MINNEAPOLIS – Land O’Lakes touts its new agricultural carbon credits market as a “transformational” program rewarding farmers for adopting conservation practices while “incentivizing” corporations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But will it actually help address the climate crisis?
Last week, Land O’Lakes’ sustainability subsidiary, Truterra, announced a deal with Microsoft to “complete one of the largest soil carbon credit sales in the U.S.” Through the program, called TruCarbon, Microsoft will pay farmers $20 per ton for carbon credits if they’ve installed conservation practices such as cover crops or reduced tillage in the past five years.
But there are two problems with TruCarbon’s model: The verdict is still out on how effective farm conservation practices can be in sequestering carbon; and because Microsoft’s credits will be for farmers’ past practices, they will not facilitate real environmental benefits from new conservation initiatives.
The principle that carbon markets should ensure new emissions reductions is called additionality, and without it, a carbon credits program may actually delay real environmental progress, said EWG Midwest Director Jamie Konopacky.
“At best, TruCarbon represents a highly suspect step in the development of agricultural greenhouse gas markets, and, at worst, it represents serious backsliding from the principle of additionality,” Konopacky said. “The climate crisis requires immediate action based on sound science. We should not rush into obscure market transactions that may only serve to delay badly needed greenhouse gas reductions.”
Offset markets for farmers’ environmental practices are not new. In Wisconsin and Iowa, project leaders have been hard at work for years developing transparent and verifiable water quality credits for conservation practices on farms. Farmers have successfully sold water quality credits in local transactions and placed them for sale on statewide platforms. The sale of farm water quality credits has taken place within well-established frameworks that ensure the soundness of offset transactions.
In these programs, farmers can only sell credits generated through newly implemented practices. This requirement is based on the understanding that if credits are not based on new practices, money may change hands, but no environmental benefit will have been gained. The credit buyer, such as Microsoft, will have paid only for a pass to avoid implementing its own pollution reduction measures and, in turn, undermined and delayed environmental progress.
This same commitment must be carried over into greenhouse gas offset markets. The Truterra-Microsoft announcement flies in the face of the principle of additionality.
Framed as a “look-back program,” the proposed Truterra-Microsoft deal covers the sale of credits that may have been generated historically, over the past five years. Farmers that have worked hard to upgrade their stewardship should be acknowledged and potentially even rewarded for doing so. But past actions, especially those for which science has yet to provide a clear accounting of greenhouse gas benefits, cannot and should not be used as offsets by non-agricultural entities that need to reduce emissions beyond the current baseline to do their part in averting the climate crisis.
“The TruCarbon deal deserves even greater scrutiny as the new administration and Congress have both prioritized increasing access to and scaling up agricultural greenhouse gas markets,” said Konopacky. “Although much remains to be fleshed out in setting up successful agricultural offset markets, they must build upon and not backslide from the foundational principles established in other functioning ecosystem markets. This includes the principle that farm greenhouse gas credits sold to non-farm entities must be new and provide additional benefit beyond the status quo.”
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.