When measuring a farm’s carbon footprint – Britain has the right answer

By Dean Dickel

The key to achieving climate mitigation in agriculture depends on an accurate measure of carbon sequestration and emissions of major greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide.

Mitigation measures so far have revolved around public and private programs that offer payment for practices such as cover crops and no-till planting that industry experts have determined sequester carbon in the soil.

Carbon markets have also been initiated that pay farmers for their conservation practices. Called carbon credits, the payments are used to offset greenhouse gas emissions the buyers produce as a part of their business operations. Those offsets are commonly used to achieve their own climate claims such as “net zero.”

A number of farmers are already participating in these “markets,” but some in the industry remain dubious. “These aren’t markets, they’re just schemes,” says Jeff Schahczenski, an economist with the National Center for Appropriate Technology.

Farmers enrolling in carbon market programs will usually need to sign relatively long-term contracts that include very specific requirements to continue to qualify for payments. “I would advise farmers to have these contracts looked over by a lawyer before signing,” Schahczenski said.

Current “carbon markets” have also drawn fire from organic farmers and others because they mostly reward “new practices” as incentives for farmers to adopt carbon-friendly methods, all the while farmers who are already using those practices, many of them for years, are wondering out loud: “What’s in it for me?” Some have asked how long they would need to go back to bad practices before they would qualify for reinstituting good practices.

Current carbon initiatives available to farmers do not generally consider carbon equivalent emissions for synthetic nitrogen and other fertilizers and pesticides.

In Britain, however, the amount of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide being emitted and how much carbon is being sequestered in the soil can be measured by a software program that has been in use there for about ten years.