You could argue that a more comprehensive, albeit wonky, word for farmer is “nutrient steward.” Think about it. Farmers till the soil, manage the flow of water, and do much more to grow the food and fiber products that our society needs to stay fed and clothed.

Unfortunately, most farmers are only compensated for their final products, like corn and cotton. In reality, however, farmers are stewarding the nutrient processes that result in these end products. So why shouldn’t they be compensated for these services?

The current large-scale industrial agricultural approach relies on economies of scale and cheap fossil fuels to function. (“Industrial agriculture” emerged on a widespread basis after World War II, but its roots generally coincide with the Industrial Revolution.) The ultimate goal of this approach is to incentivize high yields from a small range of crops with slim profit margins. What this approach does is require farmers to focus on growing more—but not necessarily more nutritious—food.

Unfortunately, the focus on more and only more often comes at the expense of conservatively managing the inflow of nutrients and the resulting nutritional content of the food. “It’s helpful to think about the conditions necessary for the generation, preservation, and absorption of nutrients in the process of growing food,” says David Aylward, cofounder of the Nutrient Economy movement at Ashoka, a global organization that identifies and invests in leading social entrepreneurs.

“For decades, society has been asking farmers to grow greater quantities of food, and they’ve responded by increasing yields. However, what society is realizing is that more food isn’t necessarily going to solve our hunger problems, and our food-growing process is also creating unintended environmental consequences, such as exhausting the soil and polluting waterways.”

Essentially, by spending all their time focusing on growing more, farmers don’t necessarily think about the holistic management of nutrients on-site. Instead, they are focused pretty myopically on what much the market will compensate them in the near-term for higher yields.

When nutrients aren’t managed properly, they can get washed or blown off site in very short periods of time. When this happens, it means that most of these nutrients aren’t being absorbed into our food.

Additionally, soil doesn’t have a chance to regenerate, so farmers are forced to continue applying fertilizers (mostly with only a few nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorous) to overcompensate for the loss. Again, most of the nutrients from the fertilizers are not absorbed by the crop, and flow off site. It’s a vicious cycle.

These poor nutrient management techniques have already had severe environmental and social consequences globally, including the great U.S. dust bowl of the 1930s, and, more recently, massive plumes of nutrient runoff in areas like the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, which are creating huge marine dead zones.1 On the public health side, a slew of epidemics, including obesity and Type II diabetes, are also on the rise. These epidemics have been directly linked to the consumption of foods low in nutrition and high in saturated fats, refined carbohydrates, and sugar.


A tributary to the Chesapeake Bay, where a nutrient trading scheme operates across state lines and among the watershed’s nine major river basins.

So, what are the opportunities for nutrient stewards to maintain nutrient cycles, keep their land in balance, and produce more nutritionally rich food?

Farmers need clear signals from the market that will incentivize them to pay closer attention to maintaining the resilience of all the nutrient cycles that go into making the end product. “We need a new business model for the nutrient farmer, one that pays them for the range of ecosystem benefits, including carbon sequestration, that their lands provide,” Aylward says.

But it’s not just about consumers demanding more nutritious food products. Resilient nutrient stewardship, including carbon sequestration and water flow management, can provide broad benefits to society. Already, there are some government programs that compensate farmers for adopting these practices.

For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture offers a number of programs that compensate farmers for a variety of land stewardship activities. These include the Conservation Reserve Program, a voluntary program that compensates farmers for periods of 10 to 15 years and for up to 50 percent of the cost of establishing approved conservation practices. For the most part, however, these programs don’t measure quantitative outputs in nutrient reduction.

These programs also have limited funding, and more private sector capital is needed to really change the system in a dramatic way. The good news is that more market-based approaches are beginning to gain traction all over the globe, which could potentially increase the amount of capital flowing into the conservation and restoration of ecosystems that will help to create more effective nutrient retention. These are often collectively referred to as “ecosystem service markets.”2

Buyers in these markets include corporations, governments, non-profit organizations, and individuals that have various voluntary and regulatory reasons for investing in the conservation or restorations of nutrient flows, like meeting greenhouse gas emissions reduction or nutrient reduction goals. All over the globe, various stakeholders are experimenting with these ecosystem market-based approaches, including nutrient trading, payments for watershed services, and carbon offsets.

One of these approaches involves stakeholders in the Chesapeake Bay area (the most productive estuarine system in the United States) that are working to establish a bay-wide nutrient trading market for the Chesapeake Bay watershed, allowing credits to be exchanged across state lines and among the watershed’s nine major river basins. Essentially, under a nutrient trading scheme, certain nutrient sources, such as municipal and industrial wastewater discharge facilities, are given the option to purchase nutrient load reductions from off-site sources (like farms) that reduce loads by more than the requirement and have “excess reduction” available.

The regulatory driver behind this approach is the Clean Water Act. In December 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency, in response to pollution problems, and pursuant to the requirements of the Act, established what is called a “Total Maximum Daily Load” (TMDL) for the Chesapeake Bay. This TMDL sets load limits (to be achieved by 2025) on the annual amount of nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment that may enter the Bay from each of its main tributaries.

The challenge with the nutrient cap-and-trade approach is to ensure that it is more cost effective than the entities simply reducing nutrient runoff on-site, in addition to ensuring that the off-site nutrient reduction strategies are certain and verifiable.

Beyond the Chesapeake Bay, hundreds of landowners globally are already receiving payments for voluntary carbon offsets associated with sequestering carbon on their properties.

The Ecosystem Marketplace is a great resource for keeping up-to-speed on the development of these market-based incentives.

This post was first published on Ashoka Changemakers, as part of the launch of its Nutrients for All campaign, and was republished with permission.


Logan Yonavjak

Logan Yonavjak has been an independent consultant since 2012. She has worked with HIP Investor, Inc. applying their triple bottom line scorecard methodology, as well as the Conservation Private Capital...

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