Decarbonising Agriculture: Reducing Emissions Through Better Farm Practices
The agricultural sector contributes to more than one-quarter (about 24%) of the world’s GHG emissions. The IPCC report on the impacts of global warming clearly states that a “rapid and far-reaching” transition is required to limit the impact of climate change to 1.5 degrees. Achieving these goals can be more challenging for the agricultural sector than others as it requires the collective effort of more than two billion people who depend on farming for their survival. Alongside climate goals, it must contemplate nutrition needs, food security, and the livelihood of farmers and farming communities.
Major sources of GHG emissions in agriculture are:
Methane emissions - Agricultural emissions are primarily the result of ruminant animals (principally cows and sheep), farming practices, and rice production. Ruminants create methane during digestion, along with CO2 and other gases. The impact is significant: ruminants account for almost 70 per cent of agricultural emissions. They are responsible globally for more carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions than every country except China.
Nitrous oxide emissions - Agriculture accounts for 80 per cent of total nitrous oxide emissions, mainly from the application of fertilisers—both synthetic nitrogen and manure added to soils or left on pastures. Nitrous oxide is 264x more powerful than carbon dioxide in forcing temperature increases over a span of 20 years.
Forestry and land-use change - Forests present a significant global carbon stock accumulated through the growth of trees and an increase in soil carbon. Conversion of primary to managed forests, illegal logging and unsustainable forest management result in GHG emissions
On-farm energy use
Levers for Decarbonisation
Deep decarbonisation pathways would include collective efforts from all stakeholders across the food production chain - cooperation of consumers, farmers, government, investors, and regulators.
The most crucial areas to potentially mitigate GHG emissions are:
Soil Management - Soils hold more carbon than the atmosphere and all vegetation combined, only second to the oceans. On-farm weather like high soil temperatures and fluctuating moisture levels along with excessive nitrogen fertiliser result in increased N2O emissions. Increasing carbon stored in soils has the added benefit of higher yields and costs little for the farmer to implement.
- Conservation Tillage - Disrupting the soil releases carbon into the atmosphere. No‑till or reduced‑till practices leave residue on top of the soil-this is done to reduce carbon emissions and to improve soil health-instead of being ploughed (done for weed control and to prepare soils for the next season).
- Cover Crops - Those planted temporarily between main cash crop plantings can extract excess nitrogen not used by the previous plants and help to sequester carbon. Retaining cover crop residue on fields can further increase the amount of carbon stored in the soil.
Reducing Methane Emissions - Researchers are experimenting with alternative types of feed to reduce the methane produced by cows and looking at ways to manage manure more efficiently by covering it, composting it, or using it to produce biogas.
Reducing Food Waste - Almost 1/3rd of all the food produced is wasted. Food loss takes place early in the supply chain during production, transportation, and storage; this is driven by a lack of access to technology and cold-storage infrastructure. To meet targets in a 1.5°C pathway, food loss and waste would need to fall from about 33 per cent in recent years to under 30 per cent by 2030 and 20 per cent by 2050. Achieving this target would result in a reduction of overall emissions from food waste by about 40 per cent globally.
Precision Farming Technologies - Climate‑smart agriculture manages the health of crops with real-time data and monitoring weather conditions. This enables farmers to know exactly how much of what resource to use when to extract maximum yield from the field.
Building Coherent Policies - Considerable technology that allows sustainable agricultural practices exists but is it utilised by the entire one-quarter of the global population who practise farming? As in all big questions, the right policies need to be set that ease the way for innovations and have the power to accelerate change-Where are they being practised? How many farmers have adopted them? Which organisations are promoting such practices? What impact has such practices had on farm incomes, environment and social outcomes? In addition, we need a common set of science-based standards for Monitoring, Reporting and Verification, e.g. of how we can measure carbon in the soil? Or how do we verify the vegetables being grown are organic?
Many industry experts and policymakers believe that we are in the advent of a fourth agricultural revolution-the first: 10,000 years ago, when humans left the hunter‑gatherer lifestyle for the one that provided more stable food; the second: in the 1800s, when mechanisation of farming and the use of chemical fertilisers gave rise to large commercial farming operations; and the third: in the 1970s and 80s and introduced the world to genetically modified organisms (GMOs)-that focuses on sustainable farm management and relies on digital technologies to achieve it. Smart farm technologies aim to maximise yields, preserve soil health, and reduce inefficiencies. These technologies will not only help to ensure that production can scale to meet the rising demand for food but could also drive down GHG emissions in the process. The agriculture sector now has an opportunity to make yet another major contribution to humanity’s success during this crucial window for action.
This is the first blog of the ‘Decarbonisation Agriculture’ series. In the next blog, the author will present the state of sustainable agriculture in India and how Yuktix Technologies plays a crucial role in it.