The current agricultural lands account for nearly 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is equal to 11 gigatons of carbon dioxide annually. But these farmlands could turn into carbon sinks by 2050 – absorbing 3 gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere a year and limiting carbon emission. The report comes from a study on global forests, farming and food systems published in the journal Nature Climate Change.
However, this could happen only if a fifth of people in developed and developing countries embrace a low meat diet. Fortunately, this seems to be possible, especially in the US, the EU, Argentina, Brazil, China and Russia by 2030. (The nearly vegan diets should involve less than 2,500 calories a day and a maximum 60g of animal protein.)
In addition, we would also need to produce less food waste, restore degraded lands and conserve forests. Improving the fertility of the soil by employing sustainable farming practices is another critical step required.
The change that the report focuses on will foster healthier diets around the world while improving livelihoods for the undernourished. Undoubtedly, it will also improve water and air quality for the people. The analysis also implied that decreasing food waste and shifting towards a vegan diet would also save money. For instance, according to the estimate used in the study, improvement of soil management through organic practices could cost nearly $57billion, but it will also save approximately $2trillion over the period.
Furthermore, the report has proposed six large-scale measures against climate change. According to the authors of the report, deforestation, peatland burning and mangrove destruction need to be reduced by 70%. The much neglected Mangrove vegetation absorbs CO2 eight times more than any other ecosystem on the planet.
While this was a comprehensive perspective of the report, now we shift our focus on how agricultural lands could limit carbon emissions.
Opportunity With Regenerative Agriculture
Over 2 decades ago, Will Harris, a cattle farmer used common industrial tools such as antibiotics, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. But today, he owns a 2,500-acre farm in Georgia which operates without generating any waste. 10 species of livestock are rotated to graze the rolling pastures. And the land is fertilised without any chemicals, leading to nutrient-rich, healthy soil.
This is one of those practices that are employed in ‘regenerative agriculture.’ The result of using this method is that Will Harris’ farmland has now turned into a carbon sink. The carbon is pulled from the air and stored in the ground. Eventually, the land has been able to offset a majority of the carbon emissions related to its beef production.
This story was released in collaboration with Civil Eats, a non-profit news organisation centred on the American food system. The land is now an inspiration as well as evidence that regenerative agricultural methods can limit the impact of climate change.
What Is Regenerative Agriculture?
Soil, when left undisturbed, holds carbon and microbes. But once it is tilled for farming, the carbon stored is released into the atmosphere. Regenerative agriculture also regarded as carbon farming works towards restoring the organic matter back into the soil. This results in pulling more carbon from the atmosphere and storing more water.
A number of sustainable practices are involved in regenerative agriculture. Apart from using maintained grazing (as discussed), there are other examples as well. These comprise of planting cover crops, protecting the soil in winter and preventing erosion while returning nutrients.
Adding nutrients back to the soil is essential as it improves soil health and its capability to yield more plants. More importantly, soil cannot absorb carbon until nutrients are added back to it.
Regenerative type of agriculture is believed to be successful, particularly when all the methods are employed together, as per scientists. Despite the fact, some argue on how much carbon can be stored in the ground and for how long?
Organic Farming – Good or Bad?
The report published in Nature Climate Change encourages organic farming practices with the fact that it can cut carbon emissions. On the contrary, another study focused on the UK finds that 100% of organic farming could increase carbon emissions.
The research shows that if each farm in England and Wales turns organic, emissions per land will come down. However, this will result in increased demand to import food. Because organic farmlands yield very less food compared to inorganic practices. Precisely, yields would drop almost by half. For example, organic wheat and barley produce is just half of the inorganic farms. And hence, to meet this shortfall, more land for farming will be required in the country and in other parts of the world. This could double the total GHG emissions compared to the current statistics in two countries.
But this does not mean that organic farming is bad or people should stop eating organic food. It has lots of benefits. In fact, the researchers of this study advocate the organic approach. The only thing is that it has some downsides.
What this study shows is that it is crucial to reduce the land needed for farming to cut down carbon emissions.
But according to Rob Percival from Soil Association that certifies organic farms in the UK, organic farming is workable. He points out the hypothesis on the research as “fundamentally flawed” saying that the “study assumes no change in diet” which is simply unreasonable. As dietary change occurs it will improve public health eventually freeing up land.
A different viewpoint comes from Laurence Smith who was part of the team who performed the analysis. He says that the combination of the best of organic and non-organic could result in extremely high efficiencies. For instance, organic farmers could apply some non-organic fertilisers. This could increase yields while the organic principles are maintained.
In addition, Smith also believes that organic measures should be amended to permit the use of gene-edited crops.
Smart City Farming
Curbing emissions by decreasing the extent of land required for farming is feasible in smart cities. The modern urban farming practices that are touted to be beneficial could save that way considering many aspects.
A notable amount of food demand can be met in smart cities if appropriate methods are implemented. If smart city farming is supported by agricultural subsidies, it could possibly produce about 30% of the nutritional requirements, as per sources.
Among a wide range of modern agricultural methods, the most popular include rooftop agriculture, vertical farming, indoor farming, hydroponics, aquaponics and aquaculture.
Besides these, the hinterlands around smart cities could be utilised to keep up with the farming demands. In the 19th century, the city of Paris was able to feed its citizens from its hinterlands.
Hinterlands or any undeveloped area could potentially be used as a reproducing land. This would substantially cut the carbon footprint and reduce the emissions associated with food transport. It will bring the urban communities closer to their food while encouraging them to participate in growing. This not just spreads awareness but also improves health through better diet habits.
From the environmental point of view, farming on hinterlands can be done organically without the need for pesticides and herbicides. Here nutrient recycling comes into picture which reduces water pollution and promotes water recycling.
All this being said, it is important that smart city planners, governments and the private sector must collaborate with farmers. As farmers are at the heart of food production, it is crucial to consider their expertise and challenges – to limit the climate impact.