Low carbon agriculture – the next conundrum

When I began to think about a suitable article to pen as my last contribution to this newsletter, the obvious choice was low carbon agriculture. This is of personal interest to me as I  switch my focus to sustainable agriculture at my organic farm just outside Salzburg, Austria. We are in the process of transforming a conventional farm into a fully organic-farm run according to permaculture principles.  While I will always be a climate activist at heart, I am excited to get my hands dirty and experiment on the ground with low carbon techniques so as to add my own contribution to the agro climate dilemma.

What are the problems with agricultural emissions?

It’s well documented that agriculture is one of the highest GHG emitting sectors on the planet, and some of the reasons for that I have scratched a list below. It is in no way definitive:

  • By far the largest part of agricultural emissions come from the production of meat or milk. In particular red meat (beef) – that generates enteric methane – a highly potent greenhouse gas that is up to 84 times more harmful than CO2.
  • Changes we make to land to create grazing for animals or arable cropping by deforesting existing land has drastic consequences.
  • Many off-farm activities are responsible for increasing agriculture’s carbon emissions, most notably fertilizer productions and the nitrous oxide emissions related.
  • And finally on-farm activities that require large amounts of energy (from fossil fuel sources), for example with irrigation systems or heating of greenhouses.

What can be done?

EAT LESS MEAT! ESPECIALLY RED MEAT

It is incredibly difficult to reduce emissions within the agricultural sector and it is a topic that has been challenging many in Europe and beyond to come up with solutions for years.  The hard reality of the situation is that the sector will struggle to achieve major cuts as long as industrial style farming is encouraged by the consumption models it supports. And this will only end when people in developed (and emerging) economies realise that the current demand/supply system on food in the long term is unsustainable and needs to change.  Take for example a recent report on how soy is grown for chicken feed for many UK supermarkets and McDonalds on deforested land in Brazil. These are only a handful of the mal-practices that have been uncovered, and for chicken production no less; if we add cows into this equation the problem is multiplied to uncountable levels.

Studies have found that if the meat eating public around the world would reduce red meat from their diet, there would be significant reduction in emissions. Eating red meat only once a week could equal a 58% reduction in agriculture GHGs globally. This is off course easier said than done, this is a lifestyle choice that so far the mass general public have not made and are also not being encouraged widely enough to make.

SHIFT ECONOMIC INDICATORS AWAY FROM HIGH PROTEIN DIETS

The developed world can no longer promote an over-consuming, meat-intensive protein diet and still think we can reach our climate goals. Western affluence and the associated eating behaviours have influenced emerging and developing societies that aspire to eat in the same way, increasing obesity and  heart disease along the way. Is it any wonder why so many are scared of pandemics now and in the future? The overall unhealthy lifestyle many have set as our indicator for success decreases our chances of survival in the long run.

CUT OUT FERTILIZERS

One of the largest sources of emissions coming downstream in agriculture is the fertilizer production.  This practice of using fertiliser to power the future growth in our farming sector is quickly becoming outdated as societies realise the long-term productivity damage mono-cropping and the corresponding chemical infused soil cycles have each year.  There are several up and coming ideas that help to address this issue, like for example nitrogen fixing bacteria that can dramatically reduce the need for fertilizers. However as is the case in so many areas of climate action, this poses a business threat to incumbents and so the path to market is often fraught with challenges.

MORE PARTICIPATION IN AGROECOLOGY

As the limits on our natural systems are ever more stretched agriculturalist must look to the future with an open mind.We need a new low carbon sustainable agricultural revolution supported by government programmes and people from all walks of life involved, decentralised to small retained, better managed holdings with healthy biodiversity that can adapt better to the changing climate.  And finally, as this farming becomes less impactful to the environment, consumers also need to be aware of the real cost of food; we need to find a way to price it accordingly and not continue to subsidise bad practice out of habit. In Europe it is hugely important to get the common agricultural policy more aligned to agroecology for the years ahead.

CLEAN ENERGY ON FARM

While it would be extremely difficult to power a farm 100% without the use of fossil fuels today, it shouldn’t mean it’s not our goal for tomorrow. If there are plans to power aircraft with hydrogen fuel-cells in the future, surely someone can do the same with a tractor? Anything is possible, but first we must tackle the things we can do in the short term to reduce emissions on the farm, for example with renewable energy to power irrigation systems or heat the greenhouse. This is all within reach but must be incentivized rapidly. Another reason why the EU’s new Common Agricultural Policy is out of step with the recently proposed increased climate target.

NEGATIVELY SPEAKING

Where do “negative emissions” fit into agriculture?  For the purpose of this article I don’t want to get into this rather complicated and certainly unresolved debate around the pros and cons of Negative Emissions or Carbon Dioxide Removals (CDR).  But essentially the term refers to removing carbon from the atmosphere and using various techniques or nature-based solutions to do it.  Many place their hopes in sophisticated technology that actively removes the carbon from the atmosphere and stores it underground and elsewhere. If these would work on a grand enough scale to deliver the reductions needed that would be an interesting consideration. However, the deployment on such a large scale will be costly and many question how companies will monetise these practices, without having to rely on massive offset programmes to substitute pollution elsewhere. (If you would like to find out more I suggest you read my colleague Wijnand’s article here for more insight.)

However, as I am enthusiastic to reference a few examples that I myself would possibly endeavour to pursue, please indulge me. First of all, on our farm we’re tremendously proud to already have completed stage one of a 200 tree planting programme.   Last week, we finished planting the first 90 trees and we have plans for an additional 120 more next year. These are apples and pears, with additional nut trees in the future which provide an economic incentive. But it is not without consideration of time and effort. Will this be extra work to manage, for sure. Is there more responsibility to maintain than say grassland, 100%… but will this sequester carbon while providing yummy fruit for generations to come – absolutely!  Not everyone in the farming world thinks like us and therefore the motivation to switch and grow trees (carbon sinks) needs to be there.

Most importantly in the short term society needs to find ways of protecting forests and woodlands that are already standing and not sacrifice them to for example the soybean producers as discussed above.

KEEP IT IN THE SOIL

Degraded lands could provide a huge potential for increased carbon sequester in the soil. Better management of these lands as well as in pasture land regeneration could help tackle agriculture’s carbon footprint.

There are also natural additives to the soil that date back hundreds of years but have only been rediscovered, one of which is the example of Biochar. Added to soil Biochar can help actively increase the soil carbon content.  It has the additional benefit of improving the soil quality, leading to improved yields, and also soil moisture retention which is important as climate change increases the risk drought in many parts of the world.

For a deep dive on how to tackle agriculture emissions and why offsetting is not the desirable solution, please read the following publication, by CMW and others.