Farmer Mitchell Hora in Ainsworth, Iowa, on August 22. It uses "regenerative cultivation practices" that improve soil health, increase yields, reduce the use of water and fertilizers and have a significant collateral benefit: they sequester carbon released from fossil burning in the soil. fuels
Greg Ip / The Wall Street Journal
The Wall Street Journal
September 11, 2019 10:24 a.m. ET
AINSWORTH, Iowa. What if there was a way to combat climate change that did not require technological advances, carbon taxes or the elimination of all fossil fuels?
Such a solution could be here, in an Iowa cornfield, at the foot of Mitchell Hora, a seventh generation farmer. Mr. Hora experiments with "regenerative cultivation practices" that improve soil health, increase yields, reduce the use of water and fertilizers and have a significant collateral benefit: they sequester carbon released by burning fossil fuels in the soil. .
Mr. Hora could soon be rewarded for providing this social benefit. Indigo Ag Inc., a Boston-based company specializing in agricultural technology and management, is establishing a market for carbon credits. Companies and consumers with voluntary or mandatory commitments to reduce their carbon footprint can, instead of reducing emissions, pay farmers to do so for them. Through the Indigo Carbon market, they can pay farmers like Mr. Hora $ 15 for sequestering a metric ton of carbon dioxide in the soil.
"I've been doing all this out of my pocket," says Mr. Hora. “Most farmers cannot take that kind of risk, experiment and try to change. But now, with Indigo Carbon, it gives them that incentive to really try. ”
Mitchell Hora inspects some corn in Iowa on August 22.
Greg Ip / The Wall Street Journal
The executive director of Indigo, is almost messianic about the potential: "We could absorb half to 100% of all the carbon dioxide emitted since the industrial revolution," or about a billion tons.
The Rodale Institute, a group of experts that promotes organic agriculture and has partnered with Indigo, cites trials that suggest that through regenerative farming practices, an acre of agricultural land can sequester from one to 2.6 tons of carbon dioxide by year. Extrapolating to the world, that amounts to about 37 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide released worldwide through the use of fossil fuels every year.
That is not realistic, according to Rattan Lal, a soil scientist who runs the Center for Carbon Sequestration and Management at Ohio State University. He says that the maximum sequestration of the soil that can be achieved, under ideal conditions, is nine billion tons and even that, given the political and practical obstacles, "is a dream." In 2015, France persuaded the world to commit to increasing the soil carbon content by 0.4% per year and has not yet triggered any significant action.
A more feasible goal, he says, would be six billion tons worldwide, including one billion in the United States. That will not absorb all or even most fossil fuel emissions, but it could compensate for those in sectors that do not have a realistic alternative to fossil fuels, such as aviation and steelmaking.
Farmer Mike Thomas also uses "regenerative farming practices."
Greg Ip / The Wall Street Journal
Existing schemes encourage carbon sequestration in forests, but face intrinsic tension: an owner must give up the income generated by a forest, such as wood, paper or farmland, for the good of the world. On the contrary, increasing the carbon content of the soil makes agriculture potentially more profitable.
Plants convert atmospheric carbon dioxide to carbon through photosynthesis. As the plants die, they deposit that carbon in the soil. Traditional agriculture undoes that process. Tillage alters carbon structures, causing them to recombine with oxygen and enter the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, while fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides filter carbon into water and air while generating nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas .
Regenerative agriculture reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide by increasing the volume of cultivated plants and keeping more carbon in the soil when they die. Instead of altering the soil with tillage, farmers drill holes to plant seeds. Instead of exposing the land between cash crops, they plant cover crops that reduce erosion and add plant material. Indigo sells seeds treated with natural microbes to resist pests and fungal diseases and droughts, reducing dependence on pesticides, fungicides, water and genetically modified organisms.
The resulting soil contains more nutrients and moisture. Mr. Hora holds a black and wet earth shovel that is literally full of life: "This is exciting, there are at least half a dozen worms in this shovel." He boasts that his land can absorb two inches of rain in 20 minutes, while escaping from other farms.
Regenerative farmers say they are healthier plants. Mike Thomas, a farmer in western Iowa, says that agriculture without tillage and indigo seeds helped his corn and soybeans survive a drought earlier this year with less stress. A neighbor asked him how he sprayed them to get those results. He replied: "We do not spray them with anything."
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Healthier plants can generate higher yields and, therefore, income, while reducing irrigation, fertilization and spraying save money. So why do so few farmers practice regenerative agriculture? In part, due to the cost of transition, such as that of seeds and specialized equipment, such as a seeder without tillage, and the risk that yields will decrease at first.
Mr. Perry says that carbon credits received through the Indigo market should cover those costs and exceed the income of regular crops from many farmers. While Indigo will advise farmers on regenerative practices, "once you create the economic incentive, we will probably find many methods that are not known today."
So far, Indigo has enrolled farmers with more than two million acres for its carbon market and is currently negotiating the registration of companies that will buy carbon credits to meet voluntary emission commitments. If everything goes according to plan, farmers could see their first payments within a year.
But voluntary carbon commitments are too small to achieve significant emission reductions. That would require some federal participation. Most politicians, including Republicans, accept that climate change is a reality, but they are reluctant to act because regulations and carbon taxes are very unpopular.
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In theory, the federal government could avoid that stigma by paying farmers a carbon credit, which is actually a negative carbon tax. In fact, last year Congress passed a budget bill that included an extended tax credit to energy companies that capture and store carbon dioxide underground.
Soil sequestration has two advantages over carbon sequestration and storage: technology has proven safe and effective and farmers enjoy greater bipartisan support than oil companies. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders proposed last month to pay farmers $ 160 billion for soil improvements that sequester carbon.
Meanwhile, President Trump has authorized $ 28 billion for farmers injured by the trade war with China.
Given all that, paying farmers $ 15 billion to sequester one billion tons of carbon dioxide begins to seem cheap.
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