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USDA to help farmers navigate the murky world of soil carbon offsets

When Congress passed an omnibus spending bill in December, it included a bit of bipartisan climate legislation that had been languishing on the Hill since its introduction in 2020. The Growing Climate Solutions Act, supported by climate advocates and farmers alike, was devised to get the nation’s growers to adopt climate-friendly practices by encouraging their participation in the carbon market.

The bill’s backers hope the law will make it easier for farmers and landowners to get paid for storing carbon in their fields and forests. Farmers have struggled to navigate the complex web of companies offering to help them sell carbon credits, and have been confused by the number of different standards that exist for measuring carbon. They’re also worried about being fairly compensated.

But it’s unclear how the law will address farmers’ biggest concerns. A U.S. Department of Agriculture program created by the legislation may help by disseminating information and bringing some federal scrutiny to the unregulated credit market. Yet it does nothing to address key questions about the underlying science of soil carbon sequestration, and whether carbon offsets are even an effective way to incentivize it.

“The Growing Climate Solutions Act is a step in the right direction,” said Giana Amador, co-founder of Carbon180, a nonprofit that advocates for policies that support removing carbon from the atmosphere. “But we need a lot more investment in science, research and development, and early demonstration projects that give us a lot more certainty about the carbon being stored.”

The Biden administration’s climate strategy includes investing in so-called nature-based solutions like storing carbon in soil. One review of sequestration strategies found it is “practically achievable” for U.S. croplands to soak up 250 million metric tons of carbon per year, or about 4 percent of what the country emitted in 2020. Some of the methods analyzed included planting crops in the off season to pull more carbon into the soil, a practice called cover copping; reducing tillage, which can limit the carbon-releasing decay of organic matter in the soil; and converting cropland to grasses or other perennials.

Farmers are increasingly interested in these techniques, which also help retain nutrients, reduce erosion, improve water filtration, and prevent nitrogen from running off into streams and watersheds. But absent financial incentives, the risk of embracing such changes can seem too high, the rewards too uncertain. A growing number of startups are eager to help farmers adopt them by generating credits for the carbon they store and selling them as offsets to anyone looking to reduce their emissions footprint.

Paul Overby, who grows sunflowers, canola, and other crops in North Dakota, started working with the startup Indigo Ag to sell carbon credits a few years ago. He urged his state’s congressional delegation to support the Growing Climate Solutions Act because he wants others to do the same. He said many of his peers don’t understand the role carbon plays in soil, or how it can be sequestered or released. “There’s an opportunity for farmers to make a little money, to help them do good things for the environment,” he said. “In a lot of cases, they’re going to be helping themselves and their farm as well.”

The law directs the Department of Agriculture to spend the next several months reviewing the carbon market, looking at the number and types of companies involved in the generation and sale of credits, the level of demand for them, and what might improve participation. Eventually, the agency is expected to create an online resource where farmers and landowners can learn about how to generate credits and browse a directory of companies offering technical assistance and carbon storage verification services.