As it stands less than 5% of cover crops are specifically designed for capturing CO2 and only 1% of farmers in the US take advantage of carbon credits. A bipartisan act introduced earlier in July by Senators Smith (D-MN) and Young (R-IN) has the potential to substantially increase climate benefits from agriculture.
The act is part of the broader Farm Bill, which is an omnibus legislation passed every five years and covers all aspects of food production. The senators’ proposed Advancing Research on Agricultural Climate Impacts (ARACI) Act presents a roadmap for research and data infrastructure investments needed to maximize agricultural climate benefits.
The act itself follows a blueprint created by climate NGO Carbon180’s recommendations about the ways to invest in agricultural carbon sequestration using a science-based approach for soil carbon measurement.
Cristel Zoebisch, deputy director of policy at Carbon180 and agriculture policy lead, commented on the introduction of the act by saying: “Senator Smith and Senator Young’s vision for the ARACI act can help radically transform agriculture’s relationship to climate change by making critical investments in soil carbon sequestration. This legislation recognizes that American farmers and ranchers are managing their land and feeding the country while at the frontlines of climate change and offers regionally-relevant data insights and on-the-ground support to retool long-standing practices. Critically, this legislation makes measuring soil carbon more transparent, accurate, and accountable to climate benefits. We believe this legislation can help usher in the next generation of soil carbon measurement tools, so farmers and ranchers can showcase their contributions to climate mitigation.”
This is not the first effort to bridge the gap between voluntary carbon markets (VCMs) and farmers. The Growing Climate Solutions Act was passed last year and provides support for farmers and ranchers who want to take part in VCMs. One of the issues for broadscale participation has been the aforementioned lack of reliable measurement and verification of soil carbon sequestration.
By creating an extensive soil science database that is readily available to US farmers, bottlenecks around transparency and the utility of carbon credits could be removed. According to Zoebisch the ARACI Act (and the Farm Bill as a whole) can provide the framework for strategic investments in innovative methodologies and tools to more accurately and cost-effectively quantify soil carbon outcomes through standardized sampling, national monitoring networks, demonstration projects, and predictive modeling.
But there are other barriers that need addressing. “The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is really understaffed, which makes it difficult for farmers and ranchers to receive the necessary support to determine best practices for sequestering carbon based on their unique operation and soil types, region, and natural resource concerns. In addition, some of the practices that have the highest carbon sequestration potential, like agroforestry, require specialized knowledge that most NRCS staff currently lack,” she points out.
In terms of solutions for these challenges, Zoebisch thinks that efforts should be focused on the translation of regionally-relevant research to NRCS field staff and increasing the availability of specialized technical assistance, so farmers and ranchers can receive comprehensive support when they embark on their journey to activate their operations as carbon sinks.