September 2021 Monthly Newsletter
ESMC Executive Director Update
A National Crisis: Disappearing Grasslands and Rangelands
I had the chance two weeks ago to visit ranches in Granbury, Texas in the Southern Great Plains, where the topic of discussions was the high conversion pressures and high rates of conversion of native grasslands in the region. Opening the day’s discussions, organized by the Texas Agricultural Land Trust (TALT), CEO Chad Ellis (who is also Chairman of ESMC’s Board of Directors) indicated that 6,400 acres of native grasslands and grazing lands are being lost per day in the region, much of it to new housing developments. The many ranchers in attendance discussed their own efforts to resist development pressures, and how many of their ranches have become isolated islands of native grasslands and grazing lands surrounded and hemmed in by housing developments.
The Northern Great Plains areas are experiencing the same pressures, but due more to conversion of grasslands to croplands, and with a longer history of conversion. According to a 2011 report by USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), about 1 percent of Northern Plains rangeland was converted to cropland between 1997 and 2007 (Classen, Roger, Fernando Carriazo, Joseph C. Cooper, Daniel Hellerstein, and Kohei Udea. Grassland to Cropland Conversion in the Northern Plains: The Role of Crop Insurance, Commodity, and Disaster Programs, ERR-120, U.S. Dept. of Agri., Econ. Res. Serv. June 2011).
A September, 2020 article in Nature Communications (Lark, T.J., Spawn, S.A., Bougie, M. et al. Cropland expansion in the United States produces marginal yields at high costs to wildlife. Nat Commun 11, 4295 (2020)) documented conversion from 2007 to 2012, pointing out that this expansion threatens native grasslands and other natural habitats with high conservation, soil carbon storage, and biodiversity values. That study showed continued expansion of native grasslands into croplands at a rate of over 1 million acres per year.
Not only are these native grassland habitats incredibly important for biodiversity and species that are in many cases wholly dependent on their remaining intact (such as some avian and pollinator species), they are among the only remaining open lands in the country that provide multiple values to society, including water quality and groundwater recharge, water supply to many cities and developments, and as pointed out, soil carbon storage.
We are implementing national policies to increase soil carbon and other means of GHG mitigation from natural solutions such as agriculture and forestry while ignoring the losses of lands and the stored soil carbon in those lands that are happening at alarming rates. It is more than just an oversight: it is a huge loss to all of the climate, land, natural resource, biodiversity and societal benefits we are collectively investing in and working so hard to address. While we are working on interventions to scale climate smart agriculture, natural resource preservation, protection and enhancement, and biodiversity protection on one side of the ledger, we are bleeding all of these on the other side of the ledger with these mounting and largely irreversible losses. It is simply not sustainable.
Without national policies to address this, we will continue to see these losses and the associated impacts. The ledger will not balance until we address this. Private voluntary markets can perhaps help on some fronts. In carbon offset markets, there are accepted protocols and approaches that allow payments to landowners based on their avoided conversion of grasslands to cropland uses; the same approach can certainly apply to avoided conversion for development purposes. ESMC will look further into this incredibly important project approach as a means to support ranchers who are resisting development and trying to retain the many benefits of their grasslands and rangelands for society.
We are also working to ensure that supply chain reporting approaches can effectively help with avoided conversion, but currently, the rules and standards for this do not address these losses: there is no mechanism for corporates to utilize their influence in a way that would support their investments. We will work to bring attention to these devastating losses, and urge our many members, partners and stakeholders to do the same. We simply cannot wait until it is too late – we must all act now to do what we can.
- For additional information on some of the conversion pressures, see this World Wildlife Fund 2021 “PlowPrint” report.
- Also: kudos to Theresa Lieb for her column on Grassland Losses in the US, which includes some additional resource links.
- For more Information on TALT, see their website.
ESMC’s Federal and State Policy Engagement Updates
On September 23, ESMC’s Debbie Reed testified before the House Agriculture Committee during a hearing on “Voluntary Carbon Markets in Agriculture and Forestry,” delivering remarks and answering questions from committee members. ESMC submitted official written testimony for the public record, which you can find here. It was an exciting hearing and the ESMC team was honored to be represented on the panel. If you missed Debbie’s testimony (she was the first of the witnesses to testify), you can view the recording here.
New ESMC Podcast Series Highlights our Innovative Market Program
ESMC is pleased to announce a new series of podcasts now available on our website. Each podcast in the series of six details specific aspects of ESMC’s innovative market program and delves into the role of agriculture in reducing greenhouse gases and improving water quality. The first episode includes ESMC’s Debbie Reed speaking about our work creating an ecosystem services market program; click here to listen.
Look For ESMC At….
Regenerative Food Systems Investment (RFSI) Forum Panel “Unpacking Carbon Markets”
The RFSI Forum (September 28 – 29) will catalyze conversation, advance education, and drive increased investment in regenerative agriculture and food. ESMC’s Jack Jeworski will speak on a panel on September 28 (5:00 – 5:45pm) that will focus on Unpacking Carbon Markets. For more information and registration, click here.
ESMC in the News
Lawmakers Press Concerns on Fairness, Need for Carbon Markets
AgriPulse (September 23)
At the September 23 hearing on Voluntary Carbon Markets in Agriculture and Forestry, members of the House Agriculture Committee on both sides of the aisle raised concerns that many farmers will be left out of emerging carbon markets, and the panel was sharply divided over whether the Agriculture Department should be involved in regulating them. But supporters of carbon markets, including the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, a coalition of farm and environmental groups, say that both USDA involvement as well as increased conservation spending are needed. The conservation funding would help farmers implement practices that could qualify for carbon payments. “These voluntary markets are entirely complementary to USDA conservation programs,” said ESMC’s Debbie Reed. “Conservation program assistance provides a form of ‘up-front financing’ to help farmers and ranchers to actually participate in the markets,” she said. Read the full article.
Ag Eco-Nomics: Experts Talk Future of Carbon Credit Markets, How Farmers Can Be Part of It
La Junta Tribune-Democrat (September 8)
At many farm conferences and field days around the region in recent weeks, the big topic has been how to capitalize on enhancements to soil health through carbon credits, ecosystem services markets and similar mechanisms. During the recent Kansas Summit on Agricultural Growth, ESMC’s Debbie Reed highlighted ESMC’s more than 80 members and noted that, “We’ve seen more activity in this area in the last three years than in the past thirty years.” Read the full article.
ESMC Member and Funder News
USDA Investing $75 million in Partner-Led Projects with Focus on Climate-Smart Ag, Equity in Program Delivery
USDA (September 24)
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), an ESMC funder, will invest nearly $75 million for 15 partner-led projects to address natural resource concerns on private lands. This year, projects funded by the Regional Conservation Partnership Program’s (RCPP) Alternative Funding Arrangements (AFA) will focus on climate-smart agriculture and forestry and other conservation priorities as well as improving access for historically underserved producers. As part of this year’s project selections, NRCS prioritized projects that supported smart strategies on working lands to help sequester carbon, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Several projects also had concrete plans for engaging producers from historically underserved communities. Read the full announcement.
Planet’s Data Helps Establish Scientific Rigor for SMARTFARM Carbon Monitoring Program
Planet (September 23)
A set of major efforts funded by the U.S. Department of Energy ARPA-E (an ESMC funder) are leading the way in agricultural carbon monitoring initiatives including the SMARTFARM Program (Systems for Monitoring and Analytics for Renewable Transportation Fuels from Agricultural Resources and Management). This program aims to make it possible and profitable to optimize biofuel crops for yield and carbon capture intensity. Read the full article.
How Agricultural Lenders Can Support Farmers in Boosting Soil Health
EDF (September 13)
Everyone in the agriculture sector has a stake in better understanding the financial impacts of soil health practices, particularly farmers and their financial partners. A new report — Banking on Soil Health: Farmer Interest in Transition Loan Products — conducted by Environmental Defense Fund, The Nature Conservancy (an ESMC Founding Circle member) and agriculture market research firm Beck Ag, analyzes interviews with 100 Iowa farmers to better understand their interest in transitioning to soil health practices like cover crops, conservation tillage and nutrient efficiency, and tests multiple ways lenders could support the transition. Read the full article.
Is This Weed-Spotting, Yield-Predicting Rover the Future of Farming?
Smithsonian Magazine (September 10)
By the year 2050, Earth’s population is expected to reach nearly ten billion people. With this growth comes a staggering demand for food resources, particularly drought, heat, pest and disease resistant crop varieties that give high yields in the face of climate change. Enter X, Alphabet Inc.’s so-called “moonshot factory,” (and an ESMC Legacy Partner member) where innovators face the world’s biggest challenges head-on and develop ground-breaking technology at a startup pace. Project Mineral, one of X’s current efforts, is focused on finding an effective way to address the global food security crisis through “computational agriculture,” a term coined by X to describe new technologies that will further increase understanding about the plant world. Read the article in full.
Economics of Soil Health Systems on 100 Farms
Join the Soil Health Institute, an ESMC Founding Circle Member, for a webinar on the Economics of Soil Health Systems on Thursday, September 30 at 12pm ET. The Soil Health Institute interviewed 100 farmers in 9 states who have adopted soil health systems and used partial budget analysis to evaluate their economics and answer the following question: Do soil health practices increase or reduce profitability? Register here.
Attend the 2021 ASA, CSSA, SSSA International Annual Meeting: A Creative Economy for Sustainable Development
The American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America, and the Soil Science Society of America, all ESMC Legacy Partner members, will host their annual international scientific meeting November 7-10 in Salt Lake City, UT (with a limited virtual option). The annual event brings together leading and emerging scientific leaders from industry, government agencies, and academic institutions who are all working to advance agronomic, crop and soil sciences. Read more and register here.
Attend the Sustainable Agriculture Summit, November 18 – 19
The Sustainable Agriculture Summit, co-hosted by ESMC Founding Circle member Innovation Center for US Dairy and ESMC Legacy Partner member Field to Market, will take place this year Nov 18 – 19 in Las Vegas, NV with a virtual attendance option. The Summit is the premier sustainability event for agriculture and by agriculture, convening the collective food and agriculture value chain to learn, develop and advance a shared vision for a sustainable and resilient U.S. food system. To learn more, review the agenda, and register, click here.
Other News of Note
Ecosystem Marketplace (September 15)
A new report from Ecosystem Marketplace on voluntary carbon markets finds that 2021 is on track for an annual market value record of $1 Billion+ for the first time, as the all-time market value hits $6.7 Billion. This estimate is based on a growing global network of 172 survey respondents (a 13% increase from 2020 of 152), with traded credits from projects located in 80 countries. Read the release and access the report here.
A Benefit to Cows, the Land and Profitability of the Farm: Fresh Grass for High-Producing Dairy Cows
Progressive Dairy (September 15)
Feeding green grass to dairy cows is nothing new, but recent innovations have made it easier to add to diets of high-producing cows. A new practice utilized on several large dairy farms in Wisconsin is proving efficient for harvesting high-quality perennial grasses to add to a total mixed ration for improving cow health and performance, and manure or slurry can be used to fertilize the grass stand after each harvest. Read the full article.
Cows Toilet Trained to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions
BBC (September 14)
Cows can be toilet trained to reduce greenhouse gas emissions according to researchers in Germany. In a German study, researchers attempted to teach 16 cows to use a toilet, dubbed the “MooLoo”, at a farm owned by the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology. The animals were placed in the MooLoo pen and were rewarded with food for urinating in the pen. The idea behind this research is to capture urine and utilize the ammonia. Read the full article.
FAO Launches Practical Tools to Encourage Soil Organic Carbon Sequestration
FAO (September 8)
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) recently launched two practical instruments designed to encourage soil organic carbon maintenance and sequestration, a key tool for climate action. The two products are part of the RECSOIL initiative, and include a global map illustrating how much and where CO2 can be sequestered by soils — the GSOCseq, and a technical manual of good practices to sequester and maintain soil organic carbon stocks in soils. Read the full article.
Iowa Experiment Tests Potential to Pair Solar with Carbon Sequestration
Energy News Network (September 8)
As thousands of acres of Iowa farmland are eyed as possible sites for solar farms, a research project is getting underway to explore a new crop that could co-exist with this burgeoning source of power: carbon sequestration. The state’s economic development office last month awarded $297,000 to an environmental consultant to create a business model “for monetizing carbon capture on solar energy farms.” Although solar energy production and “carbon farming” exist independently, the project will test how the right combination of crops could stash significant amounts of carbon in the ground while enhancing the soil’s fertility. Both the landowner and the solar developer could benefit from the sale of credits for the sequestered carbon and the enhancements to the soil. Read the full article.
First-Of-Its-Kind Study Shows That Diverse Landscapes Could Boost US Crop Yields By 20%
Anthropocene Magazine (August 27)
Increasing land cover diversity in agricultural landscapes is about more than protecting nature: it could also increase crop yields across large areas of the United States by up to 20%, according to a recent Nature Food study. Studies at the farm-level have previously shown that incorporating diverse land cover—features like hedgerows and flower borders—onto the land can help to boost agricultural productivity through biodiversity. That’s because more diverse landscapes improve ecosystem health by, for instance, harboring insect life that boosts pollination, and increasing the density of organic matter that improves soil richness—which have benefits for agriculture too. Read the full article.