The big story in agriculture today is how carbon is going to be the next cash crop for farmers and ranchers. There are lots of headlines about how changing agricultural practices can remove carbon dioxide from the air and store it in the soil.
While the science is sound, farming practices are just one component in the complex process of accumulation of carbon in the soil. Precipitation, soil type, carbon already present and other variables all factor into just how much of the element can be sequestered underground.
What’s grabbing attention is there’s a nascent market blooming where private companies are paying real money to farmers and ranchers who can document increasing stores of carbon in their soils. The idea is the ag producers get some money for changing their practices while the private companies count the sequestered carbon against their own emissions.
There’s a variety of reasons why companies are at the forefront of creating this market, but the primary driver is capitalism. Environmentally conscious customers and investors are demanding goods and services that have less impact on the land, air and water. Companies are responding to these signals by turning to the original conservationists — farmers and ranchers — to lessen the environmental impact of modern life.
The public at large is just now discovering what crop and livestock growers have understood for decades — capitalism and conservation are complimentary and not mutually exclusive. Farmers and ranchers understand today’s investments in healthy soil, pristine air and crystal-clear water will pay dividends for generations to come.
Farmers and ranchers today are using technology and innovative practices to produce more than ever while using fewer resources. U.S. agriculture would have needed nearly 100 million more acres 30 years ago to match today’s production levels.
This is especially true of livestock, which receive a lot of attention for greenhouse gases expelled yet contribute just 4 percent — and falling — of overall emissions. The dairy industry is producing 48 percent more milk with per-unit emissions down 26 percent. Pork production has soared 80 percent while the per-unit emissions have declined by 20 percent. Beef production is up 18 percent and emissions down 8 percent.
These efficiencies are driven by simple economics. Livestock emissions are falling because inputs like land and feed are expensive, so producers have a natural incentive to make the most of their resources. In short, market forces are working as they should, and U.S. agriculture is lessening its environmental footprint in addition to offsetting the carbon emissions from other industries.
For the most part, this has happened in the absence of government mandates, but that’s not to say government policy doesn’t have a role in further reducing the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
No, the government shouldn’t tell farmers and ranchers how to do their jobs, but policy makers can certainly craft incentive-based programs to speed the adoption of practices that enhance production and profitability on farms and ranches.
Legislators also can reduce regulatory barriers in state and federal programs and fund basic research that will help farmers and ranchers achieve greater efficiencies and further enhance the sustainability of their operations.
While the government can help facilitate the pace of adoption on proven practices, it should also recognize what works in one field isn’t always the prescription for the next. We have to trust farmers and ranchers, with decades and generations of land management experience, know the capacity of their ground. They’re proven innovators and problem solvers in their own right.
And they’re just as invested as the rest of us in successful and sustainable conservation all while continuing to provide a safe, affordable and ample supply of food for a growing population.