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Can Farmers Profit from Sinking Carbon?

Abby Rose is a physicist-farmer mainly based in the UK. She helps run Vidacycle, her family’s farm in Chile, making natural wine and verjus and mob grazing a small flock of sheep. She co-developed Sectormentor and Soilmentor: apps that enable farmers to monitor and learn about the health of their soils, vines and trees. She also co-creates the Farmerama Radio podcast. Abby is committed to building ecology, profitability and beauty on farms in the UK and beyond.

Learnings from Al Gore’s Climate Underground Conference

Caney Fork Farms in Calgary, Tennessee, is a beautiful mixed farm with large vegetable patches, a flerd of sheep and cows, pigs and quite a few acres of chestnut agroforestry plantings. They use our Sectormentor for Trees app to track the many different species they are trialling to see which performs best in the Southern climate. Caney Fork Farms is the farm of former Vice President Al Gore and on Oct 14-15 he and his farm team, headed up by Zach Wolf, hosted the incredible Climate Underground Conference

The farm’s tagline is ‘raising food, sinking carbon’. There is no question they are raising some of the most delicious, wholehearted food you can taste - every meal we ate was sourced almost exclusively from the nutritious organic produce of the farm - and it felt so life-giving, a real privilege.

The ‘sinking carbon’ question was one of the most debated topics at the conference. No - we weren’t questioning whether soil can sink carbon: that is a given, and the extensive scientific research being done at the farm showed unequivocally that is true. However, to what degree and what to do with that information was batted around by policy makers, scientists, farmers, technologists, investors, students, academics, community activists and Al Gore himself.

One of the key themes that was brought up in the first panel was the idea of optimising farming approaches for soil health as opposed to carbon sequestration. Mr Gore started with a very impressive Inconvenient Truth-style presentation showing the increasing climate chaos and its repercussions around the globe – highlighting how this is linked to burning fossil fuel emissions first and foremost, closely followed by food system emissions. The conclusion was that the most ‘obvious’ answer of how to fix anthropogenic climate change, is to take carbon out of the atmosphere and hence many people at the conference were excited about soil because they see it as a carbon sink. With that view point, an ideal solution would be to to focus on soil as a carbon sink. It would make sense to create a carbon market that would pay farmers for sequestering carbon, and allow carbon emitters to offset their carbon emissions through soil carbon sequestration. 

However, as many of the soil scientists (and farmers!) pointed out - this is a dangerously limited perspective on soil. Soil is a living organism and actually is fundamental to the other two key themes of the conference: food and community. Healthy soils allow for healthy plants and more productive land, leaving us more able to actually feed and nourish people. Healthy soils also offer a myriad of other benefits to humanity and ecosystems. For example: healthy soil is vital for clean water, soil is the perfect filtration organism; healthy soil also stores vast quantities of water, not only making land resilient to drought, but also preventing flooding in nearby communities; and yes, healthy soil holds a lot of carbon, which is a great added benefit to producing food and building resilient ecosystems. 

If we had healthier soils, we'd be more resilient to weather extremes and less affected by the consequences of climate change. We wouldn’t be as likely to experience drought when rainfall is lower than usual, as the water will be held in the soil for longer, the plants will stay green longer, and it may even mean more localised rainfall. This would leave us less exposed to superfire risk, or to mudslides/flooding when the rains do come and make food production more resilient.

You can have carbon rich degraded soils, but you can’t have carbon-less healthy soils. So it’s clear to me which one we should be focusing on. As soon as we commodify carbon in soils I have no doubt that it will become a financialised product, just like every other market-based commodity we have created. Those wise to market mechanisms will ensure they hedge their bets and make their money, whilst farmers will be focused on trying to increase carbon levels on their farm however they can, the focus on healthy soil a distant memory.  We must remember farms are first and foremost businesses, just like any other business - we seem willing to pay for carbon, but not food – we shouldn’t expect farmers to take the moral high ground!