During the run-up to the 2020 election and the first 100 days of the new Administration, you may have heard about regenerative agriculture, as Democratic candidates and now President Joe Biden explored ways to curb carbon emissions in the United States. The term “Regenerative agriculture” refers to holistic farming and ranching management practices that build soil health, crop resilience, and nutrient density, leading to improved water retention and, most importantly, a reduction of carbon emissions.
These practices include no-till or low-till farming; the application of cover crops, crop rotations, compost, and manures; intercrop plantings and borders planted to provide habitats for bees and other beneficial insects; and well-managed grazing instead of feedlots or confined animal feeding systems.
In April, Biden announced a new target for the United States—a reduction of at least 50 percent from 2005 levels in greenhouse gas pollution by 2030. Biden’s ultimate goal is for the U.S. to be carbon net-zero by 2050. This is in line with the Paris Agreement and is projected to bring emissions down to levels that scientists say will help the world avoid the worst climate outcomes.
At an Earth Day summit in April, Biden said, “I see farmers deploying cutting-edge tools to make (the) soil of our heartland the next frontier in carbon innovation.” Many environmentalists, farmers, and ranchers took this as a promotion of greater precision farming and regenerative agriculture. While the Administration has not made any specific mention of regenerative agriculture by that name, many in the agriculture industry are anticipating greater support — and demand — for it.
That’s in large part because, for many farmers and ranchers, climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies are key to their long-term economic and physical survival in an era of increasingly erratic and severe weather patterns, including catastrophic floods, droughts, and frosts. Moreover, the agriculture industry can have a great impact on climate changes. Agriculture is responsible for an estimated 12% of all greenhouse gas emissions and, according to the World Bank, 70% of freshwater consumption.
For the time being, legislators are addressing agriculture’s role in carbon emissions and sequestration by establishing market-based carrots rather than regulatory sticks.
The Growing Climate Solutions Act (GCSA), originally introduced in 2020 and reintroduced in April 2021, would authorize the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish a voluntary Greenhouse Gas Technical Assistance Provider and Third-Party Verifier Certification Program through which agriculture and forestry carbon credits would be bought and sold.
As is often the case, motivated entrepreneurs and innovators have gotten the jump on the federal government. Companies like Indigo Agriculture and Nori, Inc. both launched marketplaces in 2019 where individuals and businesses can offset their carbon footprint by buying carbon credits from farmers who are paid for sequestering carbon by implementing regenerative practices and improving soil health. The market-makers handle the buying and selling of the credits, and bring in third-party verification partners to measure and certify the credit-creating changes in soil chemistry and quality with data obtained through soil sampling.
And it’s not just mission-driven microbe sellers and idealistic startups jumping into the game. In fact, several pesticide manufacturers, including Bayer-Monsanto, Switzerland-based Syngenta and Canada’s Nutrien are also betting on soil carbon markets. Under Bayer’s Carbon Initiative, farmers implement certain “climate-smart” practices and are paid to capture carbon. Bayer could also pay farmers with Bayer rewards platform credits to spend on Bayer products–like more Bayer pesticides.
When we think of renewable energy, we see American manufacturing, American workers racing to lead the global market. We see farmers making American agriculture first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions and gaining new sources of income in the process.
Giana Amador, co-founder and managing director of climate-oriented NGO Carbon180, noted in a recent podcast that regenerative agriculture and carbon capturing practices should be good for a farmer’s bottom line, improve their resilience, and help them prepare for the financial impacts of climate change. In Carbon180’s Transition Book: Priorities for Administrative Action on Carbon Removal in 2021+, the organization lays out a few recommendations:
- Increase carbon storage on farms and ranches through the USDA Commodity Credit Corporation
- Adjust federal crop insurance to encourage the adoption of conservation practices
- Invest in the economic recovery and long-term resilience of agriculture and forestry communities
- Fund research into key soil carbon topics and barriers to adoption of practices that store carbon in soils.
Lisa and Loren Poncia own Stemple Creek Ranch, a fourth-generation family-owned ranch in Marin County, California that raises organic grass-fed beef and lamb using regenerative practices such as applying compost, fencing off riparian zones on their land, planting trees in those zones to create habitat for other animals, and pulse grazing (also known as rotational grazing) where cattle and sheep high-density graze for a short time.
To see more and larger farms and ranches adopt these practices, however, Loren Poncia echoes Carbon180’s recommendations. He believes the federal government should subsidize carbon not monocropping. For instance, according to the EWG Farm Subsidy Database, U.S. corn subsidies alone totaled $2.75 billion in 2019. (The database information comes from U.S. Department of Agriculture data through the Freedom of Information Act.)
“The Biden Administration needs to reduce the risk to grow crops that are nutrient-dense and have fewer environmental impacts,” says Poncia. “It’s good for the soil, for the environment and for biodiversity.” The question remains, however, will the new Administration help make it good for the bottom lines for more farmers and ranchers.