US agriculture has long been a driving force of both climate change and social injustice, creating a feedback loop that has pushed the industry to the brink of acute soil depletion, forced removal of Indigenous and Black producers from the land, and a dwindling, undignified workforce across the supply chain. Today, farmers and ranchers face a multitude of challenges, from worsening wildfires and droughts to increasing land consolidation to lack of access to critical government support — barriers that are further compounded for producers that identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). US agriculture is under dire pressure to transform its structures and processes, not only to ameliorate the climate crisis that is already here but to address systemic, social injustices that harm agricultural communities. One critical opportunity at the center of all this: scaling soil carbon storage in a just and equitable way across agricultural lands.

Soils naturally sequester carbon over time, which farmers and ranchers can enhance by implementing certain land management practices. In the US, agricultural soils have considerable climate mitigation potential, with the ability to sequester up to 10% of our domestic greenhouse gas emissions. What’s more, carbon-rich soils can build ecosystem resilience and health, improve crop yields and profit margins, and strengthen relationships in farming and ranching communities. Scaling soil carbon can benefit broader communities too, by providing employment and educational opportunities, reducing exposure to pesticides and fertilizers, and overall improving human well-being.

While soil carbon is a recently popular climate resilience and mitigation pathway, with growing interest from government, the private sector, and civil society, the principles and practices that can help us store more carbon in soils are not new. Many techniques that increase soil carbon are rooted in Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), a term developed by Native American, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, and Indigenous communities, to embody their cumulative knowledge and beliefs about the relationships of living beings, including humans, with one another and their environments. Prominent soil carbon systems and practices like agroforestry, intercropping, polycultures, and rotational grazing have long been part of reciprocal cultivation between Indigenous communities and the land.

Soil carbon storage can truly be a win-win solution for the climate and for agricultural communities, particularly BIPOC communities, but only if agricultural policy advances soil carbon justly and equitably. And with the 2023 Farm Bill coming up, we have an opportunity to radically transform our agricultural system into one that elevates TEK, invests in historically-underserved agricultural communities, and actively removes carbon from the atmosphere. It’s clear — without transformative justice and revolutionary changes to US agriculture we risk not only surviving the climate crisis, but the ability for our communities to be healthy, happy, and to thrive for generations.

US agriculture is unjust

Centuries of discrimination, slavery, and colonization in the US have created deep injustices within our agricultural system. Colonialism and the forced displacement of Indigenous peoples from their land resulted in the loss of entire cultures, traditions, languages, and ways of knowing. The IPCC recently named colonialism as a historical and ongoing driver of climate change, and research has also demonstrated the lasting, detrimental impacts of colonialism on North American ecosystems and soils. Similarly, historical and modern slavery ensued a legacy of intergenerational trauma and loss of freedom for Black people, as well as long standing ecological devastation, soil depletion, and exhaustion.

Congress upheld harm to BIPOC communities through enactment of racist policies with lasting impacts to the US agriculture system, such as the Indian Removal Act, the Homestead Act, and the Morrill Act. Combined with the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) well-documented history of structural racism and unequal delivery of support programs, the federal government has actively hindered the ability of BIPOC producers, families, and communities to build intergenerational wealth, wield political power, and determine their agricultural systems through practice of TEK.

The consequences are clear — today, the greatest climate impacts are borne by those least responsible for emissions, and we continue to have a predominantly white agricultural system that caters to the most affluent and best-resourced operations. Climate change is inherently unjust, and no approach to restore agricultural soils and address the climate crisis will be complete without advancing social justice and transforming our current systems. Furthermore, auspicious stories like the reintroduction of the American bison and the resulting benefits for biodiversity, climate resiliency, and Indigenous food sovereignty reinforce the urgent need to uplift TEK, recognize the Indigenous origins of building soil carbon, and provide BIPOC producers sovereignty and agency over their own land management.

Recent progress by the federal government

After many decades of advocacy by farmers and environmental justice organizations, USDA is beginning to acknowledge the discriminatory failures in its policies and programs and outline corrective measures. Under the Biden-Harris Administration, USDA has invested in partnerships to support historically-underserved producers in implementing climate-smart agriculture, restored the Office of Tribal Relations, established new initiatives to support Indigenous agriculture and tribal communities, issued grant funding to organizations that help resolve heirs’ property issues, administered funding for research and capacity at minority-serving institutions, and established an independent Equity Commission.

In recent farm bills, Congress has also taken action to support BIPOC producers, such as establishing outreach programs targeting socially-disadvantaged producers like the 2501 program, setting aside conservation program funding, and facilitating access to land for historically-underserved producers. More recently, through the Inflation Reduction Act, Congress invested billions in outreach, technical and financial assistance, capacity building, land access, research and education, and debt relief for historically underserved producers — all long-standing barriers that impact their ability to build soil carbon and their climate resilience.

Scaling soil carbon equitably

There are many on-farm and off-farm benefits associated with scaling agricultural soil carbon. However, farmers and ranchers need to overcome a host of barriers to realize these benefits — barriers that are more pronounced for historically underserved producers, particularly BIPOC producers. Moreover, current soil carbon opportunities are not inclusive of BIPOC producers, beginning producers, or producers of small- and mid-sized operations. Most proposed policies and incentives focus on major commodity crops, are in partnership with large agribusiness companies, and tend to favor large-scale operations, placing historically underserved producers at a steep disadvantage.

Scaling agricultural soil carbon equitably and justly demands centering the realities and priorities of BIPOC producers and other marginalized agricultural groups. Below are urgent considerations for scaling soil carbon swiftly and equitably across US farms and ranches:

  • Government access and investment: Government assistance can help alleviate economic, scientific, and educational challenges that farmers and ranchers may face when adopting soil carbon practices. However, historical inequities and USDA’s intentional exclusion of marginalized producers from federal programs have only compounded these obstacles. Furthermore, BIPOC producers and communities continue to struggle for parity in accessing USDA programs.
  • Land access and ownership: Land access is the number one challenge young farmers and ranchers currently face. Many BIPOC farmers and communities lost all or parts of their land as a result of discriminatory and racist policies throughout the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Today, white landowners own and operate more than 90% of US farmland. Without access to land, BIPOC farmers and ranchers are limited in making on-farm decisions like implementing soil carbon practices, less likely to participate in government programs, and locked out of building intergenerational wealth.
  • Producer education and technical expertise: Thinking about agricultural soils for carbon storage is a relatively new and unfamiliar concept to many farmers and ranchers. What’s more, soil carbon considerations are regionally specific and don’t yet have the on-the-ground proof for farmers to make long-term decisions about these practices. Worsening these barriers is the lack of culturally-competent staff and appropriate resources to meet the technical assistance needs of immigrant and BIPOC producers.
  • Cost of practice adoption: Farmers and ranchers face steep upfront costs when implementing soil carbon practices, from purchasing new equipment to increased labor needs. Making changes to their operations is risky. To transition their operations, producers not only need access to capital, but also the flexibility to endure waiting periods before the benefits of soil carbon start to accrue. These financial considerations can be even more prohibitive for historically underserved producers, who face distinct and compounded barriers in accessing economic resources and federal assistance.


Scaling soil carbon across US farms and ranches just and equitably can promote significant shifts in our agricultural system, empower BIPOC communities, and advance climate resilience and mitigation. Understanding the historical context of US agriculture and identifying urgent equity gaps are essential first steps to address structural power imbalances and transform our agricultural system. As the most powerful vehicle for agricultural policy, the 2023 Farm Bill must center policies for soil carbon and climate mitigation that right historical wrongs, rebuild trust with communities, and provide targeted support — building a foundation for climate justice in agriculture. For more on how this can be done, visit part two of this blog series (coming soon).

Edited by Tracy Yu. Cover image by PeopleImages