Among the flurry of climate change legislation expected next year in Congress are a number of complicated proposals affecting American farmers. The agriculture sector is responsible for 7 percent of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions, but the USDA has calculated that none of those emissions are truly necessary. In fact, the USDA says, farming could be a carbon-neutral activity if farmers made some fundamental changes in how they worked the land. A dramatic change on that scale is unlikely, but the Des Moines Register has an illuminating feature on what is possible.

Farmers now receive an extremely modest stipend—no more than $2 an acre—for not tilling their soil, a technique that sequesters carbon below the surface, and also reduces erosion. Those payments may be hiked dramatically, and farmers may also be offered rewards for carbon-friendly practices like “converting cropland to grass, reducing the size of their herds, and using manure gas to power electric generators.” Under cap-and-trade legislation, companies and manufacturers generating too much carbon could buy offsets from farmers who have reduced their emissions. It’s an approach that sees farmers as part of the solution, not just as another carbon-spewing sector.

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