By Guest Blogger Eve Gleeson
With the new Biden administration comes the emergence of fresh ideas to tackle climate change and environmental degradation. A potential “carbon bank” for farmers has begun to gain traction, which would be able to reward farmers for sequestering carbon into soils by selling the resulting credits to corporations who wish to offset their emissions. While well-intended, there is no shortage of obstacles to creating a carbon bank that is as equitable, sustainable, and effective as its proponents suggest.
A carbon bank would be a product of the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), a U.S. Department of Agriculture program responsible for financing agricultural support programs like subsidies and aid payments. In a perfect world, the program would be equipped with the technical and logistical dexterity to monitor soil carbon levels on farms, calculate “credits” and pay farmers according to each ton of captured carbon, and serve as a mediator between credit-producing farmers and credit-buying corporate entities.
Despite the challenges, a carbon bank may impart considerable benefits.
First, advocates claim that if only $1 billion were dedicated to the program annually (CCC is authorized to lend up to $30 million), there could be atmospheric carbon reductions of around 50 megatons per year with carbon prices at $20 per ton. As we will see, the environmental impact of this program is far more complicated than these figures suggest. For this reason, the program may be more useful in a symbolic sense, encouraging a movement toward cultural and behavioral norms that embody sustainability, especially within the food system. Commoditizing a natural resource (in this case, soil carbon) is understandably controversial, but it has great power to convey the value of ecosystem services to a profit-oriented financial system.
Lastly, though likely to falter in its early stages, a carbon bank may offer a short-term solution to a time-sensitive climate crisis, as the systemic and institutional changes we really need may take decades we simply do not have. Given its potential, healthy criticism shouldn’t precipitate a premature dismissal of government-backed carbon markets. As with most innovation, this program might just require several years of troubleshooting before coming into its own.
Unfortunately, this carbon bank does pose some structural and conceptual challenges that may make it a non-starter.
First, there is a general absence of objective and affordable measurement tools for monitoring changes in soil carbon. This results from a poor understanding of how carbon functions in soil, frequent incremental changes in carbon levels, and high variability in soil carbon across soil types. Consequently, there is immense variability in soil carbon measurements across farms, putting additional pressure on a carbon bank to standardize and assign value to something that is by nature highly variable and volatile.
Like other carbon markets, this carbon bank could cater to corporate and industrial operations, while disadvantaging the small-scale independent farmers that are truly regenerating damaged lands through holistic practices. Because this program would pay landowners for capturing atmospheric carbon, it could also exacerbate land-grabbing practices by corporations seeking to profit off the program. Small and diversified farms, who provide various ecosystem services and other benefits for the food system, could be overtaken by industrial operations that profit better in a carbon marketplace. This could worsen the struggle many new farmers face in accessing affordable farmland.
More generally, a carbon bank could further benefit a small group of corporate landholders, who already own over 75 percent of all agricultural production in the U.S., while overlooking the system that caused too much atmospheric carbon in the first place– the manufacturing and fossil fuel industries. This brings me to my last point.
There may be legitimate environmental costs associated with this program.
Exclusive attention is often paid to greenhouses gases, particularly carbon, in climate change discourse, pointing to our obsession with siloing the often complex causes of and solutions to climate change. This carbon bank is no exception. Assigning value to carbon but not other forms of natural capital narrows our understanding of ecological health both on and off the farm. Carbon can be sequestered into soils even with the continued use of pesticides and monocropping, practices that damage biodiversity, produce nutrient-depleted crops, and pollute the environment.
A carbon credit program like this one also entitles corporations to continue their emissions-intensive practices, though they may now effectively greenwash their products and operations. There is also no indication that these programs can significantly reduce greenhouse gas levels in the long run; the volatility of soil carbon means that changes in land practices or weather events could release stored carbon that has already been credited.
How might a carbon bank impact farmers in the Midwest?
Existing carbon marketplaces like Indigo Ag or Nori are designed around collecting credits racked up by large landholders. The average size of these corporate farms is 1,000 acres; approximately 90 percent of OEFFA farmers hold less land than this. As such, most small-scale farmers in the Midwest are unlikely to be included in a carbon bank, as the high cost of the program requires participants that can demonstrate soil carbon changes substantial enough to amass credits. Even if they were included, profiting significantly would be a struggle. With the cost of carbon at just $20 per ton, and most Midwest farms capable of sequestering between half a ton and one ton of carbon per acre, independent farmers are unlikely to strike gold the way industrial farms might.
If we look hard enough, we might just be able to see the opportunity a carbon bank bestows for sparking a greater movement toward sustainable cultural and economic trends.
If designed correctly, it could successfully incentivize ecological stewardship. But at present, this program may only serve to enrich corporate landholders, stagnate genuine land regeneration, and neglect more integrated movements toward a sustainable food system.
Born and raised in Cleveland, Eve Gleeson is a sustainability consultant, freelance writer, and an intern at Food Tank. You can find her spreading knowledge and resources about sustainable food on Instagram, Twitter, and her website. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.