Fertilizer use is key to increasing the productivity necessary for farms to feed rising populations. However, not using the right amount in the right place at the right time is one of the biggest threats to a stable climate. Nitrogen fertilizer not used by crops emits nitrous oxide, a heat-trapping gas 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. It also contaminates water supplies, causes algae blooms downstream and erodes soil health.
So, it was welcome news last week when the first greenhouse gas credits for fertilizer efficiency made their debut in the North American carbon market.
The American Carbon Registry issued the credits to Myron Ortner, a central Michigan farmer who voluntarily reduced nitrous oxide emissions from his crops by modifying his fertilizer use. Working closely with researchers at Michigan State University, Ortner tested fertilizer inputs on a 40-acre plot where he grows corn and soybeans in rotation. In an interview with Scientific American, he said he’s down to using 135 pounds of fertilizer per acre, less than the average 200.
"I found out we can use less nitrogen and get away with it through those studies," Ortner told the publication. "I want a few more years on it before I'm going to commit all my acres to it, but I don't think I've lost any yield by doing what we're doing."
The MSU-Ortner project demonstrates that farmers, through improved nitrogen application efficiency, can save money on fertilizer inputs, reduce GHG emissions without reducing crop yields, and be compensated for the GHG emissions reductions they create.
Just as importantly, the project demonstrates the large-scale contributions agriculture can make toward achieving GHG emission reductions through offset markets. Scaled up to just 15 percent of all acres growing corn in the U.S., the project could eliminate almost 600,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, the equivalent of removing 125,000 passenger vehicles from the road.
And that’s just for corn! By connecting more of the agriculture industry with environmental markets, such as California’s carbon market, farmers and ranchers can drive serious improvements in climate resilience and be compensated for their contributions.
As agriculture ramps up to feed an estimated 9 billion people in the next 35 years, carbon markets have a huge role to play in helping producers meet this challenge while nourishing the natural systems we all need to survive.