The Promised Land: 5 Ways Farmers Are Fighting Climate Change

Agriculture has a huge carbon footprint—but it doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s how sustainable farming practices are cultivating a better future.

Brianna Sharpe – Jan, 2018

We often say that you are what you eat, but how you eat matters too—especially when it comes to climate change.

How can we feed the world without accelerating global warming? What kind of future will our children inherit? If we keep up with business as usual, will we even have a planet to do business on?

Farmers are on the front lines of answering these questions. Not only do they bear the brunt of wild weather and changing seasons, they also hold some of our most effective natural climate solutions—from sequestering carbon to managing cow burps (yep, really!).

Tilled farm field aerial view

Photo by Sindre Storm on Pexels

                                       The link between climate change and farming

Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture. Combine it with forestry and other land uses, and they’re responsible for almost a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).

Farming has been an accomplice to climate change, but it could also be one key to our salvation.

Farming has been an accomplice to climate change, but it could also be one key to our salvation. With the right approach to preserving, managing and regenerating the land, agriculture could deliver over one-third of the GHG mitigation we need to limit warming below the critical threshold defined by the Paris Agreement—and do it in a cost-effective way.

As a refresher, the goal is to keep the planet’s average temperature from getting 2°C (3.6°F) hotter than pre-industrial levels—and ideally, we’ll keep the temperature rise below 1.5°C. That target is a formidable challenge for every individual, industry and country—we have to join forces to pull it off. Here are five ways that farmers around the world are doing their part to develop climate change solutions.

1. Conservation agriculture

Many modern farming practices have diminished the quality—and quantity—of the planet’s fertile soil. That’s not just a problem when it comes to feeding the world—it’s reducing the land’s ability to store carbon, too.

Enter conservation agriculture. The term sounds vague, but the MO is pretty specific: Stop (or mostly stop) tilling. Plant other seeds between the main crop by row intercropping. Keep bare soil from being carried away on the wind by planting cover crops.

Furrows of crops growing in the sun
Photo by Dylan De Jonge from Unsplash

Although lush forests often leap to mind first when we think about natural climate solutions capable of sequestering greenhouse gases, the world’s soil is a powerful carbon sink, too. In fact, soil holds two to three times more carbon than the atmosphere. Conservation agriculture is essentially a way of maximizing the soil’s potential. Plus, it’s straightforward and low-tech, making it a good choice for small and large farms alike.

Farmer watching longhorn cattle graze
Photo by Omotayo Tajundeen on Pexels

Take Matefie Meja, a single parent whose small farm in Chifisa, Ethiopia, supports her family. As reported by the non-profit organization Farm Radio International, the mother of three was spending a lot of time weeding. A radio broadcast taught her about conservation agriculture, and she started intercropping and mulching with leftover crops. The result was a win-win: Meja’s yield increased with less labor, freeing up more time for her kids and other farm chores, and the soil is in better shape, which is good for the planet.

Rural landholders like Meja can play a significant role in climate change mitigation. The “4 per 1000” initiative says that if we can increase our current soil carbon stores by 0.4% every year, we’ll be well on our way to the Paris Agreement’s targets. Every small farm is actually a big deal.

2. Restoring and managing grasslands 

They may not look as Insta-worthy as old-growth forests or lush jungles, but grasslands are the sleeper hits of the climate crisis. These ecosystems cover over a quarter of the world’s surface. They’re pasture for livestock, a refuge for biodiversity and heaven for pollinators. Grasslands are highly resistant to drought, but tragically vulnerable to development. Around the world, agriculture and industry have supplanted 16 percent of tropical and almost half of temperate grasslands.

Rolling hills of lush pasture land a natural climate solution
Photo by Artur Roman on Pexels

“Grasslands are one of the best ways to store carbon in a very efficient way for a long time,” says Paul Luu, executive secretary of the “4 per 1000” initiative. But if we keep treating grasslands like a welcome mat to development, we’ll be making global warming worse—a lot worse.

It may come as a surprise, but temperate grasslands are the most endangered ecosystem on the planet

It may come as a surprise, but temperate grasslands are the most endangered ecosystem on the planet. Seventy percent of Canada’s native prairie, for example, has been lost to urban development and agriculture. But farmers like Brian Sterling in Manitoba are trying to reverse some of the damage and reclaim their land’s “carbon sink” status.

Have you ever looked at a landscape and wondered what it was like before humans messed it all up? Sterling grew up listening to his father ponder the same thing. What did their land look like before it was developed to grow crops like corn and oats?

Three years ago, Sterling decided to answer his dad’s question. He secured $30,000 through a government grant and started restoring 115 acres to native grasses for grazing and hay. It’s not much to look at yet, and reseeding will take time, but Stirling is proud of the work he’s done as he watches the prairie perennials grow.

3. Agroforestry 

Agroforestry is what it sounds like: a mash-up of agricultural land and forest-type elements such as hedgerows, riparian buffers or mixed woodlots. And it’s an approach that can help us curb carbon, methane and nitrous oxide emissions. Tree cover, cover crops and row intercropping all improve the soil, while increasing carbon-storing organic matter and decreasing erosion. Although erosion may not sound like a huge climate faux-pas, remember that disturbing soil releases carbon into the atmosphere.

If there were a hierarchy of natural climate solutions, Luu of the “4 per 1000” initiative would put agroforestry at the top. He calls this form of regenerative agriculture “the most evolved” solution, because it encourages connections between cropland, animals, plants and waterways.

Humans used to grow food without destroying these relationships, and many people across the globe, especially in Indigenous communities, still live this way. But on the scale of things, it’s still uncommon—which means there’s huge potential for improvement.

Field planted half with wheat half with crops
Photo by Henry Be from Unsplash

Tim and Frances Crowhill Sauder in Quarryville, Pa., are among the farmers developing some of those sustainable relationships. By planting an orchard and 600 native trees and shrubs along the stream on Fiddle Creek Dairy, they’re mitigating the effects of global warming, upping their land’s resilience and improving life for their cows. The couple is planning a silvopasture, an integration of animals into a natural landscape that sounds rather idyllic.

Joe Biden who said, when campaigning for the U.S. presidency, “Soil is the next frontier for storing carbon.”

One challenge? Farmers like the Crowhill Sauders need incentives: Dreams alone can’t pay for trees. Fiddle Creek secured county funding and technical assistance, but the idea of farm-generated carbon credits is also gaining traction, maybe even as future government policy. After all, it was Joe Biden who said, when campaigning for the U.S. presidency, “Soil is the next frontier for storing carbon.”

Bag of harvested carrots
Photo by Omotayo Tajundeen on Pexels

4. Cropland nutrient management 

When we think of fertilizer, we might picture a farmhand in protective gear, spraying something synthetic on rows of crops. Over the past 60 years, the use of nitrogen fertilizer has increased by 800 percent, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This, along with improved irrigation, has increased the world’s food production capacity by over 30 percent. But GHG levels have almost doubled in lock-step with these practices—the use of nitrogen fertilizer leads to emissions of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas—and global food security is still a distant dream.

The IPCC reports that the best land-based ways to mitigate GHG emissions include sequestering soil carbon, increasing yield and decreasing nitrous oxide emissions. Good management of nutrient levels in the soil has a positive effect on all of these.

Sometimes fertilizer really is necessary. The trick when it comes to climate (not to mention other harmful effects of excess fertilizer use) is to be both judicious and precise. And considering that molecule for molecule, nitrous oxide is 300 times more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide, alternatives deserve a good hard look.

One such possibility is biochar, or “black gold,” a super-heated mixture of plant matter and animal urine. It might not sound appetizing to us, but the soil begs to differ. Biochar helps soil soak up way more water and nutrients, which leads to sequestering more carbon while avoiding conventional fertilizer’s nitrous oxide after-effects. Many countries are seeing the biochar light, and it’s become particularly important in Nepal, where the soil tends to be rocky and low in organic matter.

Grazing cattle looking into the camera
Photo by Helena Lopes on Pexels

Biochar is comparatively cheap and easy, and it can even upcycle weeds. A farmer only needs the pee of two cows to make enough biochar to fertilize an average-sized farm in Nepal, and many farmers report their yield doubling or tripling. The Nepalese government has recognized biochar’s potential by funding studies and helping with technological capacity, and other countries and corporations are following suit.

5. Animal grazing and pasture management 

It is a truth (almost) universally acknowledged that climate change is being accelerated by human activity. The role of livestock is more contentious, however. The dairy and meat industry is said to produce up 60 percent of agriculture’s GHG emissions, using 83 percent of the world’s farmland yet providing only 18 percent of its calories.

But the math is complicated. For one thing, unlike legumes, cows thrive on poor land. Even some ardent plant-based advocates admit that harm reduction might be the most realistic goal, which means getting people to eat less meat while working to make the industry more sustainable.

Luu says cows are quite useful, climate-wise. “But not in the feedlot,” he points out. “They are useful in the grassland. And some will say it’s not the cow, it’s the how. That’s true.”

Cupped hands holding soil
Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash

A new generation of ranchers are coming to revolutionize the “how.” Among them is Will Harris, the fourth-generation owner of White Oak Pastures, a family farm in the small town of Bluffton, Ga. Harris and his team practice regenerative grazing for their pasture-raised beef, which treats soil as a carbon sink and uses cows to keep it there.

The approach involves rotating an appropriate number of livestock through native grassland. This doesn’t degrade the soil, and in fact stimulates plant growth. Much of White Oak’s land has been restored to a near-natural state, and is fertilized by the natural emissions of its cows, sheep, chickens and pigs. No destructive chemicals are needed to keep things growing. The farm commissioned a study by the environmental research firm Quantis, which found that their farm isn’t just carbon neutral—it’s carbon negative.

The challenges facing sustainable farming practices

Many farmers are developing and implementing climate-friendly practices, but so far, we’ve only just begun. The biggest challenge is the same that all industries are facing: the urgent need to reduce emissions of GHGs into the atmosphere. If change doesn’t happen quickly, GHG emissions from current food production alone would bring us above the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C threshold by 2050.

Farmers have options, but they also need knowledge, equipment and funding through public and/or private sectors

Farmers have options, but they also need knowledge, equipment and funding through public and/or private sectors. And consumers need to do what we do best: advocate for change by voting with our wallets and spread the word on what needs to be done. We need to feed on the successes, and develop a new category of permaculture,” says Luu, referencing the more holistic, living-in-harmony-with-nature approach. “What’s important is movement.”

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