Is the hype about soil carbon farming overstated?

Is the hype about soil carbon farming overstated?
Storing (and keeping) carbon in soil is a big challenge, scientists are questioning the reality of soil carbon sequestration.
  • flows of greenhouse gases into and out of soil are complex
  • can the soil carbon gold rush live up to the hype?
  • online startup Nori is paying farmers for soil carbon
RCS - Introduction to ruminant nutrition

This article talks through a real example of farmer Trey Hill in the US, who is working with online carbon marketplace Nori to sequester carbon in his soil.

It is a long read ,but well worth it if you are looking to understand the state-of-play for soil carbon markets in the US. With all the hype, a growing group are questioning whether the big climate-savings claims of soil carbon sequestration stack up in reality. The article also talks through how Nori and others are brining technology to the fore to validate carbon sequestered and keep costs low.


Hill didn’t adopt “carbon smart” practices like cover-cropping to fight climate change. He did it to build soil, retain water, and make money.


Earlier this year, Nori paid Hill $115,000 for just over 8,000 tons of carbon stored in Hill’s soil. In the future, if each of the 10,000 acres he farms can sock away an additional ton of carbon per year — around the best he could hope for, he says — he could earn up to $150,000 annually.


Millions of dollars are now pouring into soil-climate initiatives from corporations like Microsoft and General Mills, philanthropists like Leonardo DiCaprio, and governments large and small.


Indigo Ag, says that thousands of farmers working more than 18 million acres of farmland, nearly all in the U.S., have expressed interest in enrolling in its carbon-sequestration program


“We’re in a period of carbon exuberance,” says Philip Taylor, an ecologist and co-founder of the Boulder-based regenerative agriculture organization Mad Agriculture. “Society’s hope and wish that agriculture will solve climate change is overstated.”


The idea of paying farmers for actually drawing down carbon, however, has not taken off. No one knew how to accurately, yet affordably, measure the small, slow changes in soil carbon that might accrue over one or even multiple growing seasons. The gold standard for soil carbon measurement involves extracting multiple cylindrical cores from a field, drying them, combusting them in an oven, and measuring the carbon dioxide released — a time-consuming and expensive process.


from 2014 to 2018. Nori would calculate Hill’s climate impact using COMET-Farm, a digital tool produced by the USDA. COMET-Farm takes in farming practice information from platforms like Granular, mixes it with weather data from satellites and sensors and soil information from USDA databases, and uses sophisticated computer models to estimate how quickly carbon builds up in soils and greenhouse gases escape. By not requiring a site visit or soil samples, which can run thousands of dollars, Nori kept verification costs low


On October 7, Nori offered Hill’s credits for $16.50 per ton, with $1.50 going to Nori and $15 to Hill. A total of 342 buyers purchased 8,010 tons’ worth of credits out of 14,011 


A growing number of scientists, however, are not as impressed as they’d like to be with the science underpinning the soil carbon sequestration gold rush.


Studies questioning soil carbon sequestration’s benefits, however, are often conducted at long-term university or government research plots, which do not necessarily replicate the many and various management decisions made on real-world farms, experts say. “The papers that go against the initiative I think have as many holes as the papers that argue that you can do it,” says Mark Bradford, a soil scientist at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.


 North America
 Carbon Farming
 Soil Health
#carbon markets
#soil carbon

A version of this article was originally published on the site Yale Environment 360 on Tuesday, March 31, 2020.



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