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By Sara S. Blomquist, Slow Food USA Food and Farm Policy Steering Committee Member
Photo by Tom Fisk

The Growing Climate Solutions Act of 2021 (GCSA), originally introduced in 2020 and revived by the 117th Congress, was passed by the Senate in June 2021. The bill aims to make it easier for “farmers, ranchers, and private forest landowners” to enter voluntary environmental credit markets, namely carbon markets. The bill has been controversial, particularly because of the debated efficacy of carbon markets in reducing emissions and facilitating sustainable systems.

What are carbon markets? 

In recent years, carbon markets have become immensely popular as proposed climate solutions. In such markets, an emissions limit for a particular industry – in this case, agriculture – is often set (in what is called a “cap-and-trade scheme”). Then, polluters are given an annual limit on how much carbon dioxide they can emit. If businesses emit less than what is permitted, they can sell these credits to other businesses, theoretically incentivizing all businesses to reduce emissions so they can sell credits rather than buy them. Ultimately, carbon markets aim to make polluting less profitable. 

As National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s (NSAC) Cathy Day explains, the carbon market described in the GCSA would theoretically pay farmers to adopt sustainable practices to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and put carbon back into the soil. In essence, as farmers implement more sustainable practices — sequestering or reducing carbon emissions in the process — they would generate carbon credits, which they could then sell into the carbon market for profit. As Day explains, adopting sustainable agricultural practices is expensive, so payments through the market are supposed to make this transition easier and more appealing. But in practice, there are some glaring issues within the system. 

Using market forces to reduce emissions

Proponents of carbon markets more generally purport that this strategy “[lets] the market find the cheapest way to reduce emissions” because corporations must make these reductions in the most cost-effective way. Emissions trading has some proven success. For example, a sulfur dioxide market written into the Clean Air Act of 1990 cut coal power plant emissions quickly and more cheaply than projected. Some studies of carbon markets in the European Union indicate greater emissions reductions than without such markets, even with low carbon emissions prices. Analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund found that emissions trading could reduce the global costs of meeting the Paris agreement’s goals by 59 to 79% (however, the majority of these gains were projected to come from international rather than domestic carbon trading).  

Proponents of the GCSA assert that this market-oriented approach will align profitability with sustainability. Kameran Onley of The Nature Conservancy remarks that the GCSA’s voluntary carbon market “will help farmers improve their operations, build new revenue streams, and implement climate-smart practices to safeguard our environment for the future.” Indeed, the bill aims to expand access to carbon markets so that farmers of all kinds can participate. Supporters note that the legislation also creates a “farmer advisory board” that would work with the USDA to make sure farmers receive the intended benefits of the market. Others also note that the bill is bipartisan – one of the few climate-related bills supported by both Democrats and Republicans – and could be the beginning of more collaborative climate efforts in the US.  

Practical challenges exist – and there are many of them 

Yet, critics of carbon markets identify key issues that make the intended goals of the GSAC difficult to realize. Some of the most pressing critiques surround the structure of carbon markets themselves, namely the idea of carbon credits and offsets. Though a farmer may receive a credit for a certain practice or new technology that stores carbon, “we don’t have much assurance that that carbon is actually permanently in the ground,” Cathy Day explains. “Everytime you go back in and plow a field, you’re going to be stirring a lot of carbon back into the air,” which would mean the credit received would be given despite no actual carbon reduction. 

On top of that, the carbon market still allows people to pollute by purchasing credits. These two issues combined may actually result in an overall increase in carbon emissions, Day says. A letter to Congress signed by over 200 food-related justice organizations — including Slow Food USA — regarding the GSAC asserted that the legislation would continue “the legacy of pollution,” further harming disproportionately affected poor communities of color who both live near and work at industrial plants.

While proponents assert that the carbon market will provide farmers with revenue to adopt sustainable practices, Day is less convinced. “By and large, the carbon markets that have existed up to now…have done a very poor job of paying farmers adequately to adopt the practices that they need to adopt,” she notes. Carbon markets, she says, can provide farmers with a short-term infusion of cash that may allow them to initiate sustainable practices, but do not teach farmers how to establish strategies that keep carbon in the ground long-term. Proponents, however, argue that the incentives provided by carbon markets are still useful. Though it may not be the answer to climate change, “there are multiple benefits from restoring the soil, and I see a strong value to setting up a system to reward farmers to take better care of their land, even if the carbon drawdown estimates [turn out to be] much lower than predicted,” geologist David Montgomery said in an interview with Civil Eats

It may not be so easy, however. On average, Day notes, farmers need five to seven years to put sustainable techniques into place because it requires the rethinking of priorities and a complete overhaul of existing practices. Farmers that have spoken to NSAC remark that these payments don’t cover the costs of implementing new practices, Day says. She notes that carbon markets seem to offer false hope for farmers, rather than long-term change on the ground.  

Advocates for market-based solutions seem to recognize that payments from carbon credits alone will not be sufficient. A proposed method to bolster payment quantity is to stack payments for ecosystem services (more information available here). As Day describes, farmers would be paid (usually per acre) for the multiple environmental benefits of a sustainable practice, such as improved water quality, to accumulate a larger sum. Day explains that, even though the sum would be greater than with carbon credit payments alone, the incentive to participate would still be much greater for large farms with greater acreage, which are often engaging in the worst practices in the first place. This could also further widen the gap between small and large producers. Ultimately, carbon markets may be inherently vulnerable to corporate capture, as National Family Farm Coalition’s Jordan Treakle argues: “We’re not convinced this system will anytime soon reach the kind of price levels that can provide a source of income for a smaller or mid-sized diversified family operation,” he said to Civil Eats.

Moreover, carbon credit pricing has been shown to be inadequate to accurately reflect the environmental costs of emissions. Research published in 2021 from the University College London and Trove Research suggests that global carbon prices would need to increase ten-fold in order to meaningfully reduce emissions. Current prices stand at around $3-5 per ton of carbon. However, the researchers posited that increased demand for credits in the coming decades would drive prices up to required levels, which would incentivize further reductions. 

The benefits of carbon markets are certainly not as clear as they may initially seem. Ultimately, the market proposed in the GSAC seems to perpetuate the industrial agricultural apparatus that produces negative climate impacts, environmental injustice, and an unsustainable food system. So, what alternative solutions exist? 

While Cathy Day acknowledges that carbon markets are likely to remain a popular proposal for policymakers, technical assistance and education for farmers are paramount. In particular, she says, funding must be provided to organizations that help farmers access federal and state conservation programs, as well as programs where farmers train each other. “A lot of what we’ve learned in recent years is that who farmers listen to the most when it comes to implementing specific conservation solutions is going to be other farmers who have figured out how to do it,” Day says. In particular, Day identified the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program as key initiatives that need more funding. She noted that state programs for soil health training are also particularly crucial. 

Taking action to shift food systems and the environment

There are many existing pieces of introduced legislation that support the systemic solutions needed to spur emissions reductions in the agricultural sector and alter the dysfunctional foundations of our food system. In particular, the Agricultural Resilience Act is viewed as the primary legislative vehicle for climate and agriculture action for NSAC. The bill aims to achieve at least a net 50% reduction in greenhouse gasses from 2010 levels in the agricultural sector by 2030, and net zero emissions no later than 2040. The legislation highlights a variety of methods to achieve these goals, and includes a detailed focus on investment in climate research, soil health, and reformation of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). 

The Climate Stewardship Act is another key piece of legislation that provides funding and incentives for farmers to implement sustainable practices; it would also fund the programs Cathy Day described earlier. You can find the full list of related legislation supported by Slow Food USA here. In addition, make sure you are registered and vote in the federal congressional midterm elections to support  your federal legislators who advocate for climate action! You can check your registration status here and your federal representatives’ climate voting records here

Slow Food USA continues to fight for a food system that is good, clean, and fair for all. We hope you will continue to support us by joining a chapter in your area or starting your own!

In addition, make sure you are registered and vote in the federal congressional midterm elections to support federal legislators who advocate for climate action! You can check your registration status here and your federal representatives’ climate voting records here.