Soil: The Secret Weapon in the Fight Against Climate Change

Agriculture is on the front lines of climate change.  Whether it’s the a seven-year drought drying up fields in California, the devastating Midwest flooding in 2019, or hurricane after hurricane hitting the Eastern Shore, agriculture and rural communities are already feeling the effects of a changing climate. Scientists expect climate change to make these extreme weather events both more frequent and more intense in coming years.

2011 Flooding in Iowa

Photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Agriculture is also an important—in fact a necessarypartner in fighting climate change.  The science is clear: We cannot stay beneath the most dangerous climate thresholds without sequestering a significant amount of carbon in our soils.

Agricultural soils have the potential to sequester, relatively inexpensively, 250 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gasses annually—equivalent to the annual emissions of 64 coal fired power plants, according to National Academy of Sciences.

But we can’t get there without engaging farmers, turning a source of emissions into a carbon sink.  Here are just a few of the ways NRDC works to encourage climate-friendly farming: 

  • Creating New Incentives for Cover Crops: Cover crops are planted in between growing seasons with the specific purpose of building soil health. Despite their multiple agronomic and environmental benefits, adoption is low—only about 7% of US farmland uses cover crops.  NRDC is working to scale up cover cropping through innovative incentives delivered through the largest federal farm subsidy: crop insurance.  We’ve worked with partners in Iowa and Illinois to launch programs that give farmers who use cover crops $5/acre off of their crop insurance bill.  And partners in Minnesota and Wisconsin are exploring similar options.  While we’re delighted at the benefit this program has for farmers in those individual states, we’re even more excited about the potential to scale this program to the 350 million acres that utilize subsidized crop insurance nationwide.  A recent study suggests that cover crops sequester a significant amount of carbon per acre annually, making cover crops one of the pillars of climate-friendly farming systems.
  • Supporting Carbon as a New “Agricultural Product”: Championed by Senator Ron Wyden, the 2018 Farm Bill created a new program, the Soil Health Demonstration Trial, that encourages farmers to adopt practices that improve their soil health, and tracks and measures the outcomes.  NRDC worked alongside our partners at E2 and a number of commodity groups, farmer organizations, and agribusinesses to secure passage of this provision. The Demonstration Trial will create a new, reliable income stream—farmers will get paid for the carbon they sequester regardless of how their crops turn out, and it builds the data needed for confidence in any future carbon markets.  USDA recently announced the first round of awards under this new program, totaling over $13 million in investments to improve soil health.  Senator Cory Booker has since drafted legislation that would increase funding for the program nearly 10-fold to $100 million annually; Representative Deb Haaland released a companion bill in the House. 
  • Scaling up Regenerative Agriculture: Regenerative agriculture is an approach to farming that looks to work with nature to rebuild the overall health of the system.  Regenerative farmers use a variety of tactics, including reduced chemical inputs, diverse crop and livestock rotations, incorporating compost into their systems, and agroforestry, among others.  Our team is in the midst of interviewing regenerative farmers and ranchers to learn more about what's working for them and what challenges they've faced in their shift to a regenerative approach.  We're planning to analyze our interview results and combine them with a literature review to identify what role NRDC could potentially play in helping to scale up regenerative farming and ranching systems. We’ll also be sharing quotes and photos from our interviews on social media every Friday starting in January, so stay tuned for some inspiring farm footage!
  • Supporting Organic Farmers: Organic agriculture by design reduces greenhouse gas emissions, sequesters carbon in the soil, does not rely on energy-intensive chemical inputs, and builds resiliency within our food system. Practices integrated into organic production will become increasingly more important in the face of a changing climate.  NRDC supports organic farmers through policy initiatives like the Organic Farm-to-School program that was introduced in the California legislature last year.  In the coming year, we’ll continue to work to support organic farmers in California.
  • Reducing Food Waste:  Food waste generates nearly 3% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., and NRDC is working hard to reduce that number, and improve soil health in the process.  Some of our policy proposals include securing passage of date labelling legislation to eliminate confusion about whether food is still good to eat, working with cities to reduce waste and increase rescue of surplus food, and supporting efforts at all levels to increase composting of food scraps. Adding compost to soils improves their ability to sequester carbon, store nutrients, and retain water. Composting food scraps also helps to “close the loop” on organic matter and nutrients by returning them to the agricultural production cycle, rather than sending that organic material to landfills, where it generates methane (a powerful climate pollutant).

Climate-friendly farming also offers a host of important co-benefits.  For example, when farmers use complex crop rotations to break weed, pest, and disease cycles, they can reduce the amount of synthetic chemicals they need to use. When they use practices like cover crops, no-till, and adding compost to protect and restore the soil, they reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers that emit greenhouse gasses. And when farmers can reinvest the oppressive amount of money they had been previously spending on expensive, synthetic inputs into the additional labor required to carbon farm, they bring new jobs to economically-depressed rural areas.

Farmers understand better than many of us the harsh realities of climate change, regardless of their opinions about what's causing those changes.  And tight margins and trade wars make the potential of new value streams particularly attractive for farmers right now. By working alongside the farmers and farmworkers who tend the land, we can bring new allies into the fight against climate change, restore the health of our soil, and create a healthy, equitable, and resilient food system.

About the Authors

Claire O'Connor

Director, Water & Agriculture, Water Division, Nature Program
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Wetlands and agricultural soils, when managed well, are carbon sinks that can help mitigate climate change and boost other ecosystem services

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Not only does this documentary reveal the guts it takes to be a farmer, but it also brings to life NRDC’s vision for a healthy, equitable, and regenerative food system, from farm to fork, including healthier soil, responsible antibiotic use, and pesticide-free food.

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Regenerative agriculture could be what we need to revitalize rural communities, confront climate change, and restore some of the “greatness” that some rural Americans feel they’ve lost.

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