A framework for quantifying ecosystem services

Ensuring significant emissions reductions from agriculture is a key goal for the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative; 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 shows that practices such as cover crops and reduced tillage can reduce emissions and build soil carbon, financial barriers prevent greater practice adoption. Market mechanisms are an option for overcoming these financial hurdles, but these mechanisms require more precise data on the impacts of these practices.

A key gap in building markets is the ability to quantify the farm level impacts of various agricultural practices on greenhouse gas emissions – a challenging task due to the variability of local conditions like soil composition and climate patterns. This presents a barrier of scalability because 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 partners developed 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 can’t capture the full scope of the effects of these practices, but digital tools that capture farm level data, such as Bayer’s FieldView platform, can help fill these gaps. More than 100 farms with 200,000 acres of commercial row crops were used to validate the outputs of this project’s model simulations, thanks to financial support from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Conservation Innovation Grants program. 

Soil Health Partners, a program organized under the National Corn Growers Association, helped recruit farmers to the project and provided trusted, diverse expertise on the impacts of these practices. 

Cover crops acres only made up about 3.9% of U.S. cropland in 2017, despite the growing attention about the benefits to reduce erosion and build soil carbon. This is due to upfront investment costs, additional agronomic support, social stigma, and the timing needed to establish the cover crops post-harvest and before winter. The project’s initial work on quantifying the greenhouse gas savings from adopting different practices and the potential financial return is an important first step in demonstrating the value to farmers.  

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 players in the value chain to scale the adoption of regenerative agriculture practices. While the project wrapped up in 2020, the model insights continue to drive implementation 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 can increase yields, profitability, and long-term viability.

While Bayer continues to support farmers using climate-smart initiatives through direct payments to producers, more is needed 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 various 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. 

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