Carbon Farming

Blog: project leader Marjon Krol sharing her view on carbon farming

26 September 2021 - Published by Paula Nijman
Since February this year, US President Joe Biden announced that he wanted to start a major program to stimulate carbon farming, which was also announced a few weeks later by EVP Frans Timmermans for the EU, the discussion about carbon farming has gained momentum. The unique contribution of carbon farming to our climate challenge, in particular through carbon sequestration, has become an important part of the EU Strategy of climate neutrality by 2050. The media popped up, looking for initiatives that do something with carbon farming. But in addition to all these high expectations, there were also more and more critical voices. There are several visions of carbon farming. In this article, I want to share my view.

Since 2015 I have been involved in the subject of carbon farming. Together with Bionext, the organization that represents the Dutch organic food chain, we wanted to get started with carbon farming as a way to support farmers in sustainable soil management. It took a few years to develop the project, but in 2018 we could start with partners from Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Norway and with funding from the Interreg North Sea Region program.

At the time carbon farming was still a new topic. We started by exploring techniques that farmers can apply to sequester carbon in their soils. The principle is actually very simple: by producing extra biomass, more CO2 is captured from the air, which partly ends up in the soil as organic matter. And by adapting tillage, farmers can ensure that as much carbon as possible is retained in the soil and as little as possible is released back into the air as CO2. So that a positive carbon balance is created, whereby the organic matter content in the soil gradually increases. This is not only good for our climate, but also for soil life, water holding capacity, soil fertility, and biodiversity. Carbon farming thus contributes to healthy and sustainable food production.

However, the focus of the project was on developing business models in which farmers can be rewarded for their extra efforts. Because the current food system does not encourage farmers to use their soils more sustainably. A reward for carbon sequestration would be a welcome incentive.

At the start of the project, this market was still in its infancy. But during the last years, the pressure on companies to reduce their CO2 emissions and offset the remaining emissions has increased a lot. National and European objectives have been sharpened considerably and the media are paying more and more attention to this growing market. More and more companies say they want to buy ‘carbon removal credits’. Microsoft even wants to become climate positive. Various parties are entering this new market offering 'farm generated' carbon credits and see a revenue model in this. The more important that market becomes, the more criticism there is. Because what guarantees us that this CO2 will be stored for a long time? And how can we prevent carbon to be transferred from one field to the other instead of additional storage? And shouldn't we put much more emphasis on reducing CO2 emissions instead of offsetting through carbon sequestration? In this context, carbon farming is suddenly being associated with the risk of greenwashing!

And then good monitoring and validation become very important. Because if carbon farming is used by companies to compensate for their emissions, then it must also be correct!!

In the meantime, I think we should be careful with this one-sided focus on the marketing of carbon sequestration. The farmers in our projects who have started working with carbon farming and who are rewarded for doing so, do not do so because of the reward. They start with carbon farming because they believe that more sustainable soil management is needed and that carbon farming helps them with that. They are mainly looking for knowledge because they still want to be farmers in 30 years, in 2050, and they believe that this is only possible if their soils are healthy and resilient to climate extremes. They invest in ‘holistic’ sustainable agriculture with which they also capture CO2 at the same time. They value the reward for this important social service primarily as recognition for their contribution.
We are especially looking for companies and parties that understand this and are willing to support it. By rewarding farmers for carbon sequestration, they work on their own climate ambitions and at the same time contribute to a more sustainable food system in their immediate vicinity. In my opinion, this holistic approach (which some call regenerative agriculture) is necessary to make carbon farming successful.

Marjon Krol works for the South Netherlands Agriculture and Horticulture Organization (ZLTO) and is project leader of the Interreg NSR Carbon Farming project.