Organic Consumers Association

Campaigning for health, justice, sustainability, peace, and democracy

The New CRP: Restoring the Nation's Depleted Farmland Through Carbon Farming

Don Wilkin   wilkin@olympus.net 
McHenry-Lake County Illinois Soil and Water Conservation District
December 2, 2016

This white paper represents a compilation of ideas the author has gleaned from discussions and correspondence with scientists, educators, authors, USDA, NRCS, FSA, and SWCD personnel, Farm Bureau members, farmers, climate activists, and others familiar with the subject matter.  It is intended to help shape the 2019 Farm Bill.  Your signature endorsement returned to the author at the email address above will be compiled to help us move this important matter through congress.    Don  
 
WE ARE SELLING OUR WEALTH TO THOSE WHO DON’T TAKE CARE OF IT
 
Imagine having all your nation’s wealth invested in a large, rural bank in which all the important management decisions (or lack thereof) are left to absentee owners who care only about generating the maximum short-term returns on their own individual investments.  Local community values don’t matter, long-term stability and institutional financial health don’t matter, all risks are shifted onto the backs of small borrowers and their families willing to bear financial uncertainty for the sake of living a rural American lifestyle characterized, presumably, by the freedom and independence such a lifestyle once offered.          
 
With climate becoming more erratic and unpredictable every day, the costs of land, seed, equipment, chemicals, and basic resources skyrocketing, and no real control over commodity prices or markets, we would find ourselves, sooner than we wished, with a failed bank and an investment worth little or nothing.
 
This is precisely the situation the United States is flirting with vis-a-vis its most fundamental store of wealth, its natural resource legacy including its farm soils, its natural areas and associated wildlife, and its biodiversity, all once fully renewable but much diminished today, all being managed – or mismanaged - with the neglect characterizing our hapless failed bank in the example above.
 
There is no argument that farmers who own their own land are potentially the best stewards of this country’s most important natural assets when given half a chance.  This past 30 years, they have been assisted in that effort by the venerable Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) of the Farm Service Agency (FSA) in which farm owners are paid to dedicate lands of marginal crop productivity to promote wildlife, biodiversity, watershed and other ecological services, soil, water, and nutrient retention, hunting, recreation, and aesthetics.  CRP’s early successes were remarkable and noteworthy.  Enrollment was enthusiastic and eventually millions of eligible acres were quietly providing a cornucopia of priceless ecosystem services to all Americans, the largest natural resource conservation program for private lands in history.
 
Other USDA programs, EQIP for example, provided farm owners the resources that helped them conserve and protect their more intensively farmed lands.  Thanks to those who voluntarily opted into these programs, our natural resource legacy was managed responsibly and our farms were thriving.
 
This is no longer the case.  After ethanol and corn sweetener subsidies changed the game, farmers began abandoning conservation measures and started growing fence-row to fence-row monocultures of genetically modified corn, year after year after year, with the help of millions of gallons of artificial fertilizer, herbicide, and fungicide.  While the costs of farming rose in concert with oil prices, commodity prices did not.  More and more farmers found themselves buried in debt, forced to sell to absentee investors who too often cared only about the rents the land would generate.  Regrettably, these investors offered the shortest lease possible to a farmer, leaving open the possibility of raising the rent next year if commodity prices rose.  Your financial squeeze as a farmer didn’t end just because you no longer owned the land.  Tenant farmers remained all but powerless in these circumstances while agribusiness was reaping huge profits.   Tenant farmers had no incentive to take care of the land other than to pour the fertilizer to it to get the biggest crop possible, regardless of what damage it did to the soil.  There was no guarantee they would be back on the same land next year to reap the benefits of any capital investments they might make.  
 
This has devastated our soils and worse.  Exacerbated by rising climatic uncertainty, soil erosion is higher, nutrient loss and pollution of coastal waters is higher, soil microbiology is increasingly decimated, flooding is greater and more frequent, droughts are deeper and last longer, and, more serious than any of these, we are losing the valued stewardship of our most responsible farmers who far too often succumb financially through no fault of their own and who can’t stomach the kind of industrial farming practices that are forced on them to stay on the land as tenants.                                  
 
The old CRP is still in place, but it is no longer capable of doing the job it once did.  Absentee land owners see no opportunity for quick financial returns from improvements to the land, and fast returns are what too many of these investors are all about as a matter of principle.  It is absolutely criminal on society’s part to place our most life-sustaining resources in their hands without demanding some measure of social responsibility, a cautionary step one would think should be standard operating procedure for the privilege of owning critical societal resources.  It’s time for a new CRP – but this time the acronym should stand for a Carbon Restoration Program.
 
CARBON AND SOIL ORGANIC MATTER
 
A recent estimate is that only 10 to 20 percent of northern Illinois farmland is currently farmed by owners. The rest is rented to short-term tenants by absentee landowners, neither of whom has much incentive to husband the natural resource values.  Local conservation professionals are frustratingly aware of recent multi-year trends toward abandonment of no-till farmland, grassed waterways and filter strips, cover crops, and corn-bean crop rotations.  What isn’t as obvious to most observers is that the soil is losing organic matter, the very essence of its value to society.  If there is a single measure most indicative of soil health, soil productivity, and its ability to provide a broad range of ecosystem services, it is soil organic matter. Dr. Rattan Lal, one of the foremost soil scientists in the world, estimates that the world’s cultivated soils have lost from 50 to 70 percent of their native carbon stocks.  American farm soils may be particularly depleted because of our profligate use of agricultural chemicals which has devastated the soil microbial communities that produce and sustain soil organic matter.  Without the heavy prosthetic applications of artificial chemicals that are now common practice to compensate for missing soil carbon, our farmlands would be under-producing by a factor of 50 to 70 percent, a harbinger of what we can expect in the future when petrochemicals become prohibitively expensive.             
 
Carbon must be restored to the soil in great quantities if we are to have any hope of adequately feeding 8 or 9 billion people during the latter half of this century when affordable fossil fuels play out or when, by law, they can no longer be mined.  The more soil organic matter the better for sustainable food production, particularly as climate becomes more erratic and unpredictable.  Pioneers in soil regeneration, or carbon farming, bear proud testament to a substantial list of potential benefits of carbon-rich soils.  Such lands are more drought-resistant, they mitigate flooding when those around them are under water, support more wildlife and beneficial insects, restore natural stream flows, retain nutrients, reduce the number of pests, weeds, and crop diseases, and produce more nutritious food, all at lower input costs, which means higher profits.                   
 
If we continue with our chemically-dependent farm business as usual, we can expect crop productivity to fall as soils are depleted and as raw resources become more costly, more scarce, and more undependable, as overall production costs rise in concert with oil prices, and as a larger number of failed farms deliver more and more financial migrants to cities where they compete for jobs already in short supply. It’s time to start demanding support for carbon farming to rescue our agricultural and privately owned natural resource lands from systemic collapse.
 
MANAGING OUR MOST BASIC FORM OF WEALTH – THE NEW CRP
 
A basic truth of human ecosystems is that any productive enterprise that involves regular harvests requires ongoing investment to maintain its productivity through time.  Turning our farmland over to financial investors has starved these lands for the basic stewardship needed for a continued flow of benefits to society.  The new CRP (Carbon Restoration Program) ensures that this priceless resource’s sustaining investment and management will be guaranteed, ensuring an optimum and sustained flow of benefits.
 
All privately owned land in the United States zoned for agriculture, nature preservation, or forestry should be eligible for enrollment in the new CRP.  Owners choosing not to enroll their lands in the new CRP should not be eligible for crop insurance or crop insurance subsidies, or even, perhaps, for agricultural property tax rates, higher tax rates being justified by the fact that poorly managed agricultural land imposes additional costs on society through flooding, drought, loss of wildlife, erosion, nutrient loss, and unhealthful produce.  Non-participants should nonetheless be required to have a conservation plan for each parcel they own updated every five years with their local NRCS or Soil and Water Conservation District.  Whether or not they implement the plans determines what benefits, if any, and tax rates they subsequently qualify for through the Farm Service Agency and local county tax regulations.
 
The first step for every land owner enrolling in the new CRP will be to develop a conservation plan with their local NRCS or Soil and Water Conservation District.  This plan will spell out the timing, frequency, and locations of farming and conservation practices to be deployed on the land, as well as the timing, frequency and locations of carbon testing and other chemical testing of the soils.  If the land is to be leased to a farmer, these plans will become part of any lease agreement.  In general, conservation plans will be effective for a maximum of 5 years and must be reviewed and renewed at least every 5 years to continue receiving benefits from the program.
 
Any carbon testing specified in the conservation plan by NRCS staff should be spatially representative of the parcel or field from which it is taken and should be adequate to fairly estimate the total amount of carbon fixed or lost through farming operations on that land in tons per acre.  Carbon will be tested using soil cores to one meter in depth.  Testing labs will use a standardized incineration procedure to assay carbon, reporting results in U.S. tons per acre.  The rate of payment per ton shall be either $15 per ton of new Carbon fixed since a previous highest assay, or an amount per ton equal to the carbon fee currently enacted into national law for carbon emissions mitigation, whichever is larger.  
 
On initial enrollment and after the first conservation plan is developed, carbon samples will be tested in accordance with the plan.  This establishes a baseline for subsequent tests.  It establishes the initial “highest previous carbon assay in tons per acre”.  Any subsequent carbon testing is measured against the highest previous carbon assay.  If the most recent assay is larger than the highest previous assay, the gross amount of carbon increase is the basis for a payment of $15 or more per ton (depending on any national carbon fee for emissions mitigation) through the Farm Service Agency.  If the most recent assay does not exceed but falls within a range down to 5% below the highest previous carbon assay, a maintenance payment of $2 per ton of total in situ soil carbon will be paid.  If an assay falls below the 95% line, no compensation will be paid.  
 
IF YOU FARM YOUR OWN LAND
 
If you farm your own land, you are responsible for complying with the conservation plan and any testing requirements included therein.  Any payment for carbon fixed or maintained goes directly to you and is treated as crop income just as with any other commodity sale.  You must test for carbon at least every 5 years.  
 
IF YOU OWN THE LAND BUT LEASE IT TO SOMEONE ELSE TO FARM
 
Proper care of our nation’s farmlands depends critically on long-term tenure of the farmer/operator.  Lease agreements under the new CRP are intended to ensure long-term tenure of responsible farmers.  You, as the landowner, if you choose to enroll, are responsible for registering your land and coordinating with NRCS or SWCD to develop a conservation plan.  Any subsequent lease document must incorporate the conservation plan.  Execution of that plan is entirely the responsibility of the farmer or operator of the land.  In the absence of a share-cropping agreement, you, the owner, are entitled only to a previously negotiated rent.  Any payment for carbon fixed or maintained goes not to the owner but to the farmer/operator as with any other crop or product.  Most leases will be of five years duration with a guarantee of automatic renewal to the farmer/operator if all specifications of the lease including the conservation plan are fairly complied with.  Failure of the farmer/operator to pay rent, to fairly follow the conservation plan or other specifications of the lease, gross abuse or neglect of the land, or to not maintain the 95% maintenance carbon level two years in a row renders the lease no longer automatically renewable.  Rent for the land, whether fixed, arbitrarily progressive, or tied to a commodity price, is established at the time of the lease.  If a lease is broken, a new rent schedule will be negotiated with a new tenant.
 
STARTER KITS
 
The NRCS or SWCD will develop a list of recommendations for a carbon-farming starter kit, a suite of practices demonstrated in the local area to be as effective as possible as quickly as possible for those just getting started in carbon farming.  These will normally be included in the conservation plan for new lands enrolled in the program.  The agencies may also have resources to assist in implementing these early practices allowing the farmer to get started with a minimum of lost time and personal cost.  In general, independent-minded farmers will be free to elect their own practices from a long list of possibilities or to experiment on their own if they wish.    
 
SUPPORT ACTIVITY – RESEARCH
 
Our nation is in uncharted territory as we gear up to deal with climate variability whose impacts are expected to go far beyond the extremes of anything we have experienced in the last several million years of human evolution.  A major research effort is not only essential to our own climate adaptation and mitigation, it is a humanitarian obligation we are morally bound to provide the many others in the world more seriously affected by the problems we in the global north have created, over which they had no control, and which they can’t afford to deal with on their own.  Climate justice, a concept that will be far more commonly heard as this century unfolds, demands we provide whatever information and technical support we can to help unfortunate victims worldwide adapt to and mitigate the impacts of growing climate variability.
 
The Farm Bill of 2014 established a network of seven climate hubs and 3 sub-hubs in regions across the U.S. including Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.  They were charged with delivering science-based knowledge, practical information and program support to farmers, ranchers, forest landowners, and resource managers to support climate-informed decision-making that will help them deal with the increased risks and vulnerabilities resulting from climate change.  A long list of partners in this effort includes public and land grant universities, Cooperative Extension, USDA researchers and labs, private entities, state, local and regional governments, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Department of Interior, regional climate change experts, and non-profits providing assistance to landowners.  
 
Minimally staffed and occupying previously existing facilities, the current Climate Hub network, reflecting the minimalist approach thus far taken nationally in addressing growing climate variability, is only barely adequate when compared with the tremendous challenges it is facing in decades to come.
 
A national commitment to Carbon Farming represents the most focused approach yet on the table for dealing comprehensively with the thorny climate issue.  Happily, it deals with a whole host of other problems at the same time as well.  Carbon Farming addresses not only climate variability through an already-well-demonstrated copious potential for carbon fixation, it guarantees our future food supply, rescues our best farmers, mitigates floods and droughts, saves our soils, cleanses our waterways and coastal waters, lengthens our field seasons, controls pests and diseases, promotes wildlife and natural recreation values – most particularly biodiversity - and produces healthier, more nutritious, and more abundant food.  Carbon farming should be the central focus and organizing theme for all our climate hubs.  The substantial resources necessary to implement that critical focus will prove the best investment we could ever make for sustaining our agricultural future.  
 
Climate hubs will become the nerve centers of the carbon farming network.  While little, if any, research is conducted at the hub, its administrative staff is fully aware of research and field trials going on throughout the region, has a prioritized list of research and demonstrations that are needed as resources become available, has a rough sense of what they will cost and how long they will take, and can quickly get their hands on any data and information that anyone might seek if it exists in the region.  This implies the presence in each climate hub of a sophisticated data management capability oriented toward efficient cataloging, access, and communication, and a comprehensive digital simulation capability to keep field activities in perspective and to triage upcoming research needs.  Of particular importance is archiving and indexing research publications and unpublished research documents specific to that region.  The climate hub normally decides what research is going on at any given time, how it is scheduled, what resources are required, how it is to be funded, and how results are to be disseminated, particularly to the education and outreach network and to service agencies.  The hub is particularly sensitive to the need for standardization of field and laboratory testing when standardization is appropriate and compatibility of data sets as they are reported from research sites.  
 
Ecologists have long understood the importance of biodiversity to the stability and sustainability of biological communities.  Promoting biodiversity in the context of stable, co-evolving, mutualistic agro-ecological communities is the overriding goal and organizing principle guiding all activities of climate hubs.  Climate change is potentially devastating in one predominant way – it introduces unprecedented instability and unpredictability that, if we can’t adapt, could prove terminally disruptive to the global economy.  There is, of course, no greater ally in adapting to environmental variability and instability than diversely productive, co-evolving, mutualistic agro-ecological communities.  This is as true above ground with plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and people, as it is below ground with the soil microbial community.  Emphasizing the foregoing point, carbon farming pioneers have discovered that 1) greater diversity in cover crops as well as 2) more diverse cash crops and 3) more diverse grazing animal species on pasture promotes dramatically faster and more copious carbon accumulation in their soils.  
 
In keeping with the preeminence of biodiversity as a goal and organizing principle for carbon farming, the concepts of weeds and exotics should be viewed with suspicion.  Only rarely does an exotic species introduce something so new to a healthy, diverse community that it can’t be tolerated.  The principal reason some exotics have been so historically disruptive is that we had earlier eliminated a great deal of the biological diversity and standing crop biomass in our natural and man-made communities that would otherwise have, in all likelihood, substantially buffered the impacts of introduced species.  Generally, the more diversity and standing crop we maintain in our biological communities, the more resilience we foster.  
 
Research throughout the network is focused on how to produce the healthiest, most abundant and profitable food crops while simultaneously restoring the soil and the soil organic matter that sustains its productivity of ecosystem services.  Research must quickly be completed to standardize soil carbon sampling and testing in a way that gives the most accurate estimate of total soil carbon with minimum cost and effort.  Because the NRCS’s national carbon survey of 2010 used soil cores to the depth of 100 cm (1 meter), that seems a reasonable place to start.
 
Another research priority should be the rapid establishment of standardized “starter kits”, a suite of relatively simple and inexpensive practices known to start the sequestration process and return an income as quickly as possible.  Something as simple as no-till and a multi-species cover crop is relatively easy to introduce.  While all of these regions are known for one or two iconic crops (corn and soybeans for example), all typically produce dozens of others and are capable of producing a great many more.  How all of these cash crops work with different cover crops and in different soil types needs to be explored.      
 
A common requirement of all research conducted and reported from the Climate Hubs is that economics must be an integral dimension of every inquiry.  Farmers need to know how these practices will affect their bottom lines.  This means, that for all the species and all subspecies and varieties of farm produce suitable for the area, research must give a reasonably accurate estimate of the annual amount of carbon fixed, and lifetime total amount fixed.  Expected yields of the various crops under different kinds of management on different soils should likewise be predictable.  Combinations of crops should be a common theme of research, testing multi-species cover crops with a variety of cash crops.  
 
In rain-fed cropland, water is an obvious concern.  Standardized percolation tests should be a regular requirement, whether on research plots or production cropland.  Water holding capacity of the soil at field capacity should likewise regularly be measured, as should bulk density.  One of the anticipated effects of climate change is more spring rain, potentially delaying getting into the field, resulting in fewer workable field days.  On the other hand, with high levels of soil organic matter coupled with a substantial mulch, crop residue, and/or cover crop, and specifically designed field equipment, this delay can often be completely mitigated.  Nutrient loss should also be monitored where fields are drained and can be easily accessed.       
 
Forage yields on pastureland should be another research focus.  More highly variable precipitation and temperatures can depress production, resulting in lowered livestock carrying capacity.  On the other hand, pulse grazing timed to coincide with critical phenological stages of plants after varying amounts of rest has been shown to be a valuable tool in enhancing the quality of forage and, in many cases, the quantity as well.  As with the overall focus on biodiversity, grazing combinations of livestock on cropland with varied timing is a research focus ripe with possibilities – cows, sheep, goats, pigs, llamas, chickens, turkeys, even camels have potential.  When added to cropland rotations, animals present an additional important potential income stream while significantly speeding up the sequestration of carbon.  Multiple-cropping penalties in the current farm bill for grazing livestock on land used to produce other crops should be eliminated.  
 
While there are only 5 hubs or sub-hubs dedicated to forestry, virtually all the regions have potential for silviculture.  In truth, simulation models suggest that returning the atmosphere to safe levels of GHGs will require substantial investments in silviculture, even on traditional Midwest farmlands.  Such research should be strongly encouraged.  Silvicultural models involving cropland or pastureland are known to fix carbon at rates many times faster than cropping or pasturing alone.  How adding trees might be turned into a sustainable income stream is a question that cries out for research and demonstration.         
 
Perhaps the next most fruitful focus of research fostered by climate hubs after silviculture is the regional adaptation of perennial species for inclusion in cover crops and as cash crops.  Perennials can be orders of magnitude more effective at sequestering carbon than annuals because of their basic biology, their lesser need for tillage, and because they don’t usually require the intense artificial chemical stimulation and protection that annuals are commonly engineered to require.      
 
Graduate schools of Rural Sociology are few and far between.  There were only seven as of this writing.  Four of the climate hub regions don’t have any at all.  An effective carbon farming system depends on owners and operators who have a genuine affection for the land and a commitment to the rural lifestyle.  Normally, farming involves living in a rural area, which, of course, is a unique culture with unique needs.  Research is sorely needed on creating lifestyles that produce both a high quality of life as well as reinforcing the values that protect and sustain our biodiversity and productivity in natural areas and agricultural lands.  Ideally, research will include how to promote intergenerational continuity in farm families, guaranteeing highly qualified and motivated people living on the land husbanding our soils and producing our food generation after generation.        
 
One final and absolutely critical point about research.  The importance of climate hub research to promote carbon sequestration can’t be overstated.  Agricultural research other than bioengineering has been given short shrift in the last several decades.  Who needed it with all those subsidies and chemicals floating around?  Just pour on the artificial fertilizer and let nature – and Monsanto - take their course.  This cavalier approach has resulted in our soils being impoverished, our food being depleted of nutrition, our surface waters being polluted, our reservoirs filling with sediment, our wildlife disappearing, and a whole suite of ecosystem services gone missing.  But that’s not even the most compelling reason we so desperately need more research.  At present, the best estimates of the world’s maximum ability to sequester carbon out of the atmosphere into agricultural soils is in the range of 1.2 to 3 Gigatons of Carbon per year – this at a time when global carbon emissions to the atmosphere are on the order of 10 to 15 Gigatons of carbon per year, with no reasonable prospects of being able to either increase sequestration or reduce emissions to shift the balance to begin purging the world’s atmosphere of excess carbon.  Starting from a preindustrial concentration of 278 ppm, having blasted through a theoretically safe level of 350 ppm, we are now over 400 ppm.  Without aggressive efforts at simultaneously increasing sequestration while reducing emissions, the world is heading for numbers over 450 ppm this century and 500 ppm a century or two later.  Human civilization will not survive that level of environmental mayhem.  The upcoming Farm Bill’s fostering of research on rapidly and affordably increasing carbon sequestration in the world’s soils and above-ground biomass (especially in afforestation) will arguably be the only thing standing between us and eventual extinction of the remaining half of the world’s wildlife, and possibly even our own.  We’d best get to it.              
 
EDUCATION AND OUTREACH
 
Research on what motivates farmers to adopt conservation practices tells us that environmental awareness and concern are generally necessary but definitely not sufficient.  Farmers, rationally, want to know that they are going to be reimbursed for any expenses forced on them and that, in due course, they are going to make a profit.  This is why it is so important that any research on Carbon Farming keeps track of costs and expenses and how quickly things can be accomplished.
 
But even though the overwhelming majority of farmers agree that climate is changing, most of them don’t believe, as financially strapped as they often are, that they should have to foot the bill to deal with it.  Encouraged by farmer organizations, agribusiness, and the farm press, they are unlikely to be sympathetic with calls for addressing climate change.  They are far more supportive of measures intended to protect the financial integrity of their farms by helping them to adapt to increasing variability in climate, which they generally acknowledge.  The current judgment of those familiar with farmers is that climate change should not be emphasized when educating the farming public about carbon farming.  Rather, farmers are much more motivated by justifications involving stabilizing farm income, reducing nutrient loss, reducing input costs, reducing erosion, building soil, and the like.  A successful carbon farming program will soft-pedal the climate change justification.  Climate hubs might instead be re-named carbon farming hubs to make their work more palatable to farmers.  
 
Still, in the Midwest, it isn’t usually the farmer we need to reach out to.  About 80 or 90 percent of the time, it is the absentee landowner who must enroll his or her land in the new CRP.  This presents more of a challenge since such owners are not normally members of farming organizations which would make them easy to contact and influence.  Thus, U.S. Mail would be a common method of outreach and contact, though this could be supplemented by email if email addresses could be obtained.  Email will also allow sending out video documentaries and demonstrations of successful early adopters which can be quite persuasive.  A comprehensive mailing/email list of farm owners should be kept by the Farm Service Agency or by one of the other service agencies like NRCS or Soil and Water Conservation District.  Communicating with the public in general and landowners in particular, will have to involve attractively designed brochures, pamphlets, and web pages sent out in large numbers with reasonable regularity.  This is not a small or inexpensive undertaking.  The best that can be said is that, given the stakes, it is well worth it.       
 
The point should repeatedly be made in educational materials that carbon farming and carbon sequestration are absolutely every bit as essential for reversing climate change as renewable energy technology and the reduction of carbon emissions.  It should be made clear to everyone that the world has proven petrochemical reserves in the ground far in excess of the amount the climate can tolerate to limit change to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial norms and to avoid runaway climate change.  
 
Promoting a national carbon farming certification systems, implemented at the local level, would justify premium pricing on produce sold directly by carbon farmers, and would help undo some of the market injustice and lack of control over prices under which commodity farmers labor.  Legal marketing cooperatives involving farmers and their customers, the next step beyond CSAs, are a business model gaining favor nationally, many of them supported by land-grant University resources to guide and advise on their establishment.  Additional Farm Bill support should be provided for local lending institutions willing to provide low- or no-interest loans, even outright grants, for implementing carbon farming practices.  Support for all of these measures is critical to fostering a sustainable food system.          
 
Of a piece with cooperative business arrangements bringing producers and consumers together, a great deal more public health research as well as public education needs to be directed toward plant-based nutrition and the demonstrated health benefits thereof, particularly in communities with a high incidence of diabetes.  While substantial sentiment is building for reducing meat and dairy consumption in developed countries, there is a countervailing movement emphasizing the benefits of using livestock as a tool in managing for carbon sequestration.  Similarly, there are currently claims for the health benefits of grass-finished livestock in meat, dairy, and eggs as opposed to grain-fed products.  Some argue that feeding cereal grains and antibiotics in large quantities to livestock as opposed to exclusively pasture-fed livestock is significantly detrimental to the health of human consumers.  Convincing research remains to be done and the public deserves to receive better guidance than they currently are getting.  The public health implications of diet is an issue future farm bills must more fully embrace.  It makes no sense to manage our valuable food production resources in ways that contribute to public ill health.              
 
WHO BENEFITS?  WHO PAYS?
 
The benefit of the new CRP, of course, is we keep farmers farming who are familiar with and care for the land, who are highly motivated to remain on the land and to produce sustainably from it.  This results in a less costly, more dependable food supply for all of us, not to mention making a significant dent in excess atmospheric carbon dioxide.  
 
Who should pay is a touchier subject.  We’re all going to have to bite the bullet.  To assume we can sail through the upcoming food and climate crunch without significant sacrifice on everyone’s part is Pollyanna whistling past the graveyard (forgive the multiple metaphors).  In the absence of a tax on carbon emissions, we will have to look to general revenues, some other tax, or to cost savings to pay the bill.  The existence of a tax on carbon emissions, however, should it come to pass as seems likely in the next few years if Citizen’s Climate Lobby wins out, presents the opportunity to negotiate how the proceeds of such a tax are distributed.  Does it all go directly back to the citizens to offset higher food and fuel prices as its founders currently intend, or does much of it go directly to farmers to fund the new CRP and safeguard our soils and food supply from the ravages of overconsumption, care-less investors, and short-sighted farmers?  The latter makes substantial sense by ensuring the tenure of our financially embattled family farmers.  An effective carbon emissions tax would rise year-over-year, resulting in escalating operating costs the farmer will have to be able to pay literally in order to hold onto the farm.  There is no greater assurance of a full plate tomorrow than a reasonable sacrifice to keep our family farmers in business today.
 
As much as we wish it weren’t true, the subject of climate change, precisely because of its controversy, can’t be – and shouldn’t be - avoided.  The current excess of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is exactly analogous to poison gas in a coal mine.  It’s what is killing all those “canaries” out there.  Half the world’s wildlife has been extinguished directly because of humanity’s excessive consumption the last two centuries and the impact that has had on changing land use.  The same devastation is true for the carbon-based microbial-wildlife in the soils that feed us.  Our ecological footprint now exceeds one and a half Earths, and, if everyone consumed like the typical American, we would be consuming between four and five Earth’s worth of ecosystem services.  That clearly can’t last long.        
 
One of the most inane debates in recent memory is whether there are too many people on Earth or whether our per capita consumption is too high.  Obviously, if there weren’t so many of us, our current per capita consumption wouldn’t be a problem.  But there are and it is.  We have to quickly get serious about reducing our release of “poison gases into the coal mine” of Earth’s atmosphere, whether we personally feel sick yet or not.  Most people would agree that it would be more humane, at this point, to dramatically and rapidly reduce our per capita consumption rather than to dramatically and rapidly reduce our numbers.  Whatever we do isn’t going to be cheap or easy on anyone.  But something must be done before something beyond our control is done to us.    
 
What follows is my personal point of contention with Citizen’s Climate Lobby.  They would have their carbon fee redistributed to all Americans on a per capita basis.  This seems a “hair of the dog” solution to overconsumption.  Propping up consumption when overconsumption is clearly the underlying problem just seems wrong.  Far better to use those proceeds to fund the sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere, effectively removing the poison gas from the coal mine before it kills the remaining half of the world’s canaries – and maybe even us.           
 
Perhaps, however, there is an even better way to pay the costs of carbon farming so that people can receive their carbon dividend after all.  A number of scientists and climate authorities have deemed that the urgency of addressing climate change and reducing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases militates that we should be doing so on a wartime footing, that the time is fast slipping away to avert global climate catastrophe.  There is a growing consensus among senior military officials that climate change is now one of our most serious challenges, and maybe even the most serious challenge, to world security.  A good way to put carbon farming on a wartime footing would be to re-direct a hundred billion dollars a year or more of our nearly trillion-dollar-a-year defense spending to its support.  Arguably and logically, if what the generals say is true, a carbon farming initiative should be included in the Department of Defense budget as a desperately needed national security measure.  This, of course, would be true of all departments of defense in all developed nations around the world.  As a true world leader, particularly given the world’s tepid response to climate change thus far, we should be leading the way on this issue with bold and decisive actions.  There is no question that carbon removal is a global-sized challenge.  It deserves a bold and decisive response which can only happen with bold and decisive leadership.  It would be one concrete way to truly make America great again.  My tongue is nowhere near my cheek as I write this.       
 
Finally, the rural cooperative business movement has great potential to link producers and consumers in a mutualistic relationship benefitting, promoting, and sustaining both.  The possibilities of such a business model for carbon farming as well as for contributing to public health, have not been fully explored, and land grant universities should be gearing up, those that aren’t doing so already, to provide guidance and support for cooperative business and farming models as well as educating the public about their potential benefits and strengths.                       

Get Local

Find News and Action for your state: