Carbon Friendly Agriculture?

As climate crisis accelerates, our farmers are placed in the ever more precarious position of growing food for an increasing population in the face of increasingly bizarre weather patterns. Weather patterns are shifting due to the increasing amount of energy trapped in our atmosphere by greenhouse gases. 

And yet, farming offers the fastest way to slow climate crisis. This is because farmers manage photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is a biological process within green plants that pulls carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and stores it in a stable, useful form: organic carbon. Organic carbon is the chemical basis of leaves, shoots, roots, fungi and all the other living things that make up healthy soils.

photosynthesis

Good farmers can accelerate this process and pull huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the air into soil organic matter. You can read here about how increased soil organic carbon can help us manage dry and wet years better by storing water. And the practices that build soil organic carbon require more diverse cropping systems, making farmers (and us) less reliant in any one crop. 
 
The most important thing we can understand is how we to stop climate crisis. On a heating planet, we must do anything to pull greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. Bill Gates’ recent Ted talk argued clearly that stopping greenhouse emissions must be our number one priority. Despite this powerful vision, he allows for agricultural emissions to continue as they are, despite knowing about one fourth of global climate emissions are from agriculture.  

Can we continue to emit that much greenhouse gas? As it stands, we are seeing melting glaciers, an ice-free arctic, and are running the risk of going over many  tipping points predicted by the scientific community. We’re currently at 390 parts per million of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The safe limit is 350 parts per million. How can we get below 350 parts per million while continuing thirty percent of our emissions? 

We can’t.

The good news is, we don’t have to. We can choose to embrace agricultural practice that does not emit greenhouse gases. We can choose agriculture that actually pulls carbon from the atmosphere.  

Today thirty percent of  global greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture come mainly from producing synthetic fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides. The industrial processes that produce these chemicals are incredibly carbon intensive. In fact, a recent study found it is the MOST carbon intensive industry in the world.  

What is worse is that application of synthetic chemicals to soil destroys its ability to store carbon.  

In organic, sustainable and regenerative farming systems, biological processes replace those chemicals. Rather than applying synthetic fertilizer, we can build fertility through nitrogen fixing plants. Rather than using pesticides we can rotate crops annually so that pests can’t find them. Rather than applying herbicides we can kill weeds using tillage or other means.

I’ll conclude with a specific idea. Imagine rows of corn growing in the Midwest, with barren soil in between them. A farmer adds synthetic fertilizer to the land for his corn. The soil only has one kind of root (corn) and cannot sequester very much carbon due to the synthetic fertilizer.

As fertilizer costs go up, our farmer tries a new approach. He plants clover between the rows of his corn. This has no effect on the yield of his corn. The clover adds fertilization to his soil so he needs less (or no) fertilizer. And with twice as many kinds of roots in his soil, the increased diversity supports more life in the soil. The absence of synthetic fertilizer also helps the living things in his soil flourish.

Imagine the fields again. Every square inch is covered with green photosynthesizing plants. The soil is storing soil organic carbon faster and faster. And this farmer is helping to slow our climate crisis. That’s the best kind of carbon capture and sequestration I know of.

More cool pieces on Celsias:

The Importance of African Forests as Carbon Sinks

Soil - Our Financial Institution

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Photosynthesis graphic sourced from 1Steps.org

5 comments

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Craig Mackintosh (anonymous)

All good points Eliav. The reality is that industrial agriculture takes perfectly fertile, carbon rich soils - rich in organic matter and biological life and processes - and systematically depletes them, releasing carbon into the air and depleting soil humus content until they become lifeless and unproductive. This is the process of desertification - directly causes by soil mismanagement. The irony is that until that extreme point is reached where land is determined to be no longer cost effective and must be 'set aside', the profits of Big Agri grow on each acre as more and more fertilisers, pesticides, and physical manipulations have to be applied to squeeze food out of a land that is decreasingly able to produce from its own natural fertility and from natural biological synergies that create that fertility.

The good news is that, with a change in direction, you can take those lands that have been raped by years of misuse, and you can restore them, and you can do it without costly inputs that only serve to finance Big Agri to destroy land elsewhere. By designing systems where plants, animals, soil and soil organisms work symbiotically to build fertility, we can create a situation where fertility is not only created virtually out of 'nothing', but where it continues to build fertility with little, or even no, involvement from humans.

A good example is the Greening the Desert video that many will have already seen. I recently went to Jordan to do an update on this video, and to show some of the spin off effects of the original Greening the Desert site. Your readers may find it of interest:

http://permaculture.org.au/2009/12/11/greening-the-desert-ii-final/

All the best.

Written in March 2010

unknown (anonymous)

nic info

Written in April 2010

rogi (anonymous)

vadiya hai

Written in April 2010

Rain S.

Many thanks for such a great article. The question of the climate change occupies me a lot. I've read a lot about it. I've found nice information at pdf search http://www.pdfok.com but usually there is not a single word how we can cope with this problem. what you can read are the constant arguments, that is why I was really happy to find this article.

Written in July 2010

A good example is the Greening the Desert video that many will have already seen. I recently went to Jordan to do an update on this video, and to show some of the spin off effects of the original Greening the Desert site. Your readers may find it of interest:

Written in August 2010

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  • Posted on March 3, 2010. Listed in:

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