Water was pouring onto the kitchen floor out of the recessed lighting above.

I ran upstairs to see the bathroom sink spilling over, soaking through the flooring and making its way down through the ceiling below. The faucet had been left running—by whom we may never know—though for the kids’ sake we can blame it on our imaginary dog.

Did we grab towels and soak up the overflow?

Of course. But first?

We turned off the faucet.

Climate is about more than just soil health and sequestration

The current conversation surrounding climate and agriculture is a little heavy on the towels and not enough about finding ways to turn off more faucets.

Carbon sequestration—the ability to lock away carbon in the soil through minimizing tillage and increased cover crop adoption— has proven benefits. But emerging climate solutions must value not only Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) that are sequestered, but must also incentivize new ways of avoiding emissions and remain open to a variety of potential approaches.

My above analogy is imperfect, because it suggests a certain negligence on the part of whoever left the sink running (that darn dog). The opposite is true within production agriculture.

U.S. agriculture has been turning off the faucet for decades

U.S. agriculture has been moving toward greater levels of environmental stewardship for decades.

Since 1980, rice farmers in the United States have decreased greenhouse gas emissions by at least 41% for every pound of rice produced while reducing energy use by over 30% and cutting water use in half. This is made possible by the ingenuity and stewardship of farmers, innovation by private industry, and the support of the USDA, the Agricultural Research Service, University research programs, and vital government conservation programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). 

On the ground support is imperative. The Rice Stewardship Partnership, an RCPP based program, as one example, is bringing together public and private resources and incentivizing and supporting farmers as they grow in their conservation efforts on over 700,000 acres across rice growing states.

Research is playing a vital role. A multi-year research project by the ARS and the University of Arkansas using high-tech methane measurement tools at my family’s farm has identified practices that can reduce methane production by 60%. This is a key step forward in moving rice production to an even higher level of environmental efficiency.

We’ve been sequestering carbon and building soil health too. Minimum tillage and no-till are widely adopted among rice farmers.  On our farm we have built organic matter on some fields to higher than 7%.

Next-level efficiencies and emerging technologies

Emerging practices and technologies enable even higher levels of efficiency. Row rice irrigation and alternate wetting and drying in rice fields are gaining more adoption and proving effective. Targeted applications of nutrients are ensuring that only what the plants need is applied. And even machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) are playing a role in bringing this all together, helping identify new opportunities and efficiencies never previously thought possible.

But strides toward higher levels of sustainability are not without cost or risk. And reaching these next level efficiencies and ensuring agriculture plays a key role in the climate solutions of tomorrow will require that both private industry and government remain open minded.

Carbon markets could play a role, but they could also prove the Rube-Goldberg machine of climate policy – an overly complex tool to accomplish what could more simply be done through existing programs.

What is certain is this: soil health and carbon sequestration are incredibly important, but they cannot be our only focus. A myopic approach to climate policy will not only exclude multiple crops and regions, but would also neglect transformative opportunities for creating a diverse portfolio of solutions. 

I know that agriculture can play a role in tackling climate change, and I know this because data, science, and experience show me that agriculture already is.

Whatever policy emerges from evolving climate conversations must prioritize the role of existing working lands programs, ensure equitable distribution of value, and ensure that farmers have a strong voice in shaping the policy. Above all, any programs that emerge from new policy must be voluntary.

The consequences of getting this wrong are dire. Imprudent policy could have the unintended consequence of shifting production overseas and away from the well-regulated, predictable, and sustainable supply of domestically produced food. It could also mean lost time, wasted resources, and distorted markets.

But the right approach can build on the successes that farmers have already seen and unleash a new wave of climate solutions we haven’t yet imagined.

For the sake of the better world that I would like to leave my children (the ones that definitely didn’t leave the water running in the upstairs sink), I hope we get this right.

For more news, go to www.agri-pulse.com.

Mark Isbell is a 4th generation rice farmer from Lonoke County, Arkansas. Mark is a recognized volunteer leader in the rice industry and is an active member of the USA Rice Federation and has worked widely on sustainability and climate-change solutions within agriculture. He is a partner in Isbell Farms with his father, mother, cousin, and brother-in-law and resides in North Little Rock, Arkansas, with his wife, Marda, his son, Sam, and his daughter, Nora.