Second in a two-part series. Click here for the first part.
A disruptive initiative in the effort to involve agriculture in the fight against climate change arrived in 2019. It did not come by tractor or truck, but by launching a new organization designed to give to farmers a financial incentive to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
The group is called the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC), and one of its main goals is to establish a system that rewards farmers and ranchers for adopting new technologies and methods that can reduce emissions and help clean up polluted waterways.
There is “no precedent” for this, said Debbie Reed, executive director of the group.
One of the first accomplishments was convincing some of the country’s largest agricultural companies and food suppliers to join us as potential contributors. Today it has more than 70 participating members. They include Nestlé SA, Cargill Inc., General Mills Inc., Bunge Ltd., Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. and McDonald’s Corp.
In addition, professional associations such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Corn Growers Association, and the Fertilizer Institute are joining environmental groups including Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to join ESMC.
So far, contributors have focused on 10 pilot projects rewarding farmers raising livestock and crops. Most of them are in the Midwest. Reed’s group is developing a national system starting next year where farmers and external auditors can learn and then measure the results of their carbon saving practices. Then, participating companies can buy the credits and use them to meet their future carbon reduction targets. ESMC plans to launch a national system next year.
The ESMC also calls on state governments to help fund practices that result in a public good, such as reducing the overuse of chemical fertilizers that exacerbates water pollution.
“We want to provide a source of income for early adopters and make them peers that others can learn from in their areas,” said Reed, who complains that the US Department of Agriculture’s technical assistance program for farmers and ranchers “has been largely dismantled over the past two decades.
Reed has assisted in shaping agricultural policy in Washington from a variety of key positions: as USDA’s assistant policymakers, as assistant to former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, and as as director of legislative affairs and agricultural policy at the White House. Council on Environmental Quality during the Clinton Administration.
She sees ESMC as a kind of necessary intermediary. It is preparing to support the fight against climate change by preparing the rules for obtaining credits and developing measurable means to show that new technologies and practices can produce more crops and reduce specific and super powerful emissions linked to farms and ranches.
These include nitrogen oxide, which is 300 times more powerful than CO2, and methane, which is 34 times more powerful at warming the planet.
“We’re not the only game in town, but the mechanics of the market can provide a pretty dramatic signal,” Reed said.
One of the pilot projects is in Kansas. There, General Mills worked with wheat growers, teaching them “regenerative agriculture.” This includes practices such as growing cover crops that remove CO2 from the air and store it in the soil. It also reduces practices that increase fertilizer use and soil erosion.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment helps by purchasing water quality credits to reward farmers whose actions remove pollutants. Leo Henning, deputy secretary of the department, said if the project was successful it would be a “win-win-win for farmers, communities and the environment”.
Jamie Funke, a farmer from Patridge, Kansas, said in Kansas Hutchinson news: “You used to try to force nature to do whatever you want with chemicals.” He added: “If we can prove that we can produce better crops at a lower cost, this is what will make a difference. “
Jason Hildebrand, a farmer from Stafford County, said the practices helped him increase his cattle herd. He thinks that one of the reasons is that the quality of his soil has improved. Soil testing can be time consuming and costly for farmers, but one of the benefits of ESMC projects is that it will perform the analysis.
“It will give me time to do what I do best – farming,” Hildebrand told the Kansas newspaper.
Kris Johnson, who is Nature Conservancy’s interim director for its North American program, now wears two hats. He is also vice-chairman of the board of ESMC.
He believes that ESMC’s multifaceted leadership and focus on science-backed credit would further gain the confidence of farmers and ultimately provide them with more income.
“The question of trust is an interesting one,” Johnson said. “Only about 10 percent of farmers actually use USDA programs. I think it has a lot to do with trust and mistrust in government. “
Johnson said the USDA “has done a ton of good work following the Farm Bill. But there isn’t a lot of funding, and it’s been pretty static for the past 20 years.” He has says the net result is that the department does not have enough resources or people “to engage with farmers.”
He said he believed the ESMC approach would bring additional resources, including increased financial support from food suppliers as well as food consumers who he said appear more and more interested in sustainability issues.
Meanwhile, the Fertilizer Institute is working with Midwestern farm groups on what it calls its 4R Nutrient Stewardship program. It emphasizes using fertilizer “from the right source, at the right rate, at the right time” and with the right placement that will increase both production and profitability “while improving crop protection. environment and sustainability “.
The alliance with the scientific approach of ESMC will help the Fertilizer Institute and its member companies to monitor both the use of the products by the farmers and the quality of the water. In a statement last year, Corey Rosenbusch, president and CEO of the institute, said he hoped the results would show a “significant correlation” between good management and profitability.
Regardless of the measure, the results of stimulating a greater contribution from agriculture to mitigate US greenhouse gas emissions appear to be enormous. The industry contributed $ 1.1 trillion to the country’s gross domestic product in 2019.
Congress in November 2019 – in the form of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis – asked Reed what federal policies would help ESMC’s broad interest group accelerate the fight against climate change.
In a series of written responses to the panel’s questions, Reed and other ESMC executives suggested that the continuation of ongoing research by the Department of Energy to develop better and more abundant soil-based sensors for tracking changes in greenhouse gas levels would accelerate a more “cost-effective” way to tackle abrupt climate change.
The group claimed that reconstructing what it called a current “lack of data” on the economic impacts of climate change on various agricultural production systems in “varied geographies” of the United States would provide better advice to farmers and to breeders.
The ESMC noted that improvements in climate-related impacts on federal lands would remain an issue for the government. He suggested that if farmers and ranchers were given credit for proven innovations to reduce greenhouse gases on the land they rented from the government, it would “protect and improve” federal lands.
Financial markets have seen investors eagerly plunge into stocks of companies that make synthetic microbes that can suck nitrogen oxides from the air and use them as fertilizer in the soil.
But Reed predicted in his recent interview that many farmers who frequently follow centuries-old practices would still need better measures and financial credits to help them change their habits.
“Otherwise, it will be slow. “