Spring Has Come—for Soil Carbon Markets

Our soil is a resource that we can’t afford not to invest in, and there is nothing to be lost by improving soil health.
American robin in field of clover
Credit: Photo: PublicDomainPictures

It’s a cold March day in Washington, DC, but when I look out my window the sky is bright and sunny, and something in me knows it is not just another sunny winter day, but the beginning of a changing season. I don’t know if it’s a smell in the air, the sight of yellow forsythia blossoms on the mall, or just the cycle of expectation in my body that comes from living.

Just as I feel the Spring returning outside, I feel a rising movement that brings people back to the earth. I live in the world of policy-making, and have learned that policy is a story, a conversation people tell ourselves about who we are and want to be. Right now, the story I am hearing is a story about the soil. We are telling this story through legislative language, administrative actions, and in the flurry of news stories, press releases, and announcements that it is time to tend to the soil again.

Recently, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) began the work of translating Farm Bill language into action with a public listening session. NRDC joined the ranks of farmers, NGOs, and agribusiness to tell USDA our stories—who we are, and what we hope the new Farm Bill will bring. The 2018 Farm Bill launched a new program that we hope will bring life back to degraded soil—the Soil Health Demonstration Trial. NRDC worked closely with E2 and our partners to ensure that the Farm Bill included a program that will measure and monitor soil health improvements and pay farmers accordingly. This is a new approach that we hope will result in a standardized method of measuring and paying farmers for their work to sequester soil carbon and be part of a solution to fighting climate change. USDA now has the important job of designing this fresh new program and we will be supporting and encouraging them in the upcoming year as they take this program from words in legislation into investments in carbon-rich farmland soil.

In another piece of good news, we learned that 10 leading companies and nonprofits are forming a market to incentivize soil health and water conservation practices. The new Ecosystem Services Market Consortium comes at a perfect time for farmers struggling through tougher than usual commodity markets; it’s high time that the ecosystem services farmers provide are valued. This market can pay farmers for the carbon they sequester, providing an additional income stream in times of trade wars and extreme weather events that destabilize farm profits (see Nori as another example of a carbon marketplace). One of the challenges of the market will be setting protocols and standards, and that is why the USDA Soil Health Demonstration Trial is so timely. The new Farm Bill program can provide a foundation to scale up markets that farmers are hungry to participate in, just as food companies are stepping up to restore soil and environmental quality from the ground up.

Our soil is a resource that we can’t afford not to invest in, and there is nothing to be lost by improving soil health. We’ll be keeping an eye on the soil carbon spring and we’re excited to be part of the better future these markets can provide for farmers and the environment.