A first-generation Lafayette farmer was one of several witnesses called to testify at a U.S. Senate committee reviewing a bill that would help kickstart the carbon market industry.
Brent Bible, co-owner of Stillwater Farms, testified at the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry’s hearing on the Growing Climate Solutions Act, a bipartisan bill introduced by Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana.
The bill seeks to create new resources at the U.S. Department of Agriculture that will help farmers, ranchers and foresters participate in carbon credit markets, including establishing a USDA certification and certification process for the carbon market industry, organizing an advisory council and establishing other features that would help “build trust” in the market.
A carbon credit market allows companies to offset the amount of greenhouse gases they emit by purchasing carbon credits, a certificate worth a certain amount of carbon dioxide emissions.
Farmers, ranchers and foresters can generate carbon credits to trade by using environmentally sustainable farming practices that will retain more greenhouse gases. In essence, farmers are trading their promise to undertake environmentally friendly farming that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere in exchange for cash.
Companies like Microsoft, Coca Cola, Jet Blue, Starbucks and even fossil fuel giant BP have voluntarily promised to reduce or offset greenhouse gas emissions and, in some cases, have purchased carbon credits to reach those goals.
But doubts about how much greenhouse gases carbon offsets actually reduce and the overall stability of those markets have prevented U.S. farmers from participating in those private markets more broadly and embracing this alternate form of revenue.
“These practices and initiatives will not reach a broader farming audience if we can’t figure out how to scale up the current rates of adoption of conservation practices. And that’s why I like the Growing Climate Solutions Act,” Bible told the committee. “It opens the door for farmer participation in a market-based system that rewards farmers for implementing conservation practices on their farms, if they choose to do so. We need real market-based options that allow farmers to individually make a choice and participate, then see the benefits to their economic bottom line.”
The text of the bill has not been finalized, but Braun and Stabenow said the goal of the bill is ultimately to help farmers and foresters scale up sustainable practices and make money through voluntary carbon markets by targeting impediments.
“Our bill will help the corn and soybean farmer in Michigan who’s hearing about companies like GM and is asking me how they can get involved in this and have a credible process to store their carbon and have it measured accurately, and they want to know how to get started. That’s what the Growing Climate Solutions Act does,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the committee’s ranking Democrat and bill co-sponsor.
The legislators hope to remove several “roadblocks,” including uncertainty in how to start the sustainability projects, navigate the carbon credit markets and find trustworthy carbon market professionals with agriculture or forestry experience.
The bill would establish a website to guide farmers through the process. It also would set up a system to certify “technical assistance providers” who can help farmers design and implement sustainability projects that can produce a tradable carbon credit. The USDA will also be empowered to certify third-party verifiers who can confirm that the projects resulted in emission reductions or carbon storage.
“Farmers are great at farming and trying to distill a lot of information, but for the efforts that are out there right now, these contracts are enormously complex,” said National Farmers Union president Rob Larew. “And there are a lot of questions, so setting up a system similar to one that’s envisioned by this bill would at least set up a structure so that farmers can trust the information and make sure they can get their question answered and can believe in the system and the market itself.”
In 2018, voluntary carbon markets helped offset about 98.4 million metric tons of greenhouse gases around the world. That’s about double the amount of 2016, but just a small fraction of greenhouse gas emissions across the world. U.S. polluters alone emitted 6,677 million metric tons of greenhouse gases.
Increased interest in the carbon credit market could allow farmers to chip away further at those emissions totals and supplement income to fund their currently unprofitable operations.
Bible, a first-generation farmer and former Indiana State Police officer, told Braun and the rest of the committee that federal policies, fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and rising overhead costs have made farming unprofitable.
He said many farmers are only able to continue their operations because of government subsidies and support programs.
“We are not making money right now. We are treading water, so to speak, when you take away that USDA subsidy, whether it’s the Market Facilitation Program or the [Coronavirus Food Assistance Program],” Bible said. “The demand has increased for those voluntary markets to exist, so I think that’s the opportunity for us to step up and supply that and generate revenue through that process. It gives us the opportunity to make a profit and do something environmentally healthy for our operations at the same time.”
The Growing Climate Solutions Act will have to make its way through the committee before it gets a vote in the full Senate. The bill was also recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.
More than 50 organizations, including farming and ranching associations, agricultural business interests, food manufacturers and environmental organizations have expressed support for the bill.