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Opinion: Carbon markets, regenerative ag and policy: A balancing act

Read the byline in AgriPulse by Vice President of Product Management at CIBO Jenette Ashtekar.


By Jenette Ashtekar

The nature-based carbon market is confusing and controversial. Its promise masks agricultural and environmental realities resulting in an agtech gold rush. Today, more than 100 voluntary carbon markets and over 60 different pricing solutions are jockeying for buyers and investors. More than 50 major corporations have announced their intent to be carbon-neutral by 2040 and over 900 US companies have gone public with one kind of climate or carbon project commitment. The proclamations are impressive, but how will corporations attain their goals?

Regenerative agriculture and the voluntary soil carbon markets emerging around it represent a significant solution to a modern, resilient, and secure food system. Regenerative practices—such as cover crops, no-till and reduced nutrient application—have the potential to reduce the GHG footprint of farming and mitigate climate change through the sequestration of atmospheric carbon. They also provide an additional revenue stream to growers, compensating and incentivizing them for adapting best practices.

It’s no wonder that regenerative agriculture and carbon markets have become the biggest story in ag. Everyone seems to be jumping onto the soil carbon bandwagon, and a plethora of NGOs, public-private consortia, academic working groups and private companies are rushing in to define and deliver on the promise of soil carbon sequestration.

Along with all the buzz comes a healthy amount of skepticism and confusion, including the still emerging role of government. Debates on methodology, protocol, avoidance and additionality are spirited. Farming is an annual activity. Soil is alive and dynamic. Farmers often rent some or all of their fields. Legacy climate and carbon programs were created with other industries – like energy, oil and gas – in mind.

By bringing either pragmatic clarity or slow and inefficient action, government intervention can help or hinder these nascent, unrealized markets.

Bring Clarity to Standards of Quantification & Verification

Using a living, breathing, working farm to drawdown and sequester soil carbon as means to offset a corporation’s carbon emissions poses several challenges. One is forcing production cropping systems to meet the same standards and accounting applied to carbon capture machinery, renewable energy, or even forests. Carbon in the soil is hard to measure precisely under the best conditions with unlimited resources. Weather, climate, management and other factors make it more complex. With accelerated demand for high reliability soil carbon measurement, academia and industry are developing guidelines. From farmers to offsetters, eyes are on the USDA to provide guidance on what is “good enough” for quantification and verification. The Growing Climate Solutions Act offers guidance, assuming the USDA can act quickly and pragmatically. It is important to swiftly capitalize on the hope of the markets today and establish guidelines.

Provide Technical Assistance for Growers

An additional market staller is cost and varied results of carbon-positive practices. It is unfair and unrealistic to place the burden of climate change mitigation on the backs of the farmers while not offering them support to limit risk. Traditionally, the USDA-NRCS, FSA and other organizations have provided growers support to successfully adopt new practices. In addition, agencies provide subsidies for adopting sustainable practices. Expanding access to technical support and existing government conservation programs will help ensure farmers get knowledge needed to successfully implement a new practice and continue down the regenerative path.

Incentivize and Finance Grower Conversion to Regenerative Practices

The Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) represents a multi-billion-dollar pool of money used by the Trump administration to subsidize growers who sustained losses during the trade war with China. Historically, CCC funds have been deployed in many ways to support farm income, conservation and foreign market development. President Biden aims to spend this money to promote soil carbon. The primary blocker to scaling the adoption of regenerative practices is the cost of implementation. Utilizing CCC funds to directly fund grower adoption of practices would increase adoption and provide voluntary markets the supply of offsets needed to support long-term economic sustainability.

The voluntary carbon markets represent a great opportunity to drive the regenerative revolution, and government intervention has the potential to help or hinder their success. For the farmers and the planet, let’s hope they don’t fizzle out before they get started.

Jenette Ashtekar is Vice President of Product Management at CIBO. She is an entrepreneurial scientist and agricultural technology innovator. Her technology has been used to deliver critical soil information to at-risk agricultural communities throughout Central and South America as well as to help U.S. and Canadian farmers improve precision management through the use of high-resolution soil maps.