According to the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report on Climate Change, “agriculture provides the second largest share of the mitigation potential between 2020 and 2050.”
That’s a lot of potential. And that potential is available right now, when action is critical!
The IPCC supports this claim in stating that soil carbon management for cropland and grassland (along with other factors like improved livestock and nutrient management) could help reduce emissions up to 4.1 billion metric tons per year.
These are powerful numbers, and they make a strong case for investment and research in sustainable agriculture and soil carbon management. However, transforming our food systems is a nuanced task. In order to fulfill the industry’s potential in climate mitigation, we must be calculated in our adoption of sustainable farming practices and in the ways we incentivize system-wide transition.
With Innovation Comes New Considerations
Science and technology have allowed us to transform our farming systems significantly, especially in the last few decades. While these innovations often lead to climate-smart action, we must consider the full impact of those actions.
For example, advances in plant breeding, biotechnology, and precision agriculture have resulted in a 3 to 5-fold yield increase in the world’s major cereal crops in the last 60 years.* This yield increase was accompanied by an expansion of 73 million acres of cropland. Converting natural ecosystems like forest or grasslands into cropland (a process known as land use change) is a significant driver of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. According to the FAO, in 2019 land use change contributed one-fifth of the food system GHG emissions and deforestation was the largest overall contributor from the food supply chain.** These data highlight the conflict between needing to feed the world’s growing population and the need to drastically reduce our GHG emissions.
In short, we have to figure out how to feed 10 billion people without wrecking the planet. We must pursue sustainable intensification while incentivizing the protection of existing ecosystems against land use change. With technology leading to increased productivity, we must guard against bringing even marginal land (land that has historically had little agricultural value) into production.
Another example of this dichotomy is soil carbon. Our increasing ability to capture and measure carbon with agricultural practices allows us to reduce our emissions and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. The agrifood supply chain is investing significant resources into regenerative ag practices to increase carbon removals in our working lands. However, not all sequestered carbon is permanent — some is released back into the atmosphere.
We must take this into account when adjusting our farm management practices and incentivizing the adoption of new practices.
We must accurately represent and account for these soil carbon removals, including our uncertainties around quantification and permanence.
Lack of permanence and our uncertainty around quantification are often used as excuses not to invest in soil carbon removals. However, regenerative ag practices can remove carbon from the atmosphere and these technologies are available now - when we need them. If nothing else, soil carbon removal can help us stabilize our current trajectory while other technologies (such as direct air capture and storage) are developed.
Protect the Pros, Guard Against the Cons
Understanding the careful balance of innovation and caution will ultimately lead us to more aptly address climate change and lessen our impact on the Earth. The responsibility lies with everyone in our industry — from crop farmers to corporations, from plant researchers to policymakers — to assess our changing impact on the Earth and to pursue innovation accordingly. These stakeholders must rely on research to guide our action.
- Policymakers must carefully consider the economic, cultural and environmental impacts of innovation when establishing guidelines and funding projects.
- Corporations must engage with partners and providers that are rooted in agronomic knowledge; who place farmers at the forefront of innovation.
- Growers must work with partners along the supply chain that incentivize change that help build both environmental and financial resilience.
- Scientists and technologists must use this knowledge to guide research, and to steer the course of innovation.
Above all, we must collaborate with one another to make sure we fulfill agriculture’s potential in climate mitigation, guarding that potential while working to avoid its pitfalls.
Read more insights from the IPCC's Sixth Assessment Report.
* Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2013) - "Crop Yields". Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: 'https://ourworldindata.org/crop-yields' [Online Resource]
** Pre- and post-production processes increasingly dominate greenhouse gas emissions from agri-food systems. Tubiello, et al. Earth Syst. Sci. Data, 14, 1795–1809, 2022.