Viewpoint: Carbon negative farming? Cover crops, rotational grazing and no till agriculture could capture greenhouse gas emissions

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Credit: ArtistGNDphotography/iStock
Credit: ArtistGNDphotography/iStock
Farmland to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Everyone seems to agree this is a good idea. But how do we do it? This Big Hairy Audacious Goal is the brainchild of AgMission, a partnership among two farm-related organizations whose goal is not only to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint but perhaps become net carbon negative. And, in the process, they might just give you – the consumer – some help in making purchase decisions that promote sustainability and regenerative agriculture.

The purpose of AgMission, a 2020 partnership with the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers in Action (USFRA), is to collect the best research data related to greenhouse gases (GHGs). FFAR funds pioneering scientific research in critical areas of our food and agricultural systems. To support AgMission, FFAR is currently funding over $50 million to support climate change research. USFRA supports sustainable food systems through its broad network of U.S. farmers and ranchers.

To make intelligent decisions about bettering soil health and reducing GHGs in the atmosphere, AgMission will create a massive research platform that provides farmers the intel to farm according to the most effective and applicable carbon sequestration practices. Farmers have long known how various conservation practices protect the natural resources they rely upon for a living and which ones contribute to their long-term financial success.

How is this supposed to work?

Each year, 33.1 billion metric tons of GHGs hit the atmosphere globally, with 5.1 billion coming from the United States. China emits the most – sending up to 10 billion metric tons. Of course, this is not all terrible, as we need carbon to survive.  Without it, our landscape would look more like Mars. Carbon is found everywhere on Earth and is even 18% of our body weight.

According to NOAA, when carbon dioxide (CO2) goes into the atmosphere, about 50% remains there, while 25% is absorbed by plants and trees and 25% by the oceans. If farmers and ranchers could absorb at least 10%, it would certainly help the soil while removing GHGs.

2 million U.S. farmers and ranchers are responsible for growing our food and keeping us fed and healthy. They are environmental stewards for 44% of U.S. land. Globally, it’s more like 38%.

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They have proven to be remarkably efficient and productive in delivering an amazing array of foodstuffs the world depends upon.  But rather than bask in the gratitude of a hungry world, farmers and ranchers have faced what seems to be relentless criticism – if not an outright attack by some – for contributing approximately 10% of U.S. carbon emissions and 36% of methane.

As you can see from the chart, crop cultivation, a.k.a. tilling the soil, and deforestation is the most significant contributor to GHGs, with livestock methane emissions as a close second.

Is it possible to bring ag-related GHGs down to a negative 4%?

AgMission thinks so. If all the farmers in the United States adopted soil-smart farming systems such as no-till, cover crops, rotational grazing, manure management, methane-reducing animal feed, and variable-rate fertilizer application, then the soil would be healthier and more carbon would be pulled from the atmosphere.

Recently, The Nature Conservancy, with participating organizations such as the University of Oregon, Ohio State University, Woods Hole Research Center, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian, led a study to determine natural climate solutions for the United States.

They estimated farmers could reduce GHG emissions equivalent to 21% of what the U.S. emits each year. This is 11% more than what is estimated that the agricultural sector emits in the first place!

“The majority (63%) of this potential comes from increased carbon sequestration in plant biomass, with 29% coming from increased carbon sequestration in soil and 7% coming from avoided emissions of CH4 and N2.”

For this to succeed, collaboration among all climate-oriented agricultural scientific researchers, as well as support from the global farming and ranching community, is critical. That is why AgMission will spearhead this effort with over $50 million in funding the research. This database for all farmers and ranchers will help them determine which carbon-sequestering methods would best suit their farm, crop, weather, environment, and soil health.

Sequestering carbon benefits the atmosphere, but also the soil. Think of soil like the foundation of a house. Carbon, like the wood frame, provides physical stability for the soil that improves oxygen, water drainage, and retention while reducing the risk of erosion and nutrient leaching.

What do farmers think?

Is it realistic to put this pressure on the farmers? Will they participate in the carbon exuberance? Rather than be offended, farmers and ranchers have responded with their usual ‘can-do’ spirit by supporting efforts to improve their practices to protect the environment and promote sustainability.

AgMission will consider this initiative to be successful if the land farmed and ranched becomes resilient to future climate-related shocks and stresses, food productivity increases, and the food supply chain is secure. This is a huge opportunity – and responsibility for farmers and ranchers across the country.

I spoke with two inspiring farmers, Meredith Ellis, a cattle rancher from Texas, and Anne Meis from Nebraska who grows corn, soybeans, and cattle, as well as serving as Chairwoman of USFRA and board member of the Nebraska Soybean Board. What did they think of AgMission’ s big hairy audacious goal (BHAG)?

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Do you think about carbon sequestration when you farm?

Meredith: I ranch for the soil. We are part of a pilot program where our carbon is measured by the Ecosystems Services Market Consortium, a subsidiary of the Soil Health Institute. Our ranch is sequestering 2,500 tons of carbon (after enteric emissions) each year – equivalent to taking 551 cars off the road.

Anne: Every day we think about soil health. Our livelihoods depend on better production and healthy soil. Our goal is to grow crops and to continually try to regenerate that healthy soil.

What do you think about monetizing carbon?

Meredith: I am a progressive farmer and believe in the five principles of soil health, water quality and water quantity downstream, carbon, and biodiversity. When you can commoditize these products, then it will turn the farmer’s eye to more than just beef, rather focusing on additional products such as carbon, water, and biodiversity.

Everyone I have talked to wants to be part of the solution. But I am fearful of policy markets that can miss their goals. For instance, the California cap and trade policies were not incentivizing the conservation of existing grasslands and forests. So it was easy to sell that land, develop it, and release the carbon back into the atmosphere. Another example is the Black Land Prairie in Texas – it used to be 12 million acres. Now it is only five thousand.

Anne: The idea of measuring carbon is highly fragmented. We need an organized system so all this work can really take hold. This is the goal of AgMission.

Do you think farmers would find AgMission’s database as a valuable tool for best soil health practices? 

Meredith: Data sharing is absolutely critical for collaboration across all disciplines. The more information I have, the more accurate and effective my decision-making process can be moving forward. I urge everyone not to underestimate the enormous amounts of data we ranchers collect that can help greatly in our national and global sustainability goals.

Current data and modeling show my cattle operation is a carbon sink. Now let’s take the next step and answer the question: Why? What is giving me the biggest bang for my carbon buck and how can I improve that number?

Anne: USFRA and FFAR are leading the efforts to gather the science to measure carbon capture. Farmers work in a wide variety of soil types and ecosystems. There are many practices that contribute to healthy soil, efficient water use, and conservation. Farmers have always relied on science to help them make best practices decisions for their unique farms and now others are seeing value in the contributions farmers can make to ecosystem services.

Let’s hope this system evolves as incentive-based and not regulatory. Farmers want to use the best tools for best soil health practices for the best outcomes.

Data-sharing is a critical component of AgMission’ s objectives. How do you and other farmers feel about sharing their data? 

Meredith: I feel like the research community has not put enough effort into understanding the nuances of our operation and the data we collect and why. If anything, I feel a great urgency to share my data with the scientific community, specifically my biodiversity observations as it relates to our dwindling historic grassland and forestland ecosystems which my cattle all home. As willing as I am to share my data freely, I feel the need to remind the scientific community of the decades of knowledge and decision-making skills in a number of areas necessary to become a land steward. Ranchers have to maintain a rich dialogue with scientists and policymakers throughout the decision-making process in how to move forward – or any effort made behind a desk without a producer’s input will likely fail.

Anne: We are constantly analyzing our data and measuring our soil. We know there is a hesitancy among producers that data will be taken from them and then used to restrict and regulate us. That should not be the case. For instance, telling farmers that certain spots on their farm need to be restricted on specific fertilizer or pesticide regulations. We don’t want someone behind a desk telling us how to farm.

The bottom line

Creating a science-based database for farmers to use as a soil management tool is certainly a BHAG. Removing carbon from the atmosphere makes it even BHAGer. Growing healthy food is imperative to maintain a healthy population – and sequestering carbon is just an added benefit. This puts agriculture at the forefront of a healthy future.

Lucy M. Stitzer is a food writer and regular contributor at Dirt to Dinner. She served on the Board at the food company Cargill for many years.

A version of this article was originally posted at Dirt To Dinner and has been reposted here with permission. Dirt To Dinner can be found on Twitter @Dirt_To_Dinner

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