How can agriculture be part of Michigan's climate solution?

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The vast majority of carbon in the atmosphere that contributes to climate change originates in the energy sector in the form of carbon dioxide emissions that come from burning fossil fuels.

But a not-insignificant portion of the most potent greenhouse gases – methane and nitrous dioxide – come from agriculture, accounting for nearly 11 percent of total emissions nationwide. In Michigan, agriculture and waste account for nine percent of the state’s total GHG, according to the state's MI Healthy Climate Plan.

In Michigan, soil management is the most significant culprit, accounting for 36% of agricultural emissions, mainly from large-scale farm operations in the southern portion of the state. Enteric fermentation (yes, cow farts, among other ruminant explosions) accounted for another 16%, and manure management yet another 13% of emissions.

Much of those agricultural emissions are counter-balanced by the state's natural forested land and wetlands in the north, which capture carbon. The net GHG emission of natural lands, working lands, and waste has not changed over the past decade, according to state data.

Source: MI Healthy Climate Plan

According to the state’s Mi Healthy Climate Plan, agriculture and waste sources emitted 17.37 million metric tons of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalence, or the number of metric tons of CO2 emissions with the same global warming potential as one metric ton of another greenhouse gas) in 2019.

Source: MI Healthy Climate Plan

By comparison, Michigan’s transportation sector accounted for almost 28 percent of the state’s total GHG emissions in 2019, and its power sector contributed approximately 30%. Other significant contributors include buildings and industry.

But while agriculture may not seem like much compared to coal-fired power plants and automobiles in terms of its overall contribution to the climate crisis, it represents a substantial opportunity for GHG reduction and carbon capture, according to Sue Holcombe, a retired large-animal veterinarian and retired Michigan State University professor.

“Agriculture is an important sector because we can diminish the greenhouse gases produced, like nitrous oxide and methane. We can diminish those and do things to make farming more green, less of a contribution to climate change, and produce healthier food,” Holcombe told Michigan Climate News. “But a key is that farming, agriculture, forestry, and agriculture are also major ways to produce a drawdown of carbon and diminish actually pull carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back in the soil.”

According to Jenifer Wightman, a research associate at Cornell, GHG reduction strategies for agriculture must be real, permanent, measurable, and verifiable. They may include carbon sequestration, methane destruction, increasing operational efficiency, displacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, and conservation.

Wightman's analysis of the top five mitigation strategies for New York State identified livestock feed management, manure covering and flaring, nitrogen use efficiency, improved woodlands management, and planting trees on idle lands. That's based on New York’s source emissions profile, which includes more livestock emissions than Michigan’s.

The MI Healthy Climate Plan’s recommendations from its natural lands and forest products working group identified some of these tactics, calling on the state to “develop initiatives to support farmers in adopting best management practices to improve soil health, store carbon, and utilize other greenhouse gas emissions, while also protecting water quality.”

In terms of mitigating emissions from agricultural soil management, the plan explicitly mentions cover crops, conservation tillage, and precision agriculture as methods for storing carbon in the soil, with added benefits for water quality, reduced fertilizer needs and soil health. The plan also recommends innovative animal feeds to reduce enteric fermentation.

But it notes that “additional funding opportunities, research, and technological advancements will be necessary” to implement these tactics. Federal and private funding, such as grants under the Midwest Cover Crop Initiative now available through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, will likely be required for progress to be made.

The plan also proposes a Healthy Soils Act for Michigan “in which the Legislature and Governor can set a floor for future funding and attract additional funding for soil, water, and habitat conservation.”

Specifically, this act would:

  • Promote agricultural conservation best management practices (e.g., no-till, cover crops, extended crop rotations, etc.) to promote soil health, increase carbon storage, and reduce emissions.
  • Allocate state funding in the order of $25 million annually to leverage federal Farm Bill dollars and assist farmers and producers in implementing the array of conservation practices.
  • Foster permanent grasslands and forestry by recommending that our federal senators and representatives make a case to significantly increase the rental rates for marginal lands that meet the Environmental Benefits Index (EBI) requirements.
  • Sustain full funding for conservation districts to enhance implementation of climate-beneficial conservation programs (starting in FY22 Michigan appropriated operational funds for the 75 conservation districts for the first time since 2009).
  • Establishing a State of Michigan cost-share program for conservation practices.
  • Advance and fund soil amendment initiatives (e.g., biochar) and composting

So far, no such legislation has been introduced.

Carbon credits may represent a new revenue source for farmers willing to undertake conservation practices like planting cover crops. Private firms are beginning to offer such credits in Michigan, paying between $15-$30 per acre per year. Also, earlier this year Gerber announced it would partner with a third-party certifier to document regenerative farm practices by its farmers in West Michigan.

In Wisconsin, Heidi Peterson of the Sand County Foundation is working on an innovative method for compensating farmers for implementing conservation best practices within the Lake Michigan watershed. Instead of paying farmers up-front for carbon credits, it’s looking to compensate them based on conservation performance. The program would apply a direct value to the farmer for the environmental response to conservation practice, such as a price paid per pound of phosphorus or sediment. The program aims to engage 25 farmers this year.

Peterson said her organization has worked with farmers on conservation practices for years. But, it is now beginning to shift its messaging in terms of conservation about climate change mitigation instead of other environmental benefits like water quality.

“Most of the farmers we're working with see that the storms are more intense and difficult to manage; there are so many more extreme events. Between the droughts and the storms, the rainfall events, the floods, the farmers are noticing,” Peterson said.

While Holcombe is glad the MI Healthy Climate Plan addresses agriculture, she would like to see more detail.

“Like how are we going to do this? How are we going to fund this transition for farmers? What's the process?” she asked. “It's great that [agriculture] was at least mentioned; that means people are thinking about it. But we don't have a huge amount of time anymore.”


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