The Great Carbon Rush

white and yellow flower petals on ground

Carbon farming is the new gold rush—or at least it has the potential to become one with an amazing opportunity to disrupt and transform the stagnant debate over climate change and agriculture.

This is a remarkable prospect. As farmers, we must stake our claim.

Right now, too many of the combatants in climate-change debates look at farmers and see only problems. In their view, the people who raise animals, seed land, and harvest food by running tractors over fields are carbon criminals who spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Yet this overlooks a basic fact of biology: Plants remove carbon from the air, turning it into plant material or storing it in the soils. A fellow Global Farmer Network member and Brazilian farmer Andre Dobashi has called this process “carbon kidnapping” – using carbon-smart practices on their farm that makes the soil healthier by increasing organic matter and the soils productivity.

Farmers are in fact an important part of the solution to climate change. What is needed is to recognize and reward the good work they’re already doing and harness their determination and creativity to do even better.

That’s why I like the metaphor of a gold rush. When people learned about the discovery of gold in California in 1848, hundreds of thousands flocked to the west coast of North America, hoping to strike it rich and make their fortunes. Many of the so-called “49ers” went bust, but others enjoyed a financial boom—and their combined migration began to build what is now the largest state in the United States.

We have a stunning opportunity today to generate our own gold rush in carbon farming.

As a progressive farmer in Scotland who raises dairy cows and pigs, I’ve been thinking for a long time about agriculture, climate change, and my own carbon footprint. More than a decade ago, I began to map the soil on my farm to gain a better understanding of what it holds. For the last five years, I’ve tried to calculate my own carbon emissions.

The data is rough—too rough and unreliable to share in public—but it’s allowed me to perform a simple sum. As I determine how much carbon my farm puts into the atmosphere as well as how much it takes out through the biology of carbon recycling, I create a carbon balance sheet.

The difficulty is that almost nobody is trying to do this in a formal way and through an agreed global regulatory framework. Nations everywhere face domestic and international obligations to improve the climate by cutting their carbon emissions. Government agencies and political activists just want to look at one side of the carbon ledger and debit farmers. Meanwhile, the supply chain wants farmers to provide the beneficial service of carbon sequestration for free.

Let’s imagine something new: A credit system in which farmers earn financial credits for removing carbon from the atmosphere. It already exists in a primitive form, through voluntary markets. Yet this is wildly inadequate because it observes no common rules and relies on altruism.

What if industries that emit large amounts of carbon had to purchase credits from farmers who successfully store it in the soil? Airlines, for example, could become patrons of agriculture, buying a service from farmers who currently have no way to sell it.

If farmers can see and experience a financial incentive in carbon farming that supports the practices and measurement strategies they have put in place, many more will begin working with imagination and diligence to become excellent carbon farmers. They will embrace new methods and technologies, including no-till, better seeds, biostimulants, genetic gain, and more. Best of all, the incentives of carbon agriculture will inspire farmers to unleash their creativity. They will look for innovative ways to capture carbon—and come up with ideas that we barely can conceive right now.

As the economist Adam Smith—my fellow Scot—reminded us almost 250 years ago: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

Constructing a system that allows farmers to pursue their own interest will involve huge challenges. Maybe it even verges on wishful thinking because it will require a serious and scientific commitment to accurate carbon auditing as well as the adoption of common-sense regulations that treat everyone fairly.

Once established, though, we could let powerful forces work for the good of agriculture and the environment. We would enjoy a massive effort by farmers to ensure their own prosperity not by mining the earth for precious metals but rather by sticking carbon into the ground for the benefit of everyone.

We would have our new gold rush.

Photo by Martin Martz

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