Are Carbon Credits the Solution?

Earlier this month Congress proposed The Growing Climate Solutions Act of 20201, a bill that encourages farmer and forest landowner participation in carbon credit markets. At first glance this seems like a really great idea. It’s a bipartisan bill that uses USDA resources to help farmers navigate carbon markets that already exist. The bill will require the USDA to publish a guide for helping farmers through the process of obtaining these carbon credits. Part of this process will include private sector Technical Assistance Providers (TAPs) who will work with farmers to develop and implement projects to decrease carbon emissions or create carbon sinks within their farms. Then third party verifiers will confirm that these goals have been reached, and somehow magically money will be paid to farmers through these carbon credits.

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This two page document raises many unanswered questions. Much like the farm bill benefiting the AgTech and insurance industries it seems that the real beneficiaries of this bill are the third party players who will provide the technical assistance and verify the carbon reduction. Who exactly are these third party players? What agriculture and forestry related practices will they be encouraging? I have a sneaky suspicion that we will see more “carbon friendly” AgTech being released, requiring farmers to spend more money on high dollar equipment when we have real data coming out encouraging farmers to participate in less intensive farming techniques. For example, we know that grass finishing beef using multi-paddock grazing techniques sequesters more carbon than grain finishing at a CAFO 2, but are these programs really going to be encouraging grass finishing and risk a hit to the meat processing, fertilizer, and corn/ soy industries that rely on grain finishing livestock?

The high number of corporate sponsors to this bill is also of great concern. To think that corporations like McDonald’s, Microsoft, Bayer, and Land O Lakes would back a bill for the pure love of the environment is naive at best, especially when we can trace corporate sponsorship of the Bayh-Dole Act and the Farm Bill back to corporate directed research at land grant universities. Agribuisness donors currently push land-grant universities to to carry out corporate-directed research focused on developing biofuels, commodity crop research, and genetically engineered food, to name a few. They also underwrite research grants, endow faculty chairs, sponsor departments, and finance the construction of new buildings 3. Why then would corporations back a bill that has the potential to backtrack on these initiatives, unless the intention is to shift this research to include utilizing these carbon credits?

In a perfect world the TAPs would be USDA employees trained in regenerative farming techniques. The bill already proposes having the USDA train and certify third party vendors. Why don’t we cut out the middle man and have the USDA train the farmers? They could train on techniques like no-till, cover crop, companion planting, and multi-paddock grazing, and guide the farmers in modifying their farming techniques based on current research. That way, instead of pressuring farmers to implement the next big piece of equipment or modified seed they could also be demonstrating and encouraging changing their current techniques in order to decrease emissions or increase carbon sequestration and let them decide for themselves which is best.

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Incentives for these changes should still be given to farmers for reaching these goals, like accessing these carbon credits from already established credit markets. However, they should not be facilitated through third party verifiers, or if they are then they should be funded by the USDA and not the farmer and should be audited regularly for appropriate use of government funds (since third party vendors are notorious for increasing prices on goods to government agencies). In the proposed bill it seems that the carbon credits themselves will be facilitated through the third party TAPs by “lowering the barriers to entry in the credit markets by reducing confusion and improving information to farmers” but what exactly does that mean? Will the TAPs be acquiring the credits for the farmers and then distributing them and if this is the case how much of those credits will be used to pay the TAPs?

Accounting for the fact that agriculture only accounts for 10% of the US annual carbon emissions 4 we are putting a lot of pressure on farmers to fix our current carbon situation. While we should be encouraging farmers to implement more environmentally friendly farming techniques we need to stop blaming them for our current climate situation. There are far bigger players in this game that need to be held accountable, and once again the government is going after the people with the least influence. There are too many questions regarding corporate benefits to this bill and we should all be uncomfortable with it. It seems that the only way to benefit both the farmers and the environment is to remove corporate influence from the USDA all together.

  1. https://www.braun.senate.gov/sites/default/files/2020-06/Growing%20Climate%20Solutions%20Act%20One%20Pager_0.pdf
  2. Stanley, P., Roundtree, J., Beede, D., DeLonge, M., Hamm, M. (2018). Impacts of soil carbon sequestration on life cycle greenhouse gas emissions in Midwestern USA beef finishing systems. Agricultural systems (162) 249-258. online (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308521X17310338)
  3. Haas Institute. The US Farm Bill: Corporate Power and Structural Racialization in the United States Food System. https://haasinstitute.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/haasinstitutefarmbillreport_publish_0.pdf
  4. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions

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