The policy wonks in Washington, D.C., the scientific community and America’s farmers may have more in common than previously thought.
As global warming moves closer to center stage for environmentalists and politicians, agricultural groups are realizing the potential to make money by sequestering carbon. Carbon sequestration is geek-speak for burying greenhouse gases beneath the soil. Farmers may someday be paid to adopt no-till farming and capturing methane for use as an energy source.
"Recent studies by Kansas State University and others have indicated that carbon could be an $8 billion market for agriculture," said Dick Wittman, a member of the Agricultural Carbon Market Working Group and former president of the Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association.
Foresters, too, may someday be paid for planting trees that sequester greenhouse gases underground.
Several high-profile ivy league universities and environmental groups have written the first how-to manual for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. through changes in land use and farming practices, and turning those reductions into verifiable credits for trading in carbon markets.
For corn and soybean farmers, the news value in the book’s release may lie in the prominence of its authors, reflecting global warming’s rise to prominence. Farmers may find themselves involved in the issue whether they want to be or not. The issue links agriculture and land use with front page headlines, reminding some of the Alar apple scare or how Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring raised public consciousness about the use of DDT.
The book’s authors read like a Who’s Who of Ivy League and environmental leaders. Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions developed the guide in collaboration with the advocacy group Environmental Defense, with input from scientists at Princeton, Brown, Texas A&M, Colorado State, Rice and Kansas State universities.
The handbook’s title is Harnessing Farms and Forests in the Low-Carbon Economy: How to Create and Verify Greenhouse Gas Offsets in June. It is a technical guide for farmers, foresters, traders and investors.
Some land managers in agriculture and forestry are building demonstration projects that apply the recommendations in the guide, Duke says.
In Idaho, reforestation projects will return previously cultivated lands to pine forests, with the resulting offsets accruing to a Native American tribe. In New York, a group of small landowners and dairy operators is producing offsets by combining reforestation, no-till farming, methane capture from manure, buffer zones and cover crops.
The new guide explains how farmers and foresters can convert their land's carbon dioxide storage capacity, and reduce emissions of potent greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide, into revenue-generating "offsets" that can be bought and sold in future carbon markets. Lawmakers at the federal and state levels are paying increased attention to the role of such offsets as legislation to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions is being developed.
The book “proves that specific agricultural conservation tillage practices are a legitimate method to store carbon,” Whittman says. “Should policy-makers embark on a cap-and-trade policy to curtail carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions, agriculture has the potential to be a cost-effective solution."
This is a comprehensive road map that paves the way for agriculture as a verifiable, measurable carbon sink, Environmental Defense President Fred Krupp said. "Real reductions of greenhouse gases will come only with a firm cap on emissions, and carbon offsets on farms and forests can make a huge contribution. This important book is a badly needed how-to manual for farmers and foresters who want to participate in a carbon market, showing them how to create, measure and verify their offset reductions. It also represents an important step toward reassuring the public that offset reductions are real and will meet rigorous standards."
More information on the book is available at www.dukenews.duke.edu/2007/05/carbonguide.html.
More information on the interface between agriculture, science and the issue of greenhouse-gas reduction is available at www.casmgs.colostate.edu.