Pilot project to generate greenhouse gas credits from almonds, corn

Pilot project to generate greenhouse gas credits from almonds, corn

“We need to maximize the ability to produce food while minimizing the environmental footprint and do that in a sustainable matter.”

The Almond Board of California (ABC) is working with partners including the Environmental Defense Fund to start a pilot project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) which would give growers of almonds and corn greater access to greenhouse gas markets like those under California’s cap-and-trade program.

The $960,000 project is part of a $20.5 million allocation from the USDA Conservation Innovation Grant Program to help farmers and ranchers implement practices to make their operations more resilient to climate change.

Additional money from USDA sets aside $261,812 for incentives to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and nitrate leaching from almond orchards.

The second grant was part of the 2015 Specialty Crop Block Grant Program where California received $19.7 million out of approximately $63 million awarded nationwide.

The specialty funding project is aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and nitrate leaching in California tree nut orchards. It would quantify GHG emissions and water quality benefits from modified growing practices and carry out cost-benefit analyses for implementing such practices.

Growers could gather ground-based costs of implementation and build upon 10 years of existing ABC-funded nitrogen management and GHG research.

The conservation innovation grant will result in the first large-scale pilot project generating greenhouse gas credits from nutrient management practices in growing almonds and corn. The goal is for growers to enter the cap-and-trade market and sell carbon credits to companies and industries seeking to meet emissions targets.

Coming up with a protocol that would be approved by the California Air Resources Board will be challenging, says Gabrielle Ludwig, ABC’s director of sustainability and environmental affairs.

It is one reason the board has enlisted assistance from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Robert Parkhurst, its director of agriculture greenhouse gas markets. Parkhurst helped frame the 2006 legislation, AB 32, which opened the door to a carbon credits system.

The alliance between the board and EDF grew largely out of a meeting between Parkhurst, Ludwig, and others two years ago in Modesto, where Ludwig said she was highly impressed with Parkhurst’s understanding of carbon markets.

She and Parkhurst say that in order for an agricultural industry to carve out a GHG credits system that it would have to make economic sense to change practices to obtain certification to make sales.

“We need to maximize the ability to produce food while minimizing the environmental footprint and do that in a sustainable matter,” Parkhurst said.

“We can’t work against agriculture; we have to work with agriculture. They’re the ones getting their hands dirty and making it happen.”

EDF helped rice growers develop a carbon offset protocol that won air board approval in June.

“Rice was the first to go through this,” Ludwig said. “We’re riding on their coattails and sorting out what it takes for growers to participate.”

Parkhurst says developing the rice protocol was a challenge as the industry looked at ways to address methane issues created by the flooding of fields and anaerobic conditions. He says modifying practices was done in a way that took into account the beneficial aspects of having some standing water for bird populations.

“It’s a fabulous challenge, a multidimensional chess game,” Parkhurst said.

EDF touts other successes that include working with the Climate Action Reserve which approved a new protocol that rewards farmers for avoiding the conversion of grasslands to cropland.

It is hoped that a “fertilizer protocol” could be a part of the ARB system, and that the protocol could then be modified as needed for other cropping systems.

“The vast majority of crops use fertilizer,” Parkhurst said. “How can we leverage the similarities and respect the differences among crops with an umbrella protocol?”

Ludwig says challenges for agriculture include the fact it is not a “factory, smokestack” industry that can be more easily monitored. And she says many in California are wary of buying and selling of cap-and-trade credits and carbon offsets.

“They want to sure that every pound (of GHG) is being removed,” Ludwig said.

Agriculture’s move into the credit system would be a voluntary effort, says Ludwig, and there would have to be a certification system in place. Moreover, it would be necessary for growers to modify their current practices and quantify results.

It would not be enough, she says, for almond growers, for example, to simply point to a recently released report on research that showed that using byproducts from producing and harvesting almonds is a key to lowering the industry’s carbon emissions.

University of California researchers conducted what they called “a cradle to grave” look at the industry that showed almonds have a relatively small carbon footprint and that it could be further reduced with some changes in management practices.

In almond production, the emissions are largely from nitrous oxide, which is emitted when growers add nitrogen to the soil through the use of synthetic fertilizer. 

“Everybody is still learning in this process,” Ludwig said. “We hope that in the next three-to-six months we can outline something (as a protocol) and come back to the growers and try it out.”

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