Our name is so great federal legislators borrowed it for a new bill called Growing Climate Solutions Act. The bill aims to help farmers, ranchers, and foresters participate in carbon credits markets, a financial market-based approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon credit markets emerged in the US in 2008 as a way for polluters to offset their carbon emissions by purchasing the pollution emission rights, the “credits”, from companies that incorporate technologies or practices that reduce emission or sequester carbon. The agricultural and ranching sectors are important potential participants in carbon markets, as some crops and farming practices (see sidebar) can sequester carbon or require lower energy use. However, participation among agriculturalists and ranchers has been lackluster, particularly among smaller family-owned operations.

Simply put, for markets to function properly you need ready and informed buyers and sellers, and prices that reflect costs of production, opportunity cost and risk.  For many farmers and ranchers, carbon farming struggles to provide sufficient reward to offset risks associated with investing to change practices. Transitioning to conservation practices such as cover crops, no-till, and diversified crop rotations requires different equipment, knowledge, and inputs.  Historically the prices in carbon markets have been too low to offset the risk in these investments.  Farming is inherently risky and without policies or programs that reduce risk, farmers are reluctant to be exposed to more economic instability.

There is also scrutiny of the market credits, the complex requirements for verification, and the function of the trading system.  Critics point out that it’s difficult to properly measure the amount of carbon being sequestered by these practices, as soil composition, topography, weather, crops can all vary across regions or even a single farm.  Moreover, it may not be possible to do these practices for more than a few years; for example, farmers that forego tilling annually eventually till fields after several years, releasing much of what was stored previously.

According to The National Law Review, the Growing Climate Solutions Act targets  “three “roadblocks” holding back domestic farmers, ranchers, and private forest owners from participating in carbon markets: (1) uncertainty about how to implement projects or navigate carbon markets; (2) uncertainty regarding trustworthy players in carbon markets; and (3) a lack of agricultural or forestry expertise by existing carbon market participants.“  It directs the USDA to develop a comprehensive suite of programs that help farmers overcome technical and reporting roadblocks. It creates a certification program for third-party verification advisors, and it creates a website to serve as an information clearinghouse for programs, prices, and participants.

The bill is seen as a positive step toward nature-based approaches to addressing greenhouse gas emissions. However, some say it falls short of being a solution to environmental degradation caused by mass food systems. Carbon markets incentivize agricultural land to be converted into carbon sinks and sideline holistic agricultural practices. By comparison, regenerative agricultural methodologies seek to re-enrich soil through self-nourishing ecological practices, reversing the damage done through traditional practices, and benefiting the entire ecosystem. Also, because carbon farming favors larger farmers—incentivizing further consolidation of small farms—it raises issues of food justice and economic and social investment in rural communities. Focusing on regenerative farming systems, rather than on the amount of carbon sequestered, can benefit farmers of all sizes and yield overall better outcomes for the soil, food, animals, and humans.

How can the agricultural sector be a climate solution?

Farmers, ranchers and foresters can reduce emissions by:

  • Decreasing fertilization
  • Implementing rotational grazing programs
  • Altering manure management, a source of methane emissions
  • Reducing fuel consumption or change to alternative cleaner fuels
  • Producing biofuels feedstock
  • Changing feeding practices

Agriculturists can sequester carbon by:

  • Leveraging characteristics of plants to capture emissions
  • Reducing tillage operations
  • Rotating crops
  • Converting acreage to grasslands or use of cover crops
  • Planting trees or seeds to change open land into forest or woodland.