A framework for quantifying ecosystem services
Ensuring significant emissions reductions from agricultural production is a central aim for the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative’s work in the next decade; members are working to reduce on-farm greenhouse gas emissions in the Midwest row crop supply chain by 7 million metric tons by 2030. While research tells us that accelerating the adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices will help reduce emissions in the sector, financial barriers remain to accelerating adoption. To drive the scaling of regenerative agriculture, market mechanisms have been proposed as an option for overcoming these financial hurdles, which require more precise data on the impacts of these practices at the farm level.
A key knowledge gap in this work is quantifying the individual farm level impacts of various agricultural practices on greenhouse gas emissions – a challenging task due to the variability of local conditions, such as soil composition and climate patterns. This variability creates a challenge of scale: though it may be desirable, it is not feasible to sample soil in every field.
To address these challenges, MRCC member Bayer and other partners took the first step towards developing a replicable value chain intervention framework that could be used to quantify emissions reductions from on-farm practices in corporate supply chains. The first step in this process required the development of model simulations on farms in Mississippi River Basin watersheds across eight U.S. Corn Belt states to examine how the use of climate-smart practices in corn and soybean fields impacted greenhouse gas levels. The simulations examined how soil carbon stocks and nitrous oxide and methane emissions fluctuated when different land management practices were implemented. These scenarios included the implementation of cover crops and reduced or no-tillage.
Predictive models and tools can be useful, but don’t capture the full scope of the effects of these practices. Data gathered at the farm level, using digital tools such as Bayer’s FieldView platform, can help fill these gaps. With funding support from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Conservation Innovation Grants program, more than 100 farms with 200,000 acres of commercial row crops were used to validate the outputs of the model simulations.
Soil Health Partners, a program organized under the National Corn Growers Association, helped recruit farmers to the project and provide trusted, diverse expertise on the impacts of these practices.
Despite the growing attention and media coverage, cover crops acres only made up about 3.9% of U.S. cropland in 2017. This is due to multiple factors such as the upfront investment costs, additional agronomic support, and the timing need to establish them post-harvest and pre-winter weather. This initial work on quantifying the greenhouse gas savings from adopting different practices and the potential financial return is a first step in demonstrating the value to farmers.
The project design document was the first of its kind to receive design certification as part of the Gold Standard’s Value Change Intervention (VCI) Guidance, an effort that provides guidance for companies to report on value chain emission reductions. The guidance document is currently being reviewed by both the Greenhouse Gas Protocol and the Science Based Targets initiative for possible inclusion in their final methods.
Impact and lessons learned
The outputs of this project provide the evidence base needed to support the development of market-based mechanisms that can be used by value chain players to scale the adoption of regenerative agriculture practices. While the project wrapped up in 2020, the model insights continue to drive the adoption of new practices and approaches to conservation across all participants within MRCC. Bayer used it in 2020 as a foundational piece of research to launch the Bayer Carbon Program, which rewards U.S. farmers for the adoption of climate-smart practices. Participants in the program receive yearly cash payouts for the practices they implement. Beyond generating additional income, these climate-smart practices enable growers to benefit from improved soil health, which could lead to improved yield, profitability, and sustainability in the future.
While Bayer continues to support farmers using climate-smart initiatives through direct payments to producers, more is needed to be able to drive landscape-level shifts. For regenerative agriculture to scale, the system will depend on a range of different measures implemented across the supply chain and with the support of other stakeholders, including the general public. Beyond the three pillars of need for row crop agriculture (i.e., financial, social, and technical support), markets for sustainable commodities and a clear business case for all parts of the value chain will serve as a driving factor for growth—all connected by supportive policy and reinforced with sound data.