Are Companies Using Carbon Markets in the US to Sell Pesticides? | Civil Eats

Are Companies Using Carbon Markets to Sell More Pesticides?

Many programs meant to help farmers address climate change are now owned by companies that sell chemicals, which could boost practices that depend on pesticides rather than those that reduce their use.

a tractor sprays pesticides on a field while hazard symbols fade into the distance. (Civil Eats illustration)

Last summer, two men shouted friendly greetings from golf carts as they zipped around a field-turned-parking lot, fetching farmers at pick-up trucks and dropping them in front of a barn. It was the annual field day at The Mill, a popular Mid-Atlantic retailer of agricultural products including seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides.

First, the farmers embarked on a wagon tour. One stop showed off a soybean yield trial. At another, a scientist presented research on a new class of nitrogen-fixing inputs. During a demo of a drone spraying a pesticide over rows of corn, the operators laughed as a gentle breeze blew the mist toward the onlookers. “Don’t worry, it’s just water!” they yelled.

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Back at the barn, companies that sell their products at The Mill had set up folding tables to talk to farmers and hand out swag. Land O’Lakes, the company known to most Americans only as a longtime purveyor of butter wrapped in bright yellow packaging, had two adjoining tables showcasing two of its more specialized businesses: pesticides and carbon markets.

At those tables, farmers could grab an Advanced Acre Rx hat from WinField United, Land O’Lakes’ seed and chemical company, and a water bottle emblazoned with the logo for Truterra, its carbon market platform, in one fell swoop.

The display exemplified how, as Land O’Lakes’ annual report laid out earlier that year, the agricultural giant is marketing enrollment in a climate-smart farming initiative alongside its biggest profit driver: pesticides and seeds.

Screenshot from Land O' Lakes' 2022 annual report that describes how the company's teams at Truterra and WinField United worked together on soil health and carbon markets.

In this screenshot from Land O’Lakes’ 2022 Annual Report, the company describes how its “teams at Truterra and WinField United worked together to blaze a trail for farmers to improve their soil health and potentially become eligible for future market opportunities.”

Land O’Lakes’ Truterra is unique in some ways, but it also fits the mold of what agricultural carbon markets have come to look like across the country over the last few years.

Carbon markets were first created decades ago as a means for companies to offset their greenhouse gas emissions by paying to reduce emissions somewhere else. Think: planting trees that hold carbon in South America to balance emissions from a factory in South Carolina.

While the highest-profile carbon markets are run by public entities like the state of California, many of the agricultural markets that have made more recent progress are run by powerful companies that are in the business of selling pesticides and fertilizers.

And over the last several years, policymakers, environmental and farm groups, and private companies began hyping the idea that specific markets could be created to pay farmers for adopting practices that could reduce emissions and hold carbon in soil. Flashy startups including Nori and Indigo Ag jumped into the game, Democrats included the idea in their 2020 plan to address the climate crisis, and a bitterly divided Congress passed the Growing Climate Solutions Act on a bipartisan basis in an effort to jump-start the markets.

As a result, a new era of paying farmers for carbon-holding practices became the talk of many farm conferences and climate panels, where the same points came up over and over. Spreading regenerative practices that build soil carbon across more cropland would produce so many other benefits, advocates said. Farmers would be able to hold water and nutrients in the soil, reduce pollution, and increase biodiversity. And over time, not only would they access a new source of revenue, regenerative practices would allow farmers to cut costs as they decreased the use of chemicals—including pesticides and fertilizer—producing yet another environmental win. In 2021, for example, The New York Times put that narrative in print by featuring a carbon-market farmer who had stopped tilling, diversified his crops, and planted cover crops, eventually building his soil health enough to completely eliminate the use of synthetic fertilizer.

However, while the highest-profile carbon markets are run by public entities like the state of California or New England’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), many of the agricultural markets that have made more recent progress are run by powerful companies—including Bayer, Corteva Agriscience, and Land O’Lakes—that are in the business of selling those same pesticides and fertilizers.

In addition, even the independent platforms are now working closely with the same companies. Indigo launched a partnership with Corteva in 2021. (Last month, journalists at Bloomberg reported that the company and other startups that set out to disrupt bigger, traditional agriculture companies have struggled to connect with farmers on their own.) Meanwhile, close to half of the credits Nori has paid out to date have gone to Bayer’s enrolled farmers. Seventy-five percent of the credits Nori currently has available for buyers are linked to Bayer’s platform.

“Partnering with Bayer allowed Nori to scale and accelerate the impact we’re able to make, compared to what we could have accomplished by enrolling individual farmers one by one,” Radhika Moolgavkar, Nori’s VP of supply and methodology, said in an email. “We believe that to foster large-scale adoption of these practices, programs like Bayer Carbon are required to help with the monetary hurdles to transitioning to regenerative practices.”

However, others are concerned about the influence pesticide companies are exerting within the growing landscape of paying farmers for carbon, especially as taxpayer money floods in to boost their efforts and farmer field data becomes more and more valuable.

“From their perspective, these are future clients, or they may be existing clients,” said Ben Lilliston, the director of rural strategies and climate change at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “They’re getting a tremendous amount of data from the farmer-participants. It puts them in a very strong position to help farmers manage whatever they’re dealing with on their farm, beyond climate-related stuff. It’s kind of a win-win: Get a farmer in the program, get the information, and get to sell them seeds or pest control.”

“It’s kind of a win-win: Get a farmer in the program, get the information, and get to sell them seeds or pest control.”

Bayer, for example, has linked its carbon program to other data platforms that drive product sales. And while many practices shown to hold the most carbon—like agroforestry and organic systems—can reduce or eliminate the need for pesticides over time, companies in the business of selling the chemicals are unlikely to recommend them, environmental groups say.

In fact, the two practices that dominate current markets—no-till and cover crops—require herbicides to succeed in the way they’re practiced on most commodity farms. Farmers use herbicides to kill weeds that they could otherwise till under and to kill cover crops before planting a cash crop. And most soil scientists agree that the jury is still out on whether those practices can hold carbon at a depth and for long enough to create meaningful climate outcomes.

New (Carbon) Markets for Products

When Land O’Lakes launched Truterra in 2016, the company set it up to leverage the power of its network of 60 agricultural retailers, which altogether have about 1,000 locations across the country, said Tom Ryan, Truterra’s former president, in an interview last year.

“Farmers place a great deal of trust in their seed dealers,” said Ryan. Those seed dealers, when they recommend products made by companies like Land O’Lakes WinField United, are uniquely suited to also convince farmers to sign on to programs that will pay them to adopt practices with environmental benefits, such as planting cover crops. And recommending the right products at the same time helps the farmers succeed at implementing those practices, he said.

The way Bayer engaged with the stores that sell its inputs was also what caught the attention of Jason Davidson, a food and agriculture campaigner at the environmental advocacy organization Friends of the Earth.

Davidson’s interest was piqued by a 2018 column published in a trade publication. In the article, journalist Paul Schrimpf wrote about a buzzy topic retailers were discussing at multiple industry events. Schrimpf explained that Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) had started including a data product called Climate FieldView in its rebate bundles, meaning retailers would have to also sell a certain number of FieldView subscriptions alongside seeds and pesticides to get company rebates they had long relied on. Many farmers, he wrote, still didn’t want to pay for the program, and he predicted retailers might consider eating the cost and enrolling them so they wouldn’t lose the rebate.

“That got us thinking, ‘Why, in this decade, are pesticide companies all of a sudden super interested in data?’” said Davidson, who later co-authored a report on the topic that was released last year. “I think it’s pretty safe to argue that Bayer and other pesticide manufacturers were interested in data because they saw it as a way to potentially increase sales.”

Bayer’s own documents seem to back that argument up. In its 2022 annual report, Bayer said Climate FieldView “enables us to use novel modeling to make custom product recommendations that are precisely tailored to each individual field. With these insights we can maximize the value of our seed and chemistry portfolio, help farmers expand participation in the carbon markets and food, feed, fiber, and fuel value chains, and lead Bayer toward digitally enabled business models and new opportunities for growth.”

In another presentation that year, the company reported that corn seed customers who used FieldView planted Bayer corn seeds at a higher seeding rate compared to the national average and those who opted for the premium FieldView Plus version generated 5 percent higher sales.

Today, farmers who want to enroll in Bayer’s carbon market have to first enroll in Climate FieldView. In an email, a Bayer spokesperson said its platform collects data that’s needed to calculate carbon sequestration and register carbon credits. “As with all Climate FieldView digital ag platform initiatives, the grower always owns their own data and controls who they choose to share that data with,” he said.

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In addition to being the place where farmers input data that will allow them to get paid for carbon, the program recommends planting protocols and offers product discounts. In 2020, Reuters reported that Bayer offered farmers the option to get paid for their carbon in credits for more Bayer products. When asked if the company still offered that option, the spokesperson said Bayer pays growers in cash, “never in product credits.”

The spokesperson did not specifically answer whether farmers enrolled in its carbon program purchased more Bayer products but said, “While Bayer has a broad selection of industry-leading crop protection, seed and seed treatment products, growers are not required to purchase crop protection, seed, or seed treatment products to participate.”

Last year, the company outlined in a press release how it planned to “capitalize on opportunities presented by the shift to regenerative agriculture.” Carbon farming and digital platforms were on a list of market opportunities expected to generate more than $100 billion. “Importantly, by the middle of the next decade, Bayer envisions shaping regenerative agriculture on more than 400 million acres, built on the foundation of its leading agriculture input solutions,” it wrote.

A screenshot of an email sent to Bayer ForGround participants titled

A screenshot of an email sent to Bayer ForGround participants titled “Tips for Herbicide & Fungicide Applications” and with the sub-headline of “top tips and trends in reduced tillage, cover crops and carbon.”

That’s the rub, many environmental advocates and sustainable agriculture experts say: A market truly dedicated to helping farmers move the needle on climate would be grounded in helping farmers reduce fossil fuel-derived inputs over time, thereby reducing resource use, minimizing other environmental impacts, and saving them money.

“There’s a clear conflict of interest if you’re manufacturing a product and then making agronomic recommendations. We are really concerned about the idea that the companies that are manufacturing seeds and pesticides that are used together to make certain products—like neonicotinoid seed coatings—ubiquitous in industrial agriculture, that they are going to be collecting farm data and then using that data to make specific recommendations on how to farm,” Davidson said. “Even though the companies tout precision agriculture and data broadly as a way to reduce inputs, it’s really hard to imagine a world in which manufacturers of a product are going to tell their customers to buy and use less of their products.”

In response to a question about whether the platforms are used to sell farmers WinField United inputs, a Land O’Lakes spokesperson said that Truterra prohibits the use of farmer data for sales and marketing targeting. “Truterra’s programs focus on making practice changes that are best for the farmer and that means agronomically, economically, and environmentally,” they said.

Paying Only for Practices That Rely on Pesticides

Despite years of buzz about agricultural carbon markets, it’s hard to find farmers willing to talk about the experience of actually enrolling and participating.

“Part of it is just that your average farmer is not going to scream it from the rooftop,” said Aaron Shier, the government relations director at the National Farmers Union (NFU), and some of the markets likely come with confidentiality clauses. Still, Shier said that overall, not many NFU farmers are participating. The Iowa Farmers Union told Civil Eats the same. Both organizations, and other farmers we spoke to, said the main reason is the payments are still too low and unpredictable.

“It’s not worth my time,” said Josh Manske, who manages commodity grain fields in Iowa and Southern Minnesota. “Everybody’s getting a huge cut, and we’re left with the pennies.” And while Shier said he hadn’t heard any complaints around farmer data being used to lock in input purchasing or exert control over farmers, he said that “data privacy is very important to our members.”

The heavy lift involved in entering data was a big piece of conversations researchers at Hamilton College in upstate New York had with 17 row crop farmers—some conventional farmers participating in the markets and some certified organic farmers who weren’t eligible—in 2021.

In a paper published last fall, they shared major themes from those conversations, one of which centered on the farmers’ concerns around which practices are rewarded.

While the organic farmers were more worried that carbon markets would only support a small group of practices with climate benefits, both groups “raised concerns that carbon markets would inadequately support a full range of beneficial soil management practices,” the researchers wrote. “Some of these concerns focused on concerns that markets would incentivize activities that required heavy chemical inputs, which a farmer would have to purchase from a chemical company.”

Currently, Bayer, Corteva, and Truterra’s markets all pay farmers primarily to adopt no-till systems and to plant cover crops.

And there is a long history of companies using those specific practices to market pesticides linked to serious health risks. For example, as far back as the 1970s, Chevron Chemical promoted paraquat—an herbicide the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls “highly poisonous” that is now linked to Parkinson’s disease risk and banned in dozens of countries—as a tool to convert to no-till farming. Farmers still use paraquat as an alternative to tilling for weed control in the U.S., and Syngenta’s website lists the chemical’s use in no-till systems as a key benefit.

For cover crops, standard practice is to kill the plants with a glyphosate-based herbicide before planting a cash crop like corn or soy. For example, on Corteva’s website, the company recommends its herbicide products that mix glyphosate with 2,4-D and lists “Don’t cut herbicide rates” as one key to cover crop success. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer in humans, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies it as a “probable carcinogen,” based especially on its potential link to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

CropLife America, the pesticide industry’s trade association, has dubbed no-till and cover crops “pesticide-enabled” farming practices. “Pesticides allow for sustainable conservation practices, such as no-till and cover crops, to successfully exist,” it says on its website.

Organic farmers who have long planted cover crops without chemical pesticides and some of whom practice no-till farming with a roller-crimper would disagree. But their practices, which have been shown to push carbon deeper into the soil, where it tends to stay put for longer, are typically not represented in these markets, which are designed to reward individual improvements to the standard row crop system.

CropLife America, the pesticide industry’s trade association, has dubbed no-till and cover crops “pesticide-enabled” farming practices.

And while cover crops and no-till practices both deliver multiple proven environmental benefits such as reducing soil erosion and nutrient runoff and holding water on farms, many soil scientists say their ability to meaningfully fix carbon in soil over time is not yet well-established due to questions around depth, permanence, and saturation.

Truterra is going beyond those two practices, and one of the new programs Tom Ryan, Truterra’s former president, was most excited to talk about last year was adding nitrogen management to the practices the platform would pay for. (Bayer also added nitrogen management to its program this year.)

In addition to harming health, rural economies, and wildlife due to water pollution, excess nitrogen applied to farm fields also creates emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that has 300 times more global warming impacts than carbon dioxide. As a result, unlike the as-yet-unknown climate potential of cover crops and no-till, reducing nitrogen fertilizer application has clear potential to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions.

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Still, Truterra’s nitrogen management program allows farmers to either reduce fertilizer or add a “stabilizer,” another product that helps prevent nitrogen leaching. Given the choice of which to recommend, it’s hard to imagine a retailer telling a farmer to buy less fertilizer, because doing so could reduce their yields (although stabilizers can help reduce the amount of fertilizer needed). Land O’Lakes’ spokesperson did not share specific data on which path farmers are choosing, saying some “use one or the other or both to best meet the specific needs of their fields.” The spokesperson added that farmers can choose any stabilizer, not just one made by WinField United, to qualify.

Land O’Lakes is specifically marketing enrollment in Truterra in conjunction with WinField United’s Advanced Acre Rx, a product that involves using a farmer’s data to recommend specific seeds, nutrients, herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides and includes “season-long support from your local ag input retailer.” When a farmer is setting out to implement climate-smart practices, Ryan said, “We have to help them build that plan, which includes products.” Advanced Acre Rx is a prescription system that is sold as a way to target inputs for greater efficiency. Bayer also pointed to its resources that help farmers optimize and target inputs.

Impacting the Bigger Picture

Outside of the carbon markets run by pesticide companies, there are other platforms working to reward a wider swath of practices that provide climate benefits while also reducing crop inputs. Nori has one organic farmer enrolled in its market, for example, while Carbon Harvest is setting up a market to pay small farms to implement agroforestry projects.

But the Hamilton College researchers said the farmers in their study expressed concerns that chemical companies “could be involved in setting national government standards for carbon markets, which would then skew all carbon markets toward a specific style of farming and ignore other beneficial practices for carbon sequestration.”

One set of standards is already in the works, and the process is happening partially as a result of lobbying by pesticide companies and the wider agricultural industry.

Representative Abigail Spanberger (D-Virginia) first introduced the Growing Climate Solutions Act to initiate U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversight of carbon markets in 2020. It became a top priority for the industry, and in April 2022, CropLife America’s president and CEO Chris Novak praised the reintroduction of the act.

“The Growing Climate Solutions Act offers meaningful progress toward enabling farmer and landowner participation in voluntary carbon markets,” he said in a statement. “Regenerative farming practices such as no-till farming, conservation tillage, and the use of cover crops are made possible through the use of pesticides.” Bayer, Corteva, and Land O’Lakes all supported the bill, which Congress ultimately passed as part of a spending package at the end of 2022.

Now, the USDA is working to fulfill the requirements of the law. In October, it published a broad assessment of agriculture and carbon markets, followed by a February report explaining the next steps, including that it will evaluate the current carbon market protocols, determine which technical assistance providers are qualified to be listed by the agency, and create resources for farmers to navigate the landscape. At the end of May, the agency solicited public comment on those next steps as part of a larger Biden administration announcement around its policies and principles on voluntary carbon markets (which go beyond but include agriculture).

In an interview, Robert Bonnie, the Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation at the USDA, said the process for getting companies to share their specific protocols is still being worked out and public comments will help shape it. “Yes, we’re going to need information, we’re going to need to understand what’s behind them,” he said. “The critical part of all of this is that the public, consumers, investors, everybody has confidence that there’s going to be real gains to the climate as we undertake these practices and that the value in the marketplace is real.”

As to the various criticisms around companies that manufacture inputs running carbon markets, Bonnie said private sector investment is crucial to achieving climate progress on farms. “It’s really, really beneficial to have companies out there that are looking for ways to develop technologies and innovations that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and maintain agricultural productivity. That’s a good thing. We want that,” he said. “I think it puts a very high priority on making sure that the work we do around protocols is transparent and that we do this in a way that maintains public confidence.”

Bonnie said that the agency’s work on carbon markets fits into the larger picture at the USDA, where the agency is using many different tools to support climate-smart practices. “We’re trying to create value for farmers, ranchers, and forest owners that undertake climate-smart practices,” he said.

The crown jewel of that picture is Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s $3 billion Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities Program. When the agency solicited input on how to structure that program, CropLife America submitted a letter once again emphasizing the connection between climate-smart farming and pesticides.

“Reduced or no-till soil management and the use of cover crops are two critically important . . . practices that are enabled by pesticide tools,” it read. “There have been significant climate and soil quality benefits from these . . . practices (enabled by pesticide tools) to date, but there is great opportunity for increasing the scale and impact of these practices.”

One company already working to realize that opportunity is Truterra, which the USDA awarded $90 million in Climate-Smart Commodities funds. In September 2022, when Vilsack attended a Truterra kick-off event, it was held at the WinField United Innovation Center. In its agreement with the USDA, Truterra emphasized the impact its connection to the company would have, noting that it is “the largest U.S. distributor of crop inputs” and that its crop input services reach roughly half of harvested cropland acres in the country.

In response to the question of whether, at the core, one goal of carbon markets should be to reduce farm inputs including fossil fuel-derived pesticides and fertilizers, Bonnie said in some cases it may make sense but that in others, beneficial new products could be a better answer.

“We want to keep our eye on the prize here, and it may be that there that there are systems where reducing inputs or changing the mix of inputs or using inputs that enhance efficiency . . . allow us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining productivity. In many places, that’s part of the mix. But we’re not here trying to limit inputs per se, we’re trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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  1. Milt Voss
    What about all the no till farms that don’t get a carbon payout. Those old school no till guys have been building carbon reserves for 20 years or more.
  2. Elizabeth Henderson
    Thank you for helping us understand this corporate profit landscape. Adding some data on how much farmers receive in payments from carbon markets would be a useful addition. When I pencilled it out for Indigo a few years ago, I was surprised at how low the price per ton if CO2 turned out to be. That price was also much lower than the company's internal value of a ton of CO2!

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