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Today’s Conversation: Can Agriculture Help Mitigate Climate Change?
|The Global Harvest Initiative’s 2015 GAP Report® (Global Agricultural Productivity Report®): Building Sustainable Breadbaskets discusses many of the agricultural production technologies and practices that reduce emissions in cropland and livestock production and management as well as nutrient, tillage, and water management practices.
|By Michael Lohuis, Ph.D., Environmental Strategies for Agriculture,
As the Paris 2015 Climate Change Conference begins today, we face together one of the most daunting problems: how to mitigate climate change.
We are most easily motivated to act on short-term problems that are local in nature, but acting globally on an issue playing out over generations is like nothing we’ve ever faced before. According to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), each sector of the global economy will need to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions substantially in order to prevent our climate from warming more than two degrees Celsius. This is essential if we want to avoid the most dangerous environmental scenarios for society and the natural resource base.
Global agriculture and forestry account for approximately one-quarter of all human GHG emissions according to the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report on Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use[i]. Over half of these emissions stem from ruminant (cow and sheep) methane, livestock manure, tillage, fertilizer and fuel use, as well as residue burning. The remainder is emitted indirectly via deforestation and draining of peatlands, which in a period of just a few years can release carbon that has accumulated over centuries. Many people may not be aware that agriculture already possesses the tools to tackle both direct and indirect emissions.
How can agriculture help mitigate climate change?
We first need to tackle the largest source of emissions, which arise from deforestation due to agricultural expansion. We know limiting expansion while increasing agricultural productivity is possible because we’re already moving in that direction. A 2010 research paper revealed that between 1961 and 2005, global food production increased 162 percent while agricultural land area only increased by 27 percent[ii]. By increasing global crop yield (production per acre), we have avoided a 2.1 to 3.7 billion acres (85-150%) expansion of global croplands and new agricultural activity that would have released a staggering 1.9 to 3.6 billion metric tons of carbon each year over that 45 year period[ii]. According to EPA’s GHG calculator[iii], this is equivalent to consuming 25-48 percent of today’s global oil production, not to mention the destruction of vast ecosystems and wildlife habitats. Clearly this was a crisis avoided, simply by increasing crop yields.
Looking forward, continued increases in crop yields and reduction in food waste could combine to allow food supply from existing acres to grow faster than food demand, completely eliminating the need for further agricultural expansion.
The second step is to further reduce the intensity of resources used to produce our food. Again, studies show[iv] this is possible because farmers are rapidly adopting the use of nitrification and urease inhibitors, which can reduce GHG emissions from fertilizers by up to 61 percent[v].
Farmers are still in the early stages of adopting variable-rate technologies (also known as precision agriculture) that allow site-specific precise application of water, fertilizer, seed, pesticide, and reduce fuel use. Early indications are that inputs like those mentioned could be further reduced by 10-15 percent[vi].
The backbone of precision agriculture in large-scale agriculture is the use of advanced data analytics, GPS guidance and web-enabled farm equipment. Successful examples of precision agriculture practice abound: to learn more, read the story of April Hemmes, a leader in productive and sustainable precision agriculture technology adoption; to learn about examples from horticulture, read a recent blog by Yangxuan Liu.
|Farmers can now “farm smart and conserve smart” as they adopt more precision agriculture technologies.|
Finally, agriculture must use its greatest advantage over most other GHG-emitting sectors: plants and soil. The world’s vegetation and soil store almost three times as much carbon as there is in the atmosphere[vii]. Plants have the remarkable ability to utilize sunlight and water to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into organic carbon. The world’s soil alone contains over two trillion metric tons of carbon, which is more than four times as much carbon as is present in all global vegetation[viii].
With highly productive crops, reduced tillage and use of cover crops over winter, substantial quantities of carbon can be stored and maintained in the soil. Furthermore, these practices also help prevent soil erosion, improve water quality, and make soils more resilient to drought. In addition, excess biomass from crop residues from highly productive crops can be sustainably harvested to help offset fossil fuel use.
Combining all of these ideas into a workable and cost-effective strategy will not be easy or without controversy. Farmers, agribusiness, scientists as well as conservation organizations and policymakers must work together to deliver a variety of solutions enabling a climate smart agricultural landscape and ongoing forest preservation and restoration. You can learn more about how Monsanto is tackling climate change at monsanto.com/climatechange.
Considering that the future health of our environment and our society is at stake, this is a conversation about innovation and collaboration that’s worth having!
[i] Smith et al. 2014. Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU). In: Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Chapter 11:811-922.
[ii] Burney, J.A. et al., 2010. PNAS 107 (26):12052-12057
[iii] EPA: GHG Equivalencies Calculator. http://www2.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gas-equivalencies-calculator
[iv] Snyder, C.S, et al., 2014. Current Opinion in Environ. Sustainability. 9-10;46-54
[v] Halvorson, A.D. et al., 2014. Agronomy J. 106:715-722
[vi] Shockley, J. et al., 2012. Precision Agric (2012) 13:411–420
[vii] GRID-Arendal, 2014. http://www.grida.no/publications/rr/natural-fix/page/3724.aspx
[viii] IPCC Special Report on Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry. 2000. http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/sres/land_use/index.php?idp=3