Bloomberg Reports, Secretary of
Agriculture Statements on Agriculture's Role in GHG Emission, April
The Carbon Market Gold Rush in American Agriculture
accounts for 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Industry giants and
startups are setting up carbon credits as Biden's Green plan gains
April 20, 2021, 4:00 AM PDT
A tractor applies fertilizer to acres of lettuce at a farm in Belle
Glade, Florida. Photographer:
It’s a little bit of a gold rush out there, with a lot of new entrants
coming in with a lot of great claims,” said Chris Harbourt, global
head of carbon at Indigo, which will be one of the few companies to
have credits verified by formal carbon registries. “But do they have
the buyers to really back it up?”
Biden administration is thinking of stepping in. Biden has promised to
make climate change a top priority and bring down emissions to
net-zero by 2050. He ordered all agencies to come up with a
whole-of-government approach to achieving the goal.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack touts potential “early
a sector he argues can pivot more rapidly than other major polluters
such as power plants, transportation and construction. The sector
generated only 2.5 million credits from 2013 to June 2020, a tiny
fraction of its potential, according to the U.S. Department of
U.S. agriculture in 2019 was responsible for 629 million metric tons
of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions, up 8 million tons from the
prior year, according
to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
A carbon credit represents a 1 metric ton reduction in carbon dioxide
or the equivalent amount in a different greenhouse gas.
Farming is in constant exchange with the atmosphere. Raising livestock
gives off methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more powerful than carbon
dioxide. The gas also wafts off pig manure, while fertilizers spread
on fields emit nitrous oxide, more potent yet with 300 times the
warming impact of carbon dioxide. But crops, pasture grasses and trees
take in carbon from the atmosphere and deposit it in roots and soil.
idea is to re-balance that exchange. Special feeds make cows belch
less. Digesters can turn methane from manure into biofuel. Cutting
down on fertilizer reduces nitrous oxide. “No till” and reduced-till
farming avoids plowing fields, which releases carbon stored in soil.
Cover crops planted between growing seasons draw more carbon from the
air into the soil and over time may reduce the need for fertilizer.
“The Biden administration is taking this on and, for the first time,
many different sectors are realizing that you need brown and green to
actually do green,” said Erin Fitzgerald, chief executive officer of
U.S. Farmers and Ranchers in Action. “We need to lean into the next
decade. This is no longer business as usual. We’re faced with extreme
episodic weather events.”
it’s also far from simple. Startup costs can swamp financial gains so
large operators may squeeze out smaller ones and increase farm
consolidation. Adding a cover crop costs at least $20 an acre for the
seeds and up to $15 an acre to get it planted, according to Indigo’s
there’s the question of how to reward farmers like organic growers who
are already using these methods. Mark Isbell, an Arkansas rice farmer
who has reduced emissions, says he is worried about creating “perverse
“What the market would tell you to do would be to go out and plow that
up, turn that carbon out of the soil,” Isbell
a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on climate initiatives.
“Basically, squeeze the sponge dry, so that I can soak the sponge back
full, and then get paid for that.”
coalition of farm groups has suggested one-time payments for early
Environmental groups are split, worrying about paying farmers for
steps they might take anyway. Some also recoil at a policy that
doesn’t alter — and may entrench — American agriculture’s heavy
emphasis on meat production and feed grain for livestock. Activists
are pushing Biden to lay out ambitious goals and detailed plans when
he holds a virtual summit with world leaders this week on Earth Day.
Some environmentalists worry that credits may supply gains that turn
out to be ephemeral. What if a field that has been generating credits
for storing carbon changes hands or a farmer later decides to plow
tremendous amount of that progress in carbon sequestration can be
entirely erased with one round of tillage,” said Jason Davidson of
Earth Justice, an environmental group that opposes carbon markets.
There are also questions over how to measure carbon sequestration
since soil types and climate vary greatly from farm to farm and even
within the same plot of land. Verification is an issue, with Indigo so
far being one of the few working with the so-called carbon registries
that are recognized in voluntary markets.
Registries haven’t escaped scrutiny. Nature Conservancy, the top U.S.
seller of carbon offsets, said it’s conducting an internal review of
its portfolio following concerns that it’s facilitating the sale of
meaningless carbon credits to corporate clients. The
move comes as
credits were created in forestry areas for trees that were in no
danger of destruction.
Pricing is another issue, with wild variations between what companies
charge. CME Group Inc., one of the world’s largest derivative
exchanges, recently started a carbon offset futures contract,
accepting credits issued by certain registries.
“It’s a voluntary market, it’s a developing market, it’s a nascent
market,” said Ben Fargher, a managing director of sustainability at
Cargill, which for now is only using carbon programs to offset its own
emissions. “That price discovery is still being discerned.”
Biden officials say they want to move quickly and their climate policy
for farmers will be based on voluntary incentives. Robert Bonnie,
Vilsack’s main climate adviser, posed a scenario in a transition memo
in which a USDA carbon bank might spend $1 billion a year to buy
Indigo’s Harbourt says the costs are steep in the first few years and
government aid is needed. But then, he says, “In year four, the
practices themselves start to make really good financial sense.
Farmers will stick with them and their grandchildren will stick with
This article is included at
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