By Dr. Deb O’Dell

Scientific research helps make the case that farmers should be paid to apply no-till and cover crop practices to mitigate the effects of and adapt to climate change. Through the work that is being done at the University of Tennessee and elsewhere, scientists have found that cover crops are one of the most cost-effective natural climate solutions for sequestering atmospheric carbon. By increasing adoption of these practices, farmers can make a measurable impact on climate change.

Currently, only about 21 percent of American row-crop farmers use no-till practices, while about 12 percent use cover crops or a double cropping system, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). More needs to be done. If we pay farmers to implement either or both practices, we can rapidly increase adoption and see a clear, demonstrable effect. This simple approach also reduces the cost of a program for verifying and rewarding farmers. With a lean, low-overhead program, most of the funds would go to farmers, making this transparent, cost-effective, and easy to quickly scale up.

Why are cover crops important? Generally, during winter fallow periods, plants aren’t growing on fields (except for winter weeds). As a result, there is little photosynthesis going on and few plants are removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Cover crops can sequester carbon during the winter fallow season while also controlling for weeds, protecting soil, and capturing excess nutrients not used by the main season crop. On top of that, the residue left by the cover crops can provide slow-release nutrients during the growing season as it decomposes.

Why is reduced tillage important? Protecting the soil through reduced/no-tillage was established as one of the main principles of conservation agriculture more than 20 years ago and is still critical for sustainable agriculture. Tillage generally degrades soil quality, which can consequently reduce productivity. Farmers and soil scientists alike have found that by not tilling plant residue into the soil, they can build a layer of organic matter above the soil, which protects the soil and increases soil organic matter. When combined with cover crops, no-till has also been shown to increase soil carbon. From increased productivity and climate resilience, farmers are see the benefits to their operations as well.

The USDA, through Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs, advises farmers and ranchers and helps them to implement conservation practices. NRCS’s work is broad and addresses many challenges with agriculture, food production, and other issues, so there is a multitude of research, education, and programs on a variety of factors that affect crop production.

Increasing no-till and cover crop adoption to address climate change must be a priority in this work. But it doesn’t need to be contained to government programs – there is significant opportunity for a food industry leader (starting with one or more companies) to seize the reins and move this concept forward. The food industry has significant influence over both their producers and customers. The food company that demonstrates an effective approach can lead the industry.

I’m not alone in recognizing this opportunity: “Since no one can define the standard of sustainability, because sustainability has yet to be translated into a quantifiable measurement, the first company to succeed in disseminating its equations owns the standard,” food journalist Frederick Kaufman wrote in his 2012 book “Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food.”

Many farmers understand this and with incentives would be inclined to try these changes. My view is that what we need is an industry leader with the funding to support this approach.

Dr. O’Dell is part of a team of soil and atmospheric scientists at the University of Tennessee that is looking at the potential of agriculture to sequester carbon. More of her work can be found here.


For more information on policy efforts related to climate change and agriculture, check out NFU’s climate resource center here. 

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