Carbon as a commodity for agriculture?

By:Peggy Kirk Hall, Associate Professor, Agricultural & Resource Law Wednesday, May 05th, 2021
Cover crop on Ohio farm

There’s a lot of talk about carbon markets and agriculture these days.  While carbon markets aren’t new, recent proposals in Congress and announcements by the Biden administration are raising new interests in them.  Some companies are actively pursuing carbon trading agreements with farmers, further fueling the discussion in the agricultural community. 

As is common for any new opportunity, the talk on carbon markets may be tinged with a bit of skepticism and a lot of questions.  Do carbon sequestration practices have real potential as an agricultural commodity?  That’s a tough question and the answer isn’t yet clear.  There are answers for other questions, though, as well as resources that may be helpful for those considering carbon markets for the first time.  Here’s a sampling.

What is a carbon market?   A carbon market revolves around carbon credits generated by carbon reduction practices.  In the farm setting, a producer who either lowers the farm’s carbon emissions or captures carbon through “sequestration” practices can earn carbon credits.  Like other markets, a carbon market involves a transaction between a seller and a buyer.  The seller sells a carbon credit to a buyer who can use the carbon credit to offset or reduce its carbon emissions.

Do carbon markets already exist?  Yes, although they may be private markets with varying names occurring in different regions.  For example, Bayer Crop Sciences began its Carbon Initiative last year, paying producers for adopting carbon reduction practices that will help Bayer reach its goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 30% in 2030.  Indigo Ag began entering into long-term carbon agreements with producers in 2019, paying $15 per ton for carbon sequestration practices.  Food companies and agribusinesses including McDonald’s, Cargill, and General Mills formed the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium, which will fully open its private carbon market in 2022.

Are legal agreements involved?  Yes.  Using a written agreement is a common practice in carbon market transactions, but the agreements can vary from market to market.  Provisions might address acceptable practices, calculating and verifying carbon reductions including third-party verification, sharing data and records, pricing, costs of practices, minimum acreage, and contract period.  As with other legal contracts, reviewing a carbon agreement with an attorney is a wise decision.  Watch for more details about carbon agreements as we share our analysis of them in future blog posts.

What is President Biden considering for carbon markets?  The Biden administration has expressed interest in developing a federal carbon bank that would pay producers and foresters for carbon reduction practices.  The USDA would administer the bank with funding from the Commodity Credit Corporation.  Rumors are that the bank would begin with at least $1 billion to purchase carbon credits from producers for $20 per ton.  The proposal is one of several ideas for the USDA outlined in the administration’s Climate 21 Project.

What is Congress proposing for carbon markets?  The bipartisan Growing Climate Solutions Act would require USDA to assess the market for carbon credits, establish a third-party verifier certification program overseen by an advisory council, establish an online website with information for producers, and regularly report to Congress on market performance, challenges for producers, and barriers to market entry.  An initial $4.1 million program allocation would be supplemented with $1 million per year for the next five years.  The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee has already passed the bill.  The Rural Forest Markets Act, also a bipartisan bill, would help small-scale private forest landowners by guaranteeing financing for markets for forest carbon reduction practices.

Is there opposition to carbon markets?  Yes, and skepticism also.  For example, a recent letter from dozens of organizations urged Congress to “oppose carbon offset scams like the Growing Climate Solutions Act” and argued that agricultural offsets are ineffective, incompatible with sustainable agriculture, may further consolidate agriculture and will increase hazardous pollution, especially in environmental justice communities.  The Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy also criticizes carbon markets, claiming that emission credit prices are too low and volatile, leakages and offsets can lead to accountability and fraud issues, measurement tools are inadequate, soil carbon storage is impermanent, and the markets undermine more effective and holistic practices.  Almost half of the farmers in the 2020 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll were uncertain about earning money for carbon credits while 17% said carbon markets should not be developed.

To learn more about carbon markets, drop into an upcoming webinar by our partner, the National Agricultural Law Center.  “Considering Carbon:  The Evolution and Operation of Carbon Markets” on May 19, 2021 at Noon will feature Chandler Van Voorhis, a leading expert in conservation and ecological markets.  The Center also has a recording of last month’s webinar on “Opportunities and Challenges Agriculture Faces in the Climate Debate,” featuring Andrew Walmsley, Director of Congressional Relations and Shelby Swain Myers, Economist, both with American Farm Bureau.  A new series by the Center on Considering Carbon will focus on legal issues with the carbon industry and will complement our upcoming project on “The Conservation Movement:  Legal Needs for Farm and Forest Landowners.”  There’s still more talking to do on carbon markets.