We may be on a dangerous path when it comes to tackling agriculture and climate. The road might benefit the most polluting agribusinesses, but it won't really solve the climate crisis. Two of the more popular approaches are supporting agricultural carbon markets and subsidizing heavily polluting factory farms; however, this will increase the concentration of industrial agriculture while increasing pollution in low-income communities. These practices are dangerous and costly, and fail to transform agriculture from a major contributor to the climate crisis to a solution to climate change.
Carbon markets have failed to effectively curb greenhouse gas emissions for a decade, so why should we continue to bet on this failed climate policy? If you look at those who are the most staunch supporters, you will see who will be the winners. Agrochemical giants such as Bayer and Syngenta, as well as agribusinesses such as ADM and Cargill, are supporting bills on agricultural carbon markets. So, who will ultimately be the loser in the carbon market? It could be small family farms, low-income communities, and our environment.
It's worth noting that, despite years of refusal by these large agribusinesses and coalitions to take action on climate change, why did the heavyweights in these industries endorse the approach of agricultural carbon markets? Why are they joining now?
Fundamentally, no matter how financially successful these agricultural carbon markets themselves are, the big agrochemical and seed industry giants will benefit from carbon market programs. Companies such as Bayer and Syngenta are poised to further cement their market dominance, while maintaining chemical-intensive agriculture’s grip on our food system by providing technical support to track farmers’ carbon sequestration practices on their fields. Bayer's carbon initiative, for example, will pay farmers to sequester carbon on the condition that they use their proprietary seeds and chemicals and hand over vast amounts of extremely valuable farm data. Other agricultural carbon market companies, including Indigo Ag, have a similar model. The companies will use this to increase sales and gain access to farmers' data before they earn carbon sequestration income.
Carbon markets in other industries have primarily benefited large players, while other players have been left behind. Agricultural carbon markets would be no different, exacerbating uniform ownership of farmland and excluding smaller farmers by creating a new source of income, as carbon markets require economies of scale to achieve. As smallholders and other socially disadvantaged farmers are already struggling, carbon markets allow big companies to get bigger while smaller players lose more and more benefits.
Carbon markets exacerbate pollution of vulnerable communities and directly run counter to climate equity goals. For decades, opponents of carbon market mechanisms have emphasized that such markets are plagued by fraud and lack of integrity, while playing a role in encroaching on the rights of vulnerable groups. In essence, carbon markets may have become platforms for large-scale corporate “greenwashing”, as the biggest carbon emitters can buy credits instead of reducing emissions and, to some extent, even increasing pollution to vulnerable communities.
For example, large agri-food companies such as Cargill, JBS and Smithfield Foods can claim to achieve "net zero" as long as they purchase enough carbon credits without changing their current practices. However, Smithfield Foods recently settled with a court on its hog farm in Brighton County, North Carolina, over litter rendering the surrounding community uninhabitable.
In addition, there are significant structural and technical deficiencies in the agricultural carbon market. Changes in land use would rapidly release any sequestered carbon, but there is currently no practical measure of carbon sequestration. What's more, farmers in certain agricultural regions may already be at a disadvantage because local fields are less capable of sequestering carbon no matter how they farm.
While large, carbon-intensive companies are capitalizing on the growing interest in regenerative agriculture by supporting the agricultural carbon market, the real ecological solutions already exist. Practices such as cover crops, crop diversification, composting, no-tillage, and effective rangeland management not only help soil carbon sequester, but research shows they also conserve valuable water resources and allow local biodiversity to flourish. In the long term, these "regenerative farming" practices can not only improve farm profitability, but also enhance the resilience of food systems to droughts, floods and climate disruption.
What we need to do is implement real climate change solutions through farmers and environmental groups urging national policymakers and regulators to expand and improve existing agricultural conservation programs, and encourage farmers and pastoralists everywhere to take advantage of these programs. At the same time, farm conservation management programs and environmental quality incentive programs can also be established to reward farmers for regenerative agriculture and to massively expand existing programs.
Government agricultural administrations should also work to restructure existing agricultural subsidy programs to ensure that subsidized producers reduce emissions and implement farming laws for soil health; resources should also be provided to strengthen producers’ skills in regenerative agriculture. assistance. We also need to invest more in national organic programs and organic research and extension, as organic growers were the original advocates for soil health and have long supported what is now called regenerative agriculture.
Fundamentally, we must first set bold goals to reduce carbon and methane emissions. That means drastically curbing greenhouse gas emissions from big agri-food companies, including tracking and mandating that large industrial farms also reduce methane emissions, rather than propping them up with massive subsidies. Governments can also use procurement programs to promote climate-friendly food purchases, which may be one of the most powerful ways to reduce the impact of agriculture-related emissions. What we need to do over the next decade is to drive truly regenerative farming solutions that benefit farmers, consumers and the environment.