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Will you become a carbon farmer?

Getty/iStockphoto/Zolak Carbon markets written on clipboard
We need government policies that let farmers profit from practices that remove carbon and cool the planet.

Farmers chase profit in all kinds of ways. In the Corn Belt, it usually means growing a good crop and selling it for profit. But what if your main profit driver came from carbon removal?

At the recent World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit that scenario was laid out by David Babson, director of Advance Research Projects Agency at the U.S. Department of Energy.

“We no longer have the luxury of just reducing emissions to meet our climate targets,” says Babson. “We have to reduce our emissions down to zero and then go negative.”

For farmers still on the fence over carbon markets enrollment, that may sound like a big ask. Until now there’s been a lack of clarity and profit incentive, which may be why most farmers are still sitting on their hands.

Even so, Babson offers a compelling look at what the planet needs to survive and how agriculture will likely be the main driver of that rescue operation.

Start with the massive scale of the “future negative emissions industry.” The planet needs to have 10 gigatons of carbon dioxide removal capacity by 2050, and 20 gigatons of carbon dioxide removal capacity by 2100.

“This means that the largest industry on the face of the earth by mid-century and certainly by the end of it, will be carbon removal management,” he says.

But who will do it – and how will we get there?

“The technology that serves the carbon removal industry needs to be low cost and energy efficient,” he continues. “And when we think of climate smart agriculture, we don’t think of tech to just reduce the footprint of typical ag production; we think of how to imagine the ag system fundamentally contributing to this future negative emissions industry. The ag industry becomes a carbon removal management industry."

We believe it is the most cost effective and low energy way to remove and manage carbon,” he adds. “So in order to stimulate the types of new technologies that are necessary, we need to be able to connect farm practices and land management strategies to carbon markets, and we have to produce very high-quality data at a low cost to support markets in this space.”

World Agri-Tech Innovation SummitBabson speaking at the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit

CARBON PRICE: “If carbon was priced as it should be, it would change the whole value proposition within the ag sector,” says U.S. Energy Department ARPE Director David Babson.

Now, you might ask: how did the Department of Energy get involved in carbon or agriculture? The agency is creating a program called SMARTFARM to develop new types of sensors and systems that quantify above-ground GHGs and below-ground soil carbon, “so that we can get to a place that pays farmers for performance, rather than just adopting practices.”

Federal policy needed

This isn’t going to happen without some compelling change in government policies. It’s a ‘show me the money’ moment. What’s needed is a policy that pays farmers more to remove carbon than to produce corn, although getting paid for both activities is absolutely necessary.

“I’m not going to beat around the bush,” says Babson. “One of the things that needs to happen in order to make this profitable, scalable, and viable, is that the market environment needs to change, through policy. If we were to price carbon in an agnostic way and actually make it profitable to remove carbon from the atmosphere and put it underground rather than take it from underground and put it in the atmosphere, the technologies and strategies to profit in that environment would exist – but you need that policy first."

“If carbon was priced as it should be, it would change the whole value proposition within the ag sector,” he claims. “In many places, particularly as there would be greater certainty around carbon prices than the commodity (farmed), many farmers would become carbon farmers first, and produce cotton, corn, or soy second."

“Farm practices would fundamentally change because carbon would now be a much greater value proposition for them. That would accelerate the carbon drawdown industry – having the market conditions needed, for people to make decisions about how to optimize for carbon drawdown.”

Measuring outcomes

On the research side, ARPA is interested in metrics technology that verify outcomes. Another area of investigation needs to be on analysis, to actually quantify and publish what is the time value of carbon, particularly among ag attributes where the storage time may be 50 or 100 years but not 1,000 years.

A group of researchers led by the University of Minnesota developed something called KGML-ag framework, a model to quantify agricultural nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide, and methane emissions, helping to verify carbon credits, and optimize farm management practices and policy making. There needs to be certainty about how attributes are defined, or what a ‘drawdown attribute’ means. We need to be able to make sure the rules are clear enough so that contracts are viable.

“There is a lot of excitement around the potential for agriculture to contribute to carbon drawdown, but unless we have accurate and cost-effective measurement tools to assess what is happening both above- and below-ground, we won’t see the market incentives we know are necessary to facilitate a transition to net-negative agriculture,” says Babson.

“Right now, the arbitrary nature overall of what is applied now is that we over discount ag attributes; our capacity to achieve the amount of drawdown we need is going to be diminished, because the market is insufficient in promoting the maximum amount of drawdown we can get from agriculture.”

That paints a pretty interesting picture for the future of farming. It’s a future where farmers help save the planet by focusing practices on carbon removal – along with food production. Will you be part of that future?

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