March 25, 2020
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A 2020 New Year’s resolution: Commit to carbon drawdown in farmland soils, incentivize regenerative farming

David Goldman | AP
David Goldman | AP
In this Dec. 10, 2010, file photo, farmer Aries Haygood shows how powdery the top layer of soil is on his freshly planted Vidalia onion farm in Lyons, Georgia. The U.S.'s extreme weather -- flood-inducing downpours, extended droughts, heat waves and bitter cold and snow -- has doubled in the 30 years since 1988, according to a federal index.

The adage, “There’s no time like the present,” gains new meaning in a world where leading scientists tell us we must act now to stop the worst effects of the climate crisis.

This year, 2020, offers a must-seize opportunity to save our planet — and ourselves. With no action from the current administration in Washington, D.C., hope rests with Maine Gov. Janet Mills and the 24 other governors who have joined the U.S. Climate Alliance. This consortium is taking on-the-ground actions to achieve the goal of the Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Climate Alliance states are now developing detailed action plans.

At American Farmland Trust, we believe that every state plan must prioritize support for regenerative farming practices that build soil health and sequester carbon.

Drawing carbon from the air and storing it in agricultural soils offers an immediately available, low-cost, and proven way to address climate change. Beyond this, no other option to combat climate change comes with more of the co-benefits we need for a sustainable future: food security, flood control and fire protection, water filtration, homes for wildlife and biodiversity.

By some estimates, as much as one-third of the carbon in our atmosphere could be returned to the soil through aggressive adoption of regenerative farming practices worldwide. And the U.S., with 10 percent of the planet’s arable land, can make a real difference.

As American Farmland Trust’s climate director, Jennifer Moore-Kucera, testified before Congress last October, broader adoption of just two regenerative practices — cover crops and no-till — could reduce greenhouse gas levels by 148 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year. And full adoption could result in a drop of 294 million tons. That’s the equivalent of removing 62.4 million cars from our roadways.

To assist Climate Alliance states, American Farmland Trust has developed a new tool that quantifies the current use and impact of key regenerative practices and then estimates the potential to sequester more carbon if these practices are applied more broadly, given the specific farmland resources in a state or region.

New England may not be an agricultural powerhouse like some other regions, but even here the potential is significant. Preliminary estimates developed by Moore-Kucera and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Daniel Manter show that if all cropland in the region adopted legume cover crops and converted to no-till practices, greenhouse gas levels would drop by 514,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalents per year. That’s the same amount of carbon that would be pulled out of the atmosphere by 8.5 million new trees during a 10-year period.

Achieving such impacts will require incentives that help farmers adopt regenerative practices. Having worked with farmers for many years, I know that they care deeply about their land and work hard to be good environmental stewards. Yet farmers operate in a highly risky low-margin business where they cannot afford to take all the actions our planet needs without assistance.

It could prove challenging for states to craft bold strategies that help farmers combat climate change — as it’s unfamiliar territory. When it comes to soil health and carbon capture, most states, including Maine, have deferred to federal conservation programs. Those federal programs do a lot of good — but not at the level the climate crisis demands.

By advancing regenerative farming practices in creative ways, states can not only support farmers and reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately, but put forward new models that hold promise to shape federal policy in the future, greatly multiplying the impact.

I applaud Mills, Agriculture Commissioner Amanda Beal, Hannah Pingree and others in the Mills administration for recognizing farming’s potential — and the need to act now. But the responsibility extends further. It’s up to all of us, as citizens and consumers, to ensure that 2020 is the year when farming becomes a centerpiece of action to combat climate change. It’s all hands on deck.

John Piotti is president of American Farmland Trust. He is the former president of Maine Farmland Trust and former majority leader in the Maine House of Representatives.


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