What is Low Carbon Agriculture?
Low carbon agriculture, otherwise known as low carbon farming, is a modern-day agricultural system that aims to combat the detrimental effects of climate change by decreasing carbon inputs and increasing carbon sequestration through updated management strategies. Low carbon agriculture seeks to protect and improve natural resource quality, enhance natural biodiversity, and increase crop and animal yields while taking steps toward a more sustainable future of food production.
Agriculture’s Contribution to Climate Change
The food production industry is a foundational component to limiting climate change in the future. Agricultural operations emitted over 9 billion tons of atmospheric carbon in 2018 alone – accounting for approximately 17% of global greenhouse gas emissions. While this figure was down from nearly 24% in 2000, the change primarily came from other industries increasing their CO2 emissions rather than the agricultural sector reducing its contribution.
Aside from CO2 emissions, the agriculture industry emits significant amounts of alternate greenhouse gases, including methane and nitrous oxide, with livestock production responsible for nearly two-thirds of the total. Nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides contributed to almost 13% of the total, while methane (CH4) emissions from global rice production accounted for another 10%.
There has been limited change in managing CO2 and non-CO2 GHG emissions in farming over the past 20 years, so agricultural producers must begin to take further steps toward lowering their contributions to climate change to meet global sustainability goals. While agricultural production is undoubtedly part of the climate problem, it can also be part of the solution.
What Are The Benefits of Low Carbon Agriculture
Low carbon agriculture plays a significant role in atmospheric carbon sequestration. Carbon dioxide is absorbed and used by crops through photosynthesis and stored as carbon byproducts in biomass such as roots, foliage, and soils. Agricultural plots uptake and hold a significant amount of the world’s carbon. In fact, soils are the largest terrestrial carbon sink on the planet, with a range of ability to sequester carbon depending on climate, soil type, crop type, vegetation cover, or tillage.
According to the US EPA, the forestry and agricultural industries sequester approximately 12% of the total carbon emissions from the transportation, energy, and industrial sectors. However, farmers and producers could increase that figure by introducing regenerative farming, better managing nutrients, and modernizing tilling and land management strategies.
Carbon sequestration benefits numerous industries, and they help governments and corporations by offering carbon market offsets.
Natural Resource and Environmental Protection
- By improving soil health and structure, soil erosion is less likely to occur – protecting natural waterways and native ecosystems from the chemicals, fertilizers, and residues that soil holds.
- Using less synthetic fertilizers and chemical products like pesticides and herbicides protects water resources above ground in natural waterways and below ground in natural aquifers. Aquifers become polluted when too many chemicals enter a system without enough aquifer recharge – making it critical to manage nutrients correctly. When an aquifer becomes contaminated, it is difficult to correct.
- Improving soil water retention and drainage with low-till systems and other land management practices improves natural resource sustainability.
- Ecosystem services and natural biodiversity improve through various processes, including crop diversification, reduced nutrient use, soil microbial community growth, and wildlife habitat protection.
- Locally, we see improvements in air quality when farmers use fewer fertilizers and chemical products and switch to renewable biofuels for vehicle and machinery operation.
What are the Challenges of Low Carbon Agriculture?
Adoption and Implementation
Among the most direct challenges of modern agriculture is getting farmers and producers to adopt and implement low carbon strategies. While there are numerous benefits of switching to a low-carbon system, the benefits often only present themselves in the long term – making it challenging to convince farmers to switch to updated systems.
Governments can help ensure farmers and producers a smooth transition by offering agricultural and technological subsidies that cover the initial losses of transitioning to a low-carbon system. Countries worldwide have committed to reducing their carbon footprint and overall greenhouse gas emissions, and among the most effective strategies in reducing emissions is introducing carbon trading. While subsidizing carbon-heavy industries is unarguably a successful tactic, few subsidies are in place to transition agricultural sectors to the same fate.
By providing compensation for reduced crop yields in the first years, decreased prices involved with crop diversification, and the upfront costs of low carbon technology and equipment, farmers would be far less hesitant to switch to a low-carbon system. With the farming industry accounting for just under 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions, it would be wise to introduce such subsidies on local and national levels.
Increased crop yields, protection of natural resources, and improved ecosystem services are just a few of the benefits of low-carbon farming. While these benefits are undeniable, it’s hard to monitor the progress made consistently with data – as most of the benefits of low carbon agriculture present themselves slowly over many years.
The Four Pillars of Low Carbon Agriculture
Nutrient management is a staple practice for farmers and food producers looking to reduce their carbon footprint or transition to a low-carbon system. Nutrients and fertilizers contribute to soil carbon sequestration by increasing biomass production and improving soil C:N ratios. Studies show that the best way to sequester carbon on farms is by combining mineral fertilizers with organic inputs such as crop residues – although increasing mineral inputs may lead to more significant alternate greenhouse gas emissions through biological outputs (particularly with N2O). Nutrient inputs must be balanced carefully to avoid the tradeoff between carbon sequestration and other GHG emissions.
When managed correctly, nutrients can reduce the overall decomposition of stable carbons in soil by increasing soil microbial production – allowing more atmospheric carbon uptake into soils and increasing biomass through crop yields and root systems. Soil strength and stability also increase when nutrient content is optimal, preventing detrimental soil erosion processes that produce significant carbon loads into natural systems.
Soil carbon sequestration compensates for nearly 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and that number could grow significantly with updated and improved nutrient management in agriculture.
According to a report published by the UN FAO, global livestock production accounts for nearly 15% of global human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Of that figure, beef cattle represented just under 50%. Most livestock GHG emissions stem from feed production, feed processing, animal digestion, and manure management – all of which farmers can manage to reduce GHG emissions through updated and modernized livestock farming practices.
While plenty of evidence suggests animal farming significantly contributes to global greenhouse gas emissions, few understand that farmers can utilize their livestock to sequester atmospheric carbon – offsetting additional GHG outputs from raising their animals.
Farmers and agricultural operations can restore soil health and productivity, develop ecosystem function, and improve agrosystem resiliency through proper grazing management. One such farm is White Oak Pastures in Georgia. Through planned grazing, they now sequester carbon at rates that offset 100% of their beef emissions and approximately 85% of the farm’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Their system works in three phases:
- The cows graze the grassland.
- The sheep and goats graze the weedy vegetation.
- The poultry grazes the roots, bugs, and grubs.
Each step in the system fertilizes the land in different ways. Together with other regenerative farming strategies, the farm optimizes soil productivity and carbon sequestration. Unlike other conventional beef and livestock operations, White Oak Pastures proves that farmers can manage livestock to have a minimal impact on global greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously improving soil health and increasing crop yields.
Soil and Grassland Management
Nearly 40% of the world’s soils are used as cropland or grassland – giving agriculture a pivotal role in global carbon sequestration goals. For years, farmers believed that conventional tillage would improve crop yields, soil health, and ecosystem services as long as they maintained the practice. However, no-till soil management and other conservation tillage practices promote these benefits more thoroughly over the longer term. One of the main benefits of conservation tillage? Soil carbon sequestration.
Managing soils with conservation tillage improves carbon sequestration primarily by minimizing soil disturbance.
Microbial biomass is one of the best soil health indicators, soil structure, and nutrient retention. When farmers use conventional tillage methods to manage their fields, they destroy the microbial communities within the soil, ultimately reducing the beneficial qualities seen from the microbes. However, conservation tillage isn’t the only way to protect and improve microbial communities. By implementing cover crops to conservation tillage or no-till systems, farmers can increase organic soil carbon and improve soil structure to improve water infiltration, drainage, and nutrient retention – all of which reduce the likelihood of soil erosion and carbon loss.
Renewable energy plays a significant role in agricultural production. Today, nearly 40% of farmers utilize biofuels, solar energy, wind energy, and geothermal energy to enhance their operations and reduce their carbon footprint. With technological advances at an all-time high in the renewable sector, farmers can now utilize renewable energy at an attractive price point, so we should expect to see the trend continue to grow for years to come.
Whether directly or indirectly, most farmers are in the business of producing renewable energy. Corn, soybeans, switchgrass, and various other crops and vegetation are all used to create biofuels – reducing the global use of fossil fuels. Additionally, farmers and producers who utilize biofuels themselves can reduce their carbon footprint drastically – in some cases creating a net-zero system.
Farmers can utilize solar energy in their operations in numerous ways: lighting, battery charging, water pumping, running small motors, powering electric fences, etc. However, one of the most beneficial areas for solar in agriculture is livestock and dairy operations. Dairy farms use a significant amount of energy to cool milk and heat water for cleaning equipment. The two activities alone account for 40% of a dairy farm’s total energy. By using solar systems to heat water instead of traditional fossil fuel-based heating systems, dairy producers can substantially decrease their consumption of non-renewables.
Wind energy is extremely useful in agricultural operations in locations that see adequate wind availability – which according to one study, accounts for up to 60% of the United States. In the past, wind turbines were too expensive to benefit small farmers, but times have changed. Today, small wind turbines are a cost-effective option to support agricultural operations – ranging in size to satisfy specific needs on a farm. A small turbine in the 0.4 – 1.5kw range can charge batteries and power low-energy lighting systems, while a 3 – 15kw turbine can handle larger loads like pumping water or grinding grain.
As technology advances and innovation continues, we can expect to see more farmers utilizing wind energy – with the hopes of eventually becoming entirely self-sufficient.