The Corn Belt Is Losing Topsoil, Increasing Carbon Emissions and Lowering Yields

One promising front, Basso said, is in the realm of digital agriculture, or “using digital and geospatial technologies to monitor, assess, and manage land.” Using tools like drones and satellites to monitor the productivity of their land over time, farmers can assess which areas are producing high yields and which parts (such as hilltops) are simply washing away.

“We learned that there are parts of fields that constantly underperform,” Basso said. “If you continue to do management in a uniform fashion, you basically overestimate [crop yields] in some areas and underestimated in others.” Using the tools of digital agriculture, he said, is “a little bit more like precise medicine.”

Ideally, Basso said, the entire region would be managed at a landscape scale. Using the tools of digital agriculture, some high-yield zones for crops would be farmed, while others would be good places to restore native prairie to control erosion, sequester carbon, and support biodiversity.

The problem with this approach is largely financial. For a farmer, restoring their land to prairie doesn’t pay the bills, and letting it regenerate with a cover crop, though it may save them the cost of fertilizer in the long run, can have a greater upfront cost.

One mechanism to incentivize farmers to bring the land back into balance is a carbon market for range and farmlands. In the carbon market, people who are protecting or restoring land that captures carbon can sell that service as a carbon credit to companies that emit carbon. However, critics point to past failures of carbon credit schemes to achieve actual meaningful emissions reductions and advocate instead for a focus on lowering emissions.

Basso is also a co-founder of CIBO, a company developing a dashboard that allows farmers in some regions to see the potential of their land for carbon capture, as well as how long it may take for land being farmed with regenerative methods (such as no-till and cover crops) to begin capturing carbon.

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