by Steve Gilman
Interstate NOFA Policy Coordinator
First, some Good News. After years of industrybacked climate change denial and misinformation strategies that included derailing legislation in the Obama era and further impeding advancements under the Trump administration – the federal government is finally stepping forward to address the existential threat of the planet’s irrefutable Climate Emergency. With climate change now set as a full governmental priority, the Biden Administration is also officially recognizing a major role for agriculture in removing displaced carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via soil carbon sequestration practices. And since building fertile, highly carbonaceous soil is at the heart of the holistic organic farming method, such acknowledgment would appear to highlight organics’ role as an important solution to the climate crisis.
But, on the negative side of the equation, many of the same industrial megacorporations responsible for longtime greenhouse gas emissions are still in place as the nation’s top policy power brokers and in place of denial, they are now politically pushing a self-serving public-private partnership version of carbon trading. These carbon market financial instruments are aimed at setting the prices paid to farmers who take on additional practices for capturing and storing CO2 in their soil. The adoption of cover cropping, reduced tillage, and other soil sequestration techniques by large-scale farmers then generates a monetized “credit” that can be purchased by companies to offset their continuing manufacturing discharges.
In past years big farmer organizations and corporations alike were very resistant to government-run cap and trade mechanisms. The popularity of this pro-business variation is that government takes on a monetarily supportive but non-regulatory role; the credit selling markets are run by private middlemen; participating farmers receive an additional revenue stream and the purchasing utilities, fossil fuel companies, and other polluters are free to continue releasing greenhouse gases as well as to proclaim their “net-zero” status in addressing the problem.
Meanwhile, there’s still a long road ahead for policymakers looking to take up organics’ proven potential as a powerful, scientifically validated greenhouse gas mitigator. While some Congressional supporters remain hard at work championing a sustainable-organic-soil health approach via several revitalized legislative initiatives, USDA remains firmly in Big Ag’s camp. However, after a budgetslashing blitz by conservatives during the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, there’s now a resurgence of support for the climate-friendly working lands conservation programs via the existing programs that are also administered at USDA.
The Carbon Markets Gold Rush
Not surprisingly in this new day of climate crisis awareness, such shiny carbon trading proposals can be facile formulas for redeeming the dirty industry image, along with corporate greenwashing. In January 2021, for example, Occidental Petroleum sold a two million barrel shipload of ballyhooed 100% “carbon-neutral” crude oil to India – completely offset by green payments amounting to 65 cents per barrel on oil selling for more than $60 a barrel. With the oil industry under more pressure from climate change regulators, investors, and activists than ever before, their claims of removing an equal amount of greenhouse gases via sponsorship of typically unprofitable green projects are designed to build in clear-cut protections for their toxic business-as- usual model.
Agricultural corporations and their industrialized cohorts are facing a similar greenhouse gas/pollution cover-up problem. To this end, a well-organized group of big farming, environmental, and agribusiness organizations named the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance (FACA) has emerged as a major private sector player looking to get in on the action. Now with over 70 members, their ranks include American Farm Bureau, Bayer, Food Industry Association, Evangelical Environmental Network, Biotechnology Innovation Organization, McDonald’s, and The Nature Conservancy along with Syngenta, Cargill, and Archer Daniels Midland. As prime supporters of the Growing Climate Solutions Act in the Senate, they’ve put together a major legislative initiative with formidable bipartisan support, pushed by Debbie Stabenow (D, MI), the powerful Chair of the Senate Agricultural Committee.
With its 2021 version just launched on Earth Day, this bill provides governmental support for the privately initiated carbon credit markets approach by creating taxpayer-funded USDA certification programs for the increasing number of carbon credit market traders and farmer technical assistance providers as well as an increased advisory role for the farmers who voluntarily sign on to the corporatelyapproved soil carbon sequestration practices on a per-acre basis. A separate backup proposal in the works within USDA is to establish a new $30 billion Carbon Bank under the discretion of Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack to provide further financial incentive payments for carbon sequestration on farms and forest lands.
This newly touted “anti-regulatory” role for government, designed to do away with federal jurisdiction over agricultural polluting practices in favor of unleashing marketplace cure-alls, is designed to appeal to oversight-averse farmers and marketers alike. Their “win-win solution” monetizes agricultural carbon sequestration by generating a cheap commodity price on carbon pollution that is emitted by U.S. companies, hypothetically incentivizing them to reduce their greenhouse emissions while creating an additional revenue stream for farmers who sign on to participate. However, there’s many a devil lurking in the details.
A number of alternative agricultural organizations are cautious about directly going up against the Senate Ag Committee’s pet legislative agenda to retain a place at the bargaining table and are pushing legislation and USDA to greatly expand the existing conservation programs instead. Other organizations support the conservation agenda but are standing forthrightly against undertaking a false carbon markets approach. Since Carbon trading allows polluters to buy and sell permits to keep polluting instead of cutting greenhouse gas production at the source, detractors say these market scheme loopholes serve to benefit the industrial players and their governmental enablers who are looking to publicly position themselves as truly tackling the climate crisis. But detriments abound: Poor track record: the initial carbon markets, starting up in 2010, failed to benefit farmers or substantially change farming practices. Monetizing agricultural practices leads to further consolidation of the large farming operations that have the USDA credentials to participate. Private market middlemen traders take a percentage off the top.
Polluting companies are allowed to continue their polluting operations at a low carbon commodity price assessment that is much less expensive than cleaning up their industrial processes. Environmental Justice-wise these industrial operations are often located near vulnerable, Black, Indigenous, and communities of color who still receive the full brunt of the continued allowable toxic pollution.
To date there is no science in place to accurately measure soil carbon, leading to uncertain short-term and reversible gains that are difficult to quantify. With no reliable measurement tools for soil carbon permanence, how can we be sure that carbon markets will reward practices that are actually climatefriendly, and who decides how much carbon is being sequestered and for how long?
Since the carbon market companies will only pay for new carbon farming practices, early adopters and organic farmers who have been utilizing ongoing beneficial soil practices for years do not benefit.
Despite the moniker, “net-zero” does not cut emissions to zero. It trades indefinable carbon removal scenarios in exchange for the right to keep polluting. And “carbon neutral” falsely implies that carbon emissions and other greenhouse gas reductions can be met thru carbon trading and pricey technological geoengineering fixes.
A much more comprehensive bill that addresses multiple aspects of agriculture’s role in the climate crisis has also just been reintroduced for 2021 in the House and Senate: the Agricultural Resilience Act (ARA) put forth by Representative (and former organic farmer) Chellie Pingree (D, ME) and
Senator Martin Heinrich (D, NM). This is designed as a “marker bill” – not intended to come up for a vote on its own, but a roadmap containing numerous provisions to be included in further legislative initiatives as well as the 2022 Appropriations packageand the Farm Bill negotiations coming up in 2023.
Overall the ARA offers a much more solid and verifiable grassroots-up approach that empowers farmers with the tools and resources needed to improve soil health, sequester carbon, reduce emissions, enhance their resilience, and tap into new market opportunities. It also significantly expands USDA’s farm conservation programs – providing financial and technical assistance for implementing conservation practices to address area-specific natural resource and land management concerns on active farm and ranch working lands.
Another newly filed bill, the American Jobs Act also meaningfully increases conservation programs funding, long overdue since the last increase in And Senator Booker (D, NJ), now on the Senate Agriculture Committee, has reintroduced the Climate Stewardship Act which greatly expands the acres to be covered under the conservation programs. It also greatly increases funding to the Rural Energy for America Program, which offers grants and loan guarantees to farmers and local businesses to support energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.
The ORGANIC Solution
With Agribusiness still very much in the driver’s seat at USDA, Organic Agriculture continues to receive short shrift. For decades organic whole systems practices have proven to sequester atmospheric carbon in the soil while doing away with polluting fossil-fuel-based pesticides and synthetic fertilizers that also impact biodiversity and public health. Organic farming methods further contribute a host of ecological services including clean air and water, erosion control, soil health, and increased crop nutrient content.
Research has shown that if these standard organic practices were implemented globally, soil organic carbon pools would increase by an estimated 2 billion tons per year – the equivalent of 12% of the total annual greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Pasture-based systems of livestock production and composting are also climate-friendly. And while all farms are increasingly vulnerable to increasing climate extremes, the data shows that organic soil building builds resilience to the disastrous effects of drought and flooding.
Further, organic production and handling practices have a commercially viable track record, unlike the negligent carbon market verification approach orthe nebulous “regenerative” and “soil health” labels that are proliferating these days. Proven climatefriendly practices are built into organic certification mandates that are already strictly verified by USDA third-party certifiers and annual on-site inspections. Under USDA’s regulations, organic farmers are required to use climate-friendly cover crops, rotate crops, and use other practices to foster soil fertility and build soil health. They must also adopt a verifiable Organic Systems Plan to detail the practices they use to protect and enhance natural resources.
It is high time for the federal government to fully recognize and support organic agriculture in its own right as well as the climate-enhancing way forward. They should not only incentivize the transition to organic but also create a paid farmer-to-farmer mentoring program to support that conversion. The National Organic Coalition, of which NOFA is a founding member, is also calling for the creation ofa new Organic Stewardship Program within USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to reward organic farmers for their use of climate-friendly farming practices – and thereby motivating other farmers to become certified as well. This program would provide annual payments to certified organic operations in recognition of the suite of climatefriendly practices that are required by the organic regulations and verified through the rigorous organic certification process.
Getting to Net Negative
There is no doubt we are surely involved in a profound planetary climate emergency. While agriculture can potentially put a dent in the atmospheric carbon dioxide buildup through bona fide carbon sequestration practices, CO2 content remains as an intractable long-lived greenhouse gas that persists in the atmosphere for millennia and our additional annual emissions keep contributing to a further cumulative load. We need to get to net negative – not to just stop adding more CO2 as a net-zero goal – but remove it from the atmosphere to keep the long-term persisting global warming levels from getting any higher and further impacting our planet, ourselves, and our descendants. Meanwhile other proprietary industry-proposed carbon capture and storage technology “solutions” are unrealistic, expensive, and energy-intensive.
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