As we get closer to 2030, the year that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has given us to reduce our emissions by 50% before we face catastrophic climate effects, it becomes more essential to find creative solutions to reduce carbon emissions throughout all economic sectors. One emerging field in the climate space is in the agriculture sector, where farmers, scientists and policymakers have been working to improve agricultural practices to reduce emissions and store carbon in the ground.
In our May Deep Dive Webinar, we spoke with three experts in the field of natural climate solutions — Max Neumayer, the Policy Director of Mad Agriculture, Jessie Martin, the Executive Director of Carbon Washington, and Matthew Sheffer, the Managing Director of Hudson Carbon — to discuss the potential of land management and agriculture to play a role in combating climate change, and how we can incentivize best practices.
Regenerative agriculture is truly the backbone of climate solutions in the agricultural sector. In simple terms, Terra Genesis International defines it as “a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services.” This not only allows farmers to increase the amount of carbon that is kept in the ground, but also gives them greater resiliency against the unstable weather conditions that come with a changing climate. This form of agriculture is fairly new, and has grown out of several, different recent movements.
“No matter what branch of regenerative agriculture we are talking about, they are really different versions of the same thing. All of them are based in 5 soil health principles: minimizing soil disturbance by killing less, maximizing crop diversity by having innovative crop rotations, keeping the soil covered by cover crops, maintaining a living root year-round by sequestering CO2 as organic matter, and where possible, integrating livestock so they can add their resources to the soil,” Max Neumayer said, explaining the basic foundations of regenerative agriculture. Through his organization Mad Agriculture, he promotes these practices and works with farmers to implement them effectively.
These principles are practiced through a variety of techniques farmers implement — using cover crops, applying compost, planning grazing patterns, planting perennials, implementing windbreaks, and leaving some land “no-till” are all examples of implementing regenerative agriculture into practice.
“Farmers take these principles and, depending on their context, choose different practices that work for them,” Neumayer told us. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, which gives farmers a lot of flexibility in becoming more climate-friendly.
Benefits and obstacles that farmers face
Using regenerative farming techniques allow farmers to reap many benefits, and can be economically advantageous in the long-term. Sustainable practices can help to build soil fertility, enhance profitability by increasing yields, improve the water cycle by preventing erosion and runoff, increase biodiversity and resilience against invasive species, and improve the environment by sequestering carbon.
However, it is not always easy to implement regenerative agricultural practices, for a variety of reasons. There are often many upfront costs associated with the equipment needed for these techniques and although there are massive long-term benefits, these costs are sometimes too great for farmers to take on without government assistance. A lot of farmers also rent land, and don’t directly benefit from investments in improving soil quality. Many farmers have also been using the same techniques for decades, and can be very hesitant to make changes.
Federal funding dedicated towards soil health is also very slim. Of the $500 billion budget given to the agricultural sector by the Farm Bill, which is the federal government’s assurance of fair agricultural productivity that is updated every five years, only a very small portion is used for conservation priorities.
“The amount that has been dedicated to conservation as a percentage has also been decreased over time,” Neumayer explained.
State-level soil health policy
As we often see in the climate space, when there is a lack of federal action, states take initiative to pass forward looking policies, and in regenerative agriculture, this is no different.
“States are really leading the way within soil health policy,” said Neumayer. In the past year, New Mexico and Nebraska both passed legislation that provide incentives for healthy soil policies and boost research and development in the regenerative agricultural field.
“California, as is often the case, has the most robust healthy soil program in the country,” Neumayer described. Their program, which became law in 2016, creates the Healthy Soils Program and provides incentive payments to farmers for good practices.
There are many state level policies that have proven to work well and progressively promote best practices while helping farmers along the way. According to Neumayer, some of the best policies that states should promote include creating baseline soil health requirements and collecting data, directing federal funds toward soil health, providing education programs and technical assistance, and requiring preferential purchasing through government procurement.
Washington State’s success story
Washington State has exemplified state leadership in regenerative agricultural policy, with the passage of the Sustainable Farms & Fields Program (SB 5947) which was signed by Governor Jay Inslee on April 3rd of this year.
“This is a new, voluntary grants program, administered by the Washington State Conservation Commission. It addresses some of those upfront costs and other economic barriers in order to support farmers and their efforts to innovate, as well as implement some of those carbon storage and regenerative practices,” said Jessie Martin, who worked tirelessly on the bipartisan coalition that fought for the legislation to pass through her organization Carbon Washington.
The bill has many key components that allow it to be successful. The general goal is to increase the amount of carbon stored in the ground, and therefore reduce carbon emissions, which it does by building both natural and economic resilience and investing in practices to do so.
“[Agriculture] is a highly climate exposed and a trade exposed industry,” Martin told us, adding, “they need this investment now, and they need it at a scale that produces meaningful impact.” The Sustainable Farms & Fields program helps to serve farmers’ bottoms lines, and reduces their exposure to climate-related risks, doing so primarily through its voluntary grants program, where it is able to empower farmers to lead by implementing their own innovative ideas and techniques that the state government helps to subsidize. Farmers can then share best practices, and spread creative ideas and cost-effective solutions across the state.
A key to the success of the bill, Martin explained, was the bipartisan efforts that went into its passage, along with lengthy stakeholder engagement and coalition building processes. Generally in the climate movement, but especially in the agricultural sector, it is necessary to bring in stakeholders from across the political and economic spectrum, and passing this bill was no different.
“By focusing on effective, efficient and equitable climate solutions, we’re able to develop and promote programs and policies that are promoted by really diverse groups of stakeholders,” said Martin.
An alternative market strategy: carbon offsetting
On top of agricultural practices that governmental policies can help to fund and set in place, carbon offsets can also massively benefit farmers.
Currently, many agricultural organizations are in the process of building and implementing e-commerce carbon offset marketplaces. These allow individuals or companies to pay farmers to introduce more sustainable practices, or to hold off from farming a certain piece of land, in order to “offset” the individual’s or business’s carbon emissions elsewhere.
Matthew Sheffer’s organization Hudson Carbon is one business that is doing just that. “Existing markets have historically undercounted the environmental benefits of regenerative agriculture,” said Sheffer, adding, “we’re building a new marketplace that addresses this problem.”
Sheffer’s program uses GIS data to bring the individuals or businesses that are purchasing these offsets to the farm virtually, and show them exactly where and how the regenerative work is being done. This transparency is a key feature in the market platform, which Sheffer hopes will expand the purchasing of regenerative agricultural offsets and increase its value for customers.
“The narrative content here is key — fostering that connection with real people highlights that this work is real, that this carbon exists in a place and is being reduced,” added Sheffer.
As more and more businesses and organizations commit to reaching net zero emissions, many will have to offset the emissions reductions that they are not able to meet of their own accord. A price on carbon would also similarly require many organizations to purchase offsets to meet their statutory targets. Platforms such as these allow organizations to do so while supporting regenerative agriculture, and will grow to be more and more popular in the future as more organizations commit to reducing carbon emissions.
Whether through federal and state policies, or by creating offset platforms, it is clear that regenerative agriculture serves to greatly benefit the agricultural sector, while simultaneously reducing the carbon footprint that is necessary to help solve the climate crisis.