there, and how much of a role soil biology and atmospheric CO2 play, not to mention how much soil carbon is actually worth in cold hard cash and what role the government should play in the carbon marketplace. But overall, I’m encouraged that so many are taking an interest in the topic of no-till and conservation agriculture, and hope that it can help increase the adoption of positive practices on more acres.

Have you been following the research on carbon sequestration and if so, what do you think?