As extreme temperatures and severe drought bombard farmers across the US, S.1251, the Growing Climate Solutions Act, passed last week in the Senate. With a vote of 92–8, the bill represents rare bipartisan alignment on climate and agriculture and will move onto a House vote. Senator Debbie Stabenow and Senator Mike Braun’s impressive leadership not only garnered the support of their colleagues but also endorsements from environmental NGOs and agribusiness groups alike. This is a first step towards incentivizing the adoption of soil carbon sequestration, a key solution to fight climate change and build resilience among producers. The move also warrants a broader reflection about our blind spots in soil carbon science — if left unaddressed, they could hinder our collective ability to incentivize and scale soil carbon practices across the country.

The Growing Climate Solutions Act (GCSA) aims to streamline and reduce barriers to entry for farmers, ranchers, and foresters looking to access private carbon offset markets that will finance changes in climate-friendly practices and monetize their carbon gains. Paying producers for healthier soil practices is beneficial for economic and climate resilience alike, but accessing these incentives can be expensive, time-consuming, and complicated. Financing these soil health practices, in particular, was one key barrier to adoption we identified in our work with producers in the Rocky Mountain West and something GCSA seeks to address.

Private sector offset markets have the potential to be an additional source of revenue for producers but, for a number of reasons, have historically failed to get off the ground. In general, offsets have been unreliable in producing permanent and additional emissions reductions or removals. And in many cases, companies are incentivized to purchase low-quality offsets while continuing to rely on fossil fuels that have harmful impacts on the health and well-being of local communities. As a result, offsets in their current form are misaligned with environmental justice objectives.

Agricultural offset markets in particular, such as those supported by GCSA, are relatively new and immature. Few soil carbon protocols exist today and many lack robust science, making it difficult to reliably quantify and verify the amount of carbon stored from acre to acre, and ensure that carbon stays there over long periods of time. Unlike in forest systems, soil carbon accounting that underpins these offset markets hasn’t seen decades of public data collection and model verification. Protocols for monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV) tend to be difficult for producers to implement, requiring arduous physical sampling, the results of which can vary substantially at different depths and across even a single acre of farmland.

Even if carbon gains are verified, credit prices are often lower than the cost of implementation. It matters who is able to access these opportunities: today’s offset markets tend to over-index on incentives for large-scale, established farms rather than supporting small- and medium-sized farms or those owned by Black, Indigenous, and other producers of color. For USDA to deliver on the promises of GCSA, Congress will need to direct the agency to take on complementary research around fundamental science, MRV, economics and social science, and demonstration trials. Otherwise, we run the risk that USDA meet the objective of GCSA — inviting a market that does very little good for producers or the climate.

Accordingly, Congress will need to work with USDA to ramp up and coordinate RD&D on soil carbon across the following key areas:

  1. Fundamental science: Increasing research will continue to improve our understanding of soil carbon dynamics, including the durability of carbon in agricultural ecosystems, the impact of soil amendments like compost and biochar, and the development of technology-enhanced crop varieties. This research can ensure that offset protocols are rooted in the best available science and enable the expansion of these markets towards newer, high carbon storage potential practices.
  2. Monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV): Many voluntary offset markets either rely on onerous on-farm sampling or low-quality models to quantify and verify carbon storage. Without major advances in MRV protocols and technologies, we are at risk of overcounting carbon removals and stifling the scale at which these practices can be deployed. Investments are needed to develop and refine a wide range of MRV tools and their implementation into offset protocols.
  3. Economics and social science: Producers face uncertainty around how to best implement practices that maximize soil carbon storage — the cost of implementation, precise information on benefits, and operations planning are all challenges. These challenges are particularly acute for small- and medium-sized farms and socially disadvantaged producers who historically have had more difficulty in accessing USDA support. Increased and robust economic and social science research can improve incentive program design and support producers in making informed decisions for their bottom lines.
  4. Real-world demonstration trials: While monetary payments from voluntary offset markets are potentially lucrative, producers often don’t have the on-the-ground proof points needed to make them feel more comfortable in taking on additional risk. An extensive network of soil carbon demonstration trials is critical to test and derisk practices across the diversity of operations, soils, and climates of the US agriculture industry. These demonstration trials can also provide critical data to improve the accuracy of remote sensing tools or models aiming to estimate soil carbon storage based on practice change.

GCSA is a first step forward for bringing carbon removal into the equation for the US agriculture industry — but first, there is more work to be done. Without significant investments in more robust science, GCSA will fall short of what’s needed to support America’s agriculture producers at a time when their yields are facing increasing adversity due to a changing climate. While creating thoughtful and inclusive incentives is critical to soil carbon sequestration, foundational science is a prerequisite that deserves further Congressional attention and investment.

Image: Chris Ensminger