We’re often told that agriculture is a “victim” of climate change and needs to adapt. But farmers, ranchers, and researchers increasingly recognize that industrial agriculture is itself a major emitter of greenhouse gases. A promising path for both feeding the world and potentially reversing climate change is “regenerative agriculture,” an approach that captures and stores atmospheric carbon in the soil.
The year 2015 is an important one for the world’s climate and environment. Not only is it the United Nations-declared International Year of Soils, but it’s a critical moment for countries of the world to negotiate a new agreement on combating climate change.
On September 17, France’s Ministry of Agriculture, Agrifood, and Forestry released a proposal called the Four Per Thousand Initiative: Soils for food security and climate, which will be officially launched at the Paris climate talks in December. For those of us who have been working on the linkages between agriculture, climate, and sustainability worldwide, this initiative provides a great opportunity to unite our efforts for change at the policy level.
Christophe Malvezin, agricultural counselor at the French Embassy, introduced the Four Per Thousand Initiative to an audience of leading non-profits and concerned individuals in Washington, D.C. on September 29. The event was organized by Martha Holdridge, a retired pastured beef farmer, and myself. Barbara Ekwall from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and Alexis Baden-Mayer from the Organic Consumers Association also spoke at the event.
The message is simple: there is significant, but largely untapped, potential in agricultural soils to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). We need to work together to realize this potential through regenerative agriculture—an ecological farming and ranching practice designed to re-build soil health.
How significant is the potential?
According to a 2012 Worldwatch report, agriculture is responsible for an estimated 25–30 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. This estimate considers the entire life cycle of agricultural production and reflects the global scope of industrialized food systems, which rely heavily on fossil fuel inputs and result in the conversion of natural ecosystems into monocultures. Industrialized systems often unintentionally suppress the activity of soil life through physical and chemical disturbance, such as tilling and the application of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Soil scientist Rattan Lal estimates that as much as 25–75 percent of the organic carbon in soils has been lost due to industrial practices.
Lal’s estimate also suggests that improved soil management, based on ecological principles, has the potential to offset 5–15 percent of global emissions from fossil fuels, while regenerating healthy soil. This can result in improvements in soil fertility, water-use efficiency, climate resilience, and farmer livelihoods—all of which are critical for securing food production in rapidly changing environments. Increasing the organic carbon stock of the world’s agricultural soil by 0.4 percent annually on average (as proposed by the French initiative), if coupled with other ongoing efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, provides practical hope for limiting the global temperature increase to below 2 degrees Celsius.
Growing numbers of farmers engaging in eco-agriculture, ranchers practicing holistic grazing management, and comparative researchers such as those at the Rodale Institute have seen positive results from using regenerative techniques, such as reduced or no fertilizer use, no-till weed control, and planned rotational grazing. A 0.4 percent annual increase in soil carbon doesn’t sound like much to them. Some of these farmers and ranchers have witnessed a doubling and even a tripling of soil organic matter over several years (although this doesn’t happen on all kinds of land, and results vary depending on soil sampling methods).
But achieving the goal is still challenging. Compared with on-the-ground observation and existing research findings, policy change is lagging. Industrial agriculture still dominates in developed countries such as the United States and receives policy support around the world, including in developing countries like China and Brazil.
Why is the potential largely untapped?
One challenge facing efforts to capture atmospheric carbon in soils lies in the research that provides the “scientific basis” for policymaking. Current life-cycle studies comparing industrial and ecological agricultural practices suffer from limited data availability (mostly of the latter), and they rarely consider the carbon sequestration potential of soils in different farming and ranching systems.
This omission has contributed to support for the alleged climate benefits of industrial agriculture—by ignoring soil carbon, standard calculations of greenhouse gas emissions almost always favor industrial practices over organic or sustainable ones. Taking soil into consideration, however, can give a different result. The U.K.’s National Trust study on beef production, for example, shows that soil carbon sequestration on pastures can offset considerable carbon emissions, making pasture-based systems less carbon-intensive than feedlot systems. As awareness of the important role of soil grows, increased research in this field is helping to expand efforts to collect and analyze data on global soils and to facilitate local-level decision making.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s greenhouse gas inventory guidelines, which most countries use to calculate national emissions, also affect policymaking. The IPCC guidelines do not take a life-cycle approach; moreover, calculations for the agriculture sector require countries to report only non-CO2 gases, and CO2 emissions from agricultural systems (such as the production of fertilizers, use of fuels, and deforestation) are categorized into other sectors. Although this makes it easier for countries to tally their emissions (see, for example, the calculation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), it fails to effectively illustrate the differences in the climate footprints of high-input industrial practices versus low-input regenerative agricultural practices.
These factors, as well as existing policies that have subsidized industrial agriculture for decades, have led to policy inertia and to insufficient consumer action with regard to regenerative agriculture. At the policymaking level, agriculture is perceived more often as a victim of climate change, rather than as a major contributor or a potential game changer. And for consumers, sustainably produced foods tend to be much more expensive than conventionally produced ones, making people unwilling or unable to choose for the better.
Everyone can help, everyone can benefit
Increasing the soil carbon on agricultural lands is a low-tech solution. But because industrial agriculture is embedded so deeply in our lives, making this change requires collaboration among all stakeholders in the agricultural production chain, including policymakers, researchers, farmers, agribusinesses, consumers, advocates, and educators. The good news is that the facts seem to be on our side. Working with the soil to make it richer in organic carbon brings positive results down the line: foods get richer in nutrients, farmers and ranchers get richer in time and income, and both animals and people get richer in health.
Will major agricultural countries like the United States, China, and Brazil be able to lead in this multi-win initiative? Will developing countries seize this opportunity to achieve sustainable development while curbing greenhouse gas emissions? We don’t know the answers to these questions yet, but we also don’t have to wait for them to become apparent. We can create our own solutions right now by learning more about how our foods are produced and by demanding that our policymakers and manufacturers support regeneratively produced foods that grab carbon from the air and store it in the soil.
Wanqing Zhou is a research associate in the Food and Agriculture Program at the Worldwatch Institute.
Banner photo by Soil Health | NRCS.