Carbon sequestration seems to be getting more attention lately with the U.S. Senate Ag Committee even holding a hearing on the subject. The lawmakers are exploring how to create a carbon capture program for interested farmers and landowners as part of the Growing Climate Solutions Act. It focuses on removing technical barriers and assisting with upfront development costs, as well as establishes standards and protocols.

The idea has gained traction across the agricultural industry. Ag startup Indigo Ag has said thousands of farmers working more than 18 million acres of farmland, nearly all in the United States, have expressed interest in enrolling in its carbon-sequestration program. A consortium of food giants and non-profits has raised more than $20 million to build a marketplace to sell soil carbon credits. The Ecosystem Services Market Consortium counts among its members agri-business giants Bunge and Cargill, food companies General Mills and Land O’Lakes, and agriculture groups such as the National Farmers Union, American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. The marketplace is piloting its program on 50,000 acres of farmland and has announced a nationwide target launch date of 2022. 

With the idea of providing farmers incentives finally gaining what looks like real momentum in Congress, it seems like a good time to take a look at what carbon sequestration actually is. For some producers, it could mean getting paid for things they already practice, including those in the “regenerative agriculture” movement. At the same time, it opens up possible economic incentives for others that might have been considering changes. A very good breakdown of the Growing Climate Solutions Act can be found HERE . Below is more information on carbon sequestration and what it could mean for farmers. (Sources: USGS, Beveridge&Diamond PC, GreenBiz, UCDavis)

What is carbon sequestration?
Carbon sequestration is the process of capturing and storing carbon dioxide to prevent it from entering the atmosphere. The ultimate goal is to reduce and/or slow global climate change, which some scientists argue can not be done to a meaningful degree by simply reducing carbon emissions. For example, in 2018, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine reported that “negative emissions technologies” — techniques for removing carbon from the atmosphere, rather than simply reducing new emissions of carbon — are needed to stabilize global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, the level scientists believe could be catastrophic.

What are the different types of carbon sequestration?
There are two main types of carbon sequestration. The first, geological sequestration, is the process of storing it in underground geologic formations. For agriculture, we are talking about biological sequestration, which is the storage of atmospheric carbon in vegetation, soils, woody products, and aquatic environments. Soil sequestration was identified in the academy’s study as a cost-effective solution with the potential to remove as much as 5% of the U.S.’s annual CO2 emissions, which totaled 5.4 billion tons in 2018.

What is the process of soil carbon sequestration?
Soil sequesters carbon through a complex process that starts with photosynthesis. A plant draws carbon out of the atmosphere and returns to the soil what isn’t harvested in the form of residue and root secretions. This feeds microbes in the soil. The microbes transform it into the building blocks of soil organic matter and help stabilize the carbon, sequestering it. Based on the same National Academy of Sciences study, global farmland could capture and store as much as 3 billion tons of additional carbon dioxide if farmers adopted a number of practices. Those include the use of cover crops and no-till, practices a large number of farmers already employ.

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