Report Synopsis

Can you farm carbon?

Farmers face increasing challenges, including rising costs, climate change and growing environmental regulations. Clearly, agriculture requires change, especially for farmers inside environmentally sensitive catchments. Is carbon farming the answer and, if so, how do we incentivise it?

The emerging soil carbon market (SCM) has generated much enthusiasm. Companies pay farmers to adopt practices that remove atmospheric carbon into the soil (carbon farming), offsetting companies’ emissions. On one hand it seems like a win-win - increasing soil carbon could help farmers cope with future challenges by improving farm productivity, environmental performance and climate resilience while mitigating companies’ emissions. On the other hand, it seems fraught with challenges around greenwash, with people often calling it the ‘wild west’. Several projects in Europe and North America provided hope that these challenges could be addressed. I investigated how by interviewing a range of stakeholders involved in these overseas projects.

In reality, these projects weren’t really addressing these challenges and exhibited issues regarding additionality and permanence. Most farmers had adopted all or most of the accredited carbon farming practices in the past, rather than adopting new practices, indicating minimal additional carbon storage. Substantially higher carbon pricing is likely needed to drive material change. Otherwise, companies gain credit for farmers' existing actions - a form of greenwashing that farmers risk getting embroiled in.

So, can you farm carbon? Yes, adopting carbon farming practices could demonstrably boost soil carbon with myriad benefits. But the scale of its potential climate impact remains debated. Therefore, climate change mitigation is currently best seen as a potential co-benefit, not the primary focus of carbon farming. Do SCMs hold the key to unlocking widescale adoption of carbon farming and associated advantages?

SCMs are nascent, they may play a modest future role if integrity and carbon pricing improve. Currently though, risks seem to outweigh opportunities for farmers. However, risks can be mitigated by pursuing non-offset carbon markets like insetting, which have fewer restrictions.  

In summary, SMCs are not the panacea I once thought for agricultural transformation. But they may contribute future solutions alongside regulation, policy, entrepreneur-led innovation (‘regenprenurship’), new markets and social cooperatives. Sustainable farming requires diverse solutions and co-ordinated efforts.

Ben's report summary video can be viewed on the Nuffield Farming YouTube Channel.

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