Soil is more productive when it has a higher carbon content, but the benefits of carbon farming are still taking some time to filter through to the agriculture industry. (Photo by Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images)

At the end of April 2021, the European Commission announced the publication of its final report on how to set up and implement carbon farming in the EU, with plans to launch a carbon farming initiative by the end of 2021. This will involve a set of practices that have the potential to be beneficial to farmers and the planet alike.

Although the onus on reducing carbon emissions tends to fall upon sectors such as energy and transportation, agriculture is the second-largest source of emissions globally, and efforts are being made to turn it from a problem into a solution.

Ed Smith, vice-president of Boston-based agritech company Indigo Carbon, sees agriculture as one of the many weapons with which to fight the climate crisis by increasing the industry’s carbon capture capabilities.

“There is no silver bullet to climate change,” he says. “It is going to require many, many different solutions. We think that agriculture can be one part of the solution, which is incredibly inspiring because, after the energy sector, agriculture is the second-largest source of emissions globally in terms of industries. It would be quite remarkable to take it from that status to a major piece of the solution.”

Turning the tables like Smith suggests requires a radical change in the sector towards the wide adoption of conservation agriculture, which includes the reduction or even suppression altogether of practices such as tillage, which helps to enhance soil’s health and, in turn, its carbon capture capabilities.

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A healthier soil equals a healthier planet

Through the implementation of these practices, the carbon content in soil improves, which comes with its own set of benefits, explains Professor Guy Kirk of the University of Cranfield’s Soil and Agrifood Institute. “Soils are easier to manage if they have got a higher carbon content,” he says. “They are physically better at all the other functions that soil provides.”

Soils are easier to manage if they have got a higher carbon content. They are physically better at all the other functions that soil provides. Professor Guy Kirk, University of Cranfield

Soil not only captures carbon and provides a breeding ground for food, it also acts as a buffer against flooding and erosion, explains Kirk. All of these functions improve with a carbon-abundant soil, which in turn helps decrease greenhouse gas emissions, as the land can be managed using less machinery, fewer fertiliser inputs, and less energy in general, he adds.

However, the use of this kind of conservation agriculture is rare throughout Europe, although it is seeing a big uptake in places like the US, state researchers from the University of Nottingham revealed in an article for academic community news outlet The Conversation following their newly published research on the topic.

The research found that no-till farming can reduce emissions in farming by 30%, “with the greatest reductions seen on farms that had been using no-till for the longest – about 15 years”, said the authors.

There is some resistance towards no-till farming and conservation agriculture, however, and it tends to be based around two issues: farmers worrying about a decrease in yields, and their concerns over the initial cost of machinery needed to make this switch.

A study by the University of Cambridge has found there are “no consistent differences in yield over the first ten years after a farm converted to no-till agriculture”. When it comes to the monetary implications of adopting no-till farming, the researchers at the University of Nottingham highlight that by moving towards these methods, there is less preparation for farmers to do and no-till also “dramatically reduces how much diesel farms need to burn, as farmers need less heavy machinery”, which translates to fewer costs overall.

Carbon credits, carbon farming and net-zero pledges

Despite these proven benefits for both farmers and the planet, making a move to a completely different type of farming can be daunting for those who have been working in agriculture for decades. This is where Indigo Ag in the US is trying to make a change through carbon credits that support farmers during the transition and help companies offset their emissions.

Every week, every day, some corporation is pledging to be carbon neutral, climate neutral or climate positive by 2030, 2040 or 2050. I think that is the difference now. Ed Smith, Indigo Carbon

Carbon credits have had some bad press, and have been linked to ‘greenwashing’, but Smith believes that carbon offsets are a viable solution within a larger environmental company strategy that starts with reducing its footprint.

These offsets have been around for more than 30 years, he adds, but what he believes is different now is the support of corporations.

“This is not the first time carbon credits have been talked about in a big way, but what I think is different here is the incredible support from corporations,” says Smith. “Every week, every day, some corporation is pledging to be carbon neutral, climate neutral or climate positive by 2030, 2040 or 2050. I think that is the difference now.” He adds that the past 30 years have also helped to establish rules that make “carbon credits rigorous and real”.

Kirk explains that the consensus around carbon farming and carbon credits is that it is not a silver bullet for fighting the climate crisis, but there is a lot of hype around it and “there is a real danger that that this hype [will lead to people not looking to] fixing the real problem, which is of course energy”.

Indeed, carbon farming will not provide a solution to all of the earth’s environmental problems, but it is a tool that can effectively be used to fight the climate crisis. Its efficacy is widely accepted, and its long-term benefits seem obvious, but the way in which governments and large corporations embrace carbon farming – and don’t simply indulge in yet more greenwashing – will be the key to its overall impact.