Farmers could help solve the climate crisis—we just don’t invest in them

American farmers are an important piece of the climate-action puzzle.
American farmers are an important piece of the climate-action puzzle.
Image: AP Photo/Nati Harnik
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When the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) land use report was released by the United Nations in 2000, cities like Copenhagen and countries like Costa Rica did not have public decrees to become carbon neutral.

You couldn’t yet offset your Lyft ride by a nominal fee, because there was no such thing as Lyft, or such a thing as mobile applications – at least not as we understand them today. And Tesla, the first company to offer a fleet of luxury electric cars, would not be founded for another three years.

As societies, our climate perspectives have changed considerably since then, when a UN climate report was more or less a stand-alone warning. Now the world watches as students walk out of classrooms en masse, calling for better climate policies. Narratives like An Inconvenient Truth, Drawdown, and Six Degrees have made their way into popular discourse.

There’s still much, much more to be done, of course. But in the past 19 years, policies have become more rigorous, scientific insights more profound, consumers more aware, and technologies more advanced.

We are also now in a position to leverage one of the most significant carbon sinks available to us: agricultural soils.

Regenerative growing practices, which avoid tilling and minimize soil erosion, have the potential to store a significant portion of carbon in the soil, while improving the nutrition in our food.

Many farmers are already implementing these practices today.

In the United States—which, notably, is the second largest carbon emitter in the world—24% of farmers use diverse crop rotations already. In 2016, 21% of all cultivated US cropland was subject to no-till farming. For other regenerative practices, an estimated 12% of farms practice residue grazing in the country’s corn belt; 8% of US farmers planted cover crops in 2017; 6% use nitrogen management programs.

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Individually, each of these practices improve soil health and lead to greater carbon capture. But for maximum impact, and for regenerative farming to fulfill its incredible potential, all of these practices should be implemented simultaneously.

How does it work?

Photosynthesis is the operative mechanism here, as plants capture carbon dioxide from the air to build their stems, leaves, and roots, and release the remaining carbon deep within the ground. Carbon enriched soils have demonstrated greater resilience to floods and droughts – some of the most detrimental effects of climate change.

They also yield crops with higher nutritional content and less pesticide residue. Carbon, up to 15 tons of it per acre per year according to the USDA, can stay locked in the earth as long as regenerative practices are maintained—like the carbon trapped for millions of years in the Arctic’s permafrost—an extreme, but accurate, analogy.

To be clear, I am not suggesting a singular focus on agricultural soil is the solution to climate change – no one method, technology, or mode of research is. We still need to drastically cut emissions. But as studies and reports warn, reductions alone are not going to be enough.

If we pair capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide with reducing our emissions, we have cause for real hope of bending the arc of climate change.

The challenge is that we need to transition land management at scale to drive a significant amount of carbon into soils. And as economic incentives are structured today, this will be far easier said than done.

Dirt and money

The natural mechanism of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is already available to us. We’re not waiting on any technological breakthroughs or major discoveries; we know that regenerative growing practices pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in the soil.

But we do need to create the financial incentives for enough farmers to change their practices. A sustainable funding system that pays farmers to change their practices at scale is necessary to make a difference fast enough for us to back away from the climate cliff.

If farmers provide the societal benefit of removing atmospheric carbon dioxide by adopting regenerative practices, it seems reasonable that they should be compensated for their effort by those of us who benefit—whether we are consumers, corporations, nonprofits or governments. By devising an effective funding system to make it well worth farmers’ efforts, regenerative growing practices can become the most immediate, affordable, and scalable way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

They also offer a way to rejuvenate an industry. Today, the average farmer in the United States makes less than $40 per acre. At $15 to $20 per ton of carbon, we could provide a significant economic incentive for farmers to change their practices to ones that sequester carbon.  If a farmer captures and stores two to three tons of carbon per acre per year, that represents an additional $30 to $60 per acre of bottom-line profit for the farmer, and the potential is much higher.

This rate is much lower than other options to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide, such as direct carbon capture technologies, estimated to cost between $94 and $232 per ton

Until recently there hasn’t been a significant amount of funding available to pay growers to sequester carbon. While some programs have paid farmers for implementing regenerative practices, none have put a price on a unit of stored carbon. Naming a price is a start.

The rollout

When Indigo launched The Terraton Initiative in June, farmers demonstrated their willingness to harness this potential: nearly 9.5 million acres of farmland applied for inclusion within just the first 100 days. The response shows that at $15 per ton of carbon sequestered (the price at which Indigo has set the market) growers are willing to transition toward regenerative practices.

We have overcome a lot of barriers that once made it impossible to scale the potential of carbon drawdown in agricultural soils.

We can now measure the amount of carbon in soil at scale and at an affordable price, using a combination satellite imagery and remote sensors to monitor carbon sequestration, enabled by machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Farmers have traditionally relied on fertilizers and chemicals to maintain yields. But advances in microbiology and data science now give farmers more options to replace many of those synthetic inputs with natural means. Aggregating data on these new technologies and getting useful information to the farmers themselves is a critically important step in transitioning our agricultural sector.

Drawdown potential

We can affordably scale regenerative practices to the 12 billion acres of farmland and pastureland across the world and draw down more than 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into agricultural soils.

For now, we’re starting with US farmers, but there is growing interest worldwide.

Increasingly companies, foundations and non-profits, governments, and consumers themselves are seeking to offset their carbon footprints, and more say they are willing to invest. As we’ve seen, even 2020 presidential candidates are proposing ways to pay farmers for this service.

I’m not saying global adoption of these agricultural methods will be easy—success will require active participation from farmers, consumers, governments and organizations.

And that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Solving climate change – the greatest environmental threat of our time – isn’t a simple mission. Even with all of the technological ingenuity we’ve seen since the first IPCC land use report—from electric vehicles to renewable energy innovations—progress has focused only on reducing our emissions, when in reality, at this point, we need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Solving climate change requires an immediate, affordable, and scalable systems change. Paying farmers to sequester carbon is a critical part of that change.