Carbon Reduction Starts with the Soil

As global interest increases in the relationship between soil health and carbon footprints, carbon-reducing practices in farming stand to be beneficial for the land and the farmer’s pocketbook.

Article By Patrick Wade, Texas Sorghum Producers

In his 1928 paper titled “Soil Erosion: A National Menace,” Hugh Hammond Bennett wrote of soil, “Conservation of this most fundamental and important of all resources is seldom seriously considered by any one not directly or indirectly associated with the ownership or management of a farm… Erosion is a very big problem. It is doubtful if the farmer can handle it alone.” This paper was instrumental in the founding of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) seven years later (then known as the Soil Conservation Service), of which Bennett was named the first chief. In turn, federal government resources were trained on studying and mitigating the wastage of soil and moisture resources.

Since Bennett’s missive and the founding of the NRCS, many of the same on-farm concerns for soil health have persisted. Erosion, nutrient loss, flooding, and more all threaten a farm’s productivity. There has been, however, one particularly critical development. While Bennett lamented the general public’s disinterest, 21st century farmers and ranchers are far from alone in caring about soil health. In fact, some of the wealthiest and most influential forces on the planet have become deeply involved in the relationship between soil health and environmental sustainability.

In this century, there is now a wide world to whom soil health is a key part of carbon footprints. The goal of reducing carbon footprints – the total carbon dioxide emissions associated with a product – has led to policymakers incentivizing billion-dollar markets that target every step of the supply chain, including soil where crops are grown for biofuel production.

For crops, carbon footprints are often captured from “cradle to farm gate.” This method attempts to measure the carbon footprint of a crop until it leaves the farm for the next step in the supply chain. Emissions generated by burning diesel in trucks, consuming energy for irrigation, manufacturing required pesticides and herbicides, and so on are all considered in a crop’s carbon footprint. By measuring required inputs, carbon footprints allow for crops to differentiate themselves based on their relative efficiencies.

It all comes back to the soil, though, as no farming activity generates more carbon emissions than fertilizing. Specifically, nitrogen, both in its carbon-intensive manufacturing and the runoff, leaching, and volatilization processes following its application, contributes a majority of the carbon emissions in agricultural production.

One of the most influential means of incentivizing carbon footprint reductions in sorghum and other crops is California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS). Adopted in 2009, the LCFS was a response to growing public desire in the state of California to reduce the carbon emissions related to transportation. The system develops its own carbon score based on the total emissions for an alternative fuel source, i.e. sorghum ethanol, throughout the entire pathway of production for the fuel. The greater the reduction in carbon emissions, the higher the price California pays for the fuel source.

Thanks to the hard work of National Sorghum Producers, sorghum farmers are beginning to see some of their inherent advantages incentivized in the LCFS economy. Some minor carbon reductions come from saving on irrigation-related energy costs and other similar efficiencies in sorghum operations. Largely, though, sorghum farmers’ tendencies toward conservation are being recognized as a significant advantage in the crop’s carbon footprint. The majority of sorghum farmers in the United States practice conservation tillage, which significantly mitigates fertilizer-related carbon emissions.

All sorghum farmers, not just those who sell their crop into these ethanol markets, stand to gain from this. As more grain moves into carbon markets for fuel, traditional sources of sorghum demand must still be met. Furthermore, it is important to note that participating in these markets should not be construed as political activism, but as economic practicality. The practices incentivized by LCFS are often fundamentally sound practices that beget healthier, more productive farms. As the sorghum industry continues to better understand the role we play in the carbon economy, the rising tide can lift all boats.

While it is the key player right now, California’s LCFS is far from the only carbon economy on the horizon. The state of Oregon already has an existing LCFS program and the state of Washington is finalizing rules in 2020 to implement their own, potentially targeting twice the carbon reduction of California’s LCFS. New York and Colorado are also exploring forming similarly ambitious carbon markets.

Agriculture is a global industry now, though, so these opportunities do not end at the American border. The European Union, of which the reemerging sorghum market of Spain is a member, continues to upwardly revise biofuel and carbon emission reduction targets vis-à-vis their established carbon economy. Japan, a consistent sorghum market with whom the United States just entered a new trade agreement to further streamline agricultural trade with, has set ambitious carbon reduction targets for 2030, as well. China, both the 21st century’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide and largest international market for sorghum, has responded to global scrutiny by redoubling pledges to reduce emissions. The Chinese market for sorghum originally opened in large part due to their preferences for non-GMO grain. As consumers across the globe continue to mount pressure for increased sustainability, sorghum may again see an opportunity to fill a unique niche.

There is still so much to study about the relationship between agricultural production and carbon emissions. A strong need still exists for better quantitative, deliverable data about sorghum’s carbon footprint, which makes the work NRCS and NSP are doing to develop a database all the more important (read more on Page 12). Policymakers across the world will continue to debate and tinker with their programs. One thing can be certain though; today, unlike in Hugh Hammond Bennett’s time, the farmer is far from the only one who cares about their soil.