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Mary Mazzoni headshot

Agriculture: The Missing Piece of the Climate Puzzle

By Mary Mazzoni

This article series is underwritten by General Mills and went through our normal editorial review process. 

By 2050, countries around the world must find a way to produce more food than they have in the past 8,000 years to accommodate population growth—all while minimizing the agricultural sector’s contribution to climate change.

It’s a huge challenge when you consider that at least 13 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases are produced on farms and in high-intensity agricultural operations. Bringing those numbers down to size will require a shake-up of the entire agricultural supply chain, from field to fork. Farmers around the world will need to think about new ways to use land, while food companies and their suppliers devise new methods to process ingredients and bring products to market.

Meanwhile, the agricultural sector sits on the front lines of climate change, and climate-induced impacts are already affecting how stakeholders do business. “Farmers and global supply chains are suffering from more extreme weather events and an increased incidence of pests,” according to the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), an international network of NGOs. “Today a growing number of agricultural businesses identify climate change as a serious long-term risk for their supply management.”

While climate change poses serious and immediate risks to the agricultural sector, its proximity to natural ecosystems gives the industry a unique opportunity. “Under the right conditions, agriculture can provide a multitude of environmental services that can help mitigate against climate change,” the SAN says.

Carbon farming: Healthy soil for a healthy planet

This may come as news to anyone who slept through environmental science class in high school, but the secret ingredient to dark, rich and fertile soil is carbon—and lots of it. As plants use sunlight, carbon dioxide and water to create their own food through photosynthesis, their roots deposit carbon into the soil. This natural nutrient exchange increases the soil’s water retention, structure and fertility, which leads to better crop yields as well as a net reduction in atmospheric carbon.

With this in mind, scientists are increasingly looking to agriculture as a means of pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and putting it to beneficial use. “In recent years, soil has been identified as an underutilized carbon sink, with a great potential to alleviate climate pressure,” according to the Climate Institute, the world’s first organization focused solely on climate change.

Conventional agriculture significantly disrupts this symbiotic relationship between the Earth’s soil and its atmosphere—soil degradation associated with large-scale farming has released 50 to 80 percent of the carbon once stored in soil, Nexus Media reports. But returning to our proverbial roots through time-honored farming practices like cover crops, crop rotations, and livestock grazing can help reverse that trend and ramp up carbon sequestration in the soil—a model commonly referred to as carbon farming or carbon smart agriculture.

“An acre of land can store potentially anywhere from 10 to 100 tons or more of carbon through these excellent farming practices,” Connor Stedman, a consultant with AppleSeed Permaculture, told Nexus Media. “There’s a really significant potential for carbon farming worldwide to play a role in reversing the climate crisis.”

In addition to fighting climate change, carbon farming and other soil health improvement practices can drive measurable bottom-line benefits for societies around the world. For example, adopting soil health practices on all U.S. corn, soy and wheat croplands could deliver nearly $50 billion in social and environmental benefits annually, according to The Nature Conservancy.

“Agriculture is the one sector that has the ability to transform from a net emitter of CO2 to a net sequesterer of CO2,” according to the Carbon Cycle Institute (CCI), a nonprofit dedicated to carbon farming.

Seeds for change

Though more work is needed in order to reshape the agricultural system, stakeholders around the world are already sowing seeds for change.

As part of the COP21 climate conference, where world leaders drafted the landmark Paris climate agreement in 2015, governments and agricultural leaders launched a number of broad-sweeping partnerships that continue to shape the sector to this day. The 4/1,000 Initiative brought more than 100 governments, NGOs and farming organizations together to develop new carbon sequestration solutions, and more than 50 countries committed over $285 million to help smallholder farmers improve their practices—among a number of other collaborations.

More recently, the United Nations Development Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. launched a program to help countries integrate agricultural planning into their broader climate goals. Investors and philanthropic groups, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to help vulnerable countries leverage agriculture to fight climate change.

“Countries now have the opportunity to transform their agricultural sectors to achieve food security for all through sustainable agriculture and strategies that boost resource-use efficiency, conserve and restore biodiversity and natural resources, and combat the impacts of climate change,” René Castro, assistant-director general of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said at the most recent U.N. climate conference in Bonn, Germany.  

Still, investments must move much faster and further into the farming sector in order to unleash its potential to fight climate change, leaders said in Bonn.

Learn more

Over the next few months, in partnership with General Mills, TriplePundit will delve more deeply into the different ways the agricultural sector interacts with our changing climate—and what farmers and food companies can do to transform risk into opportunity. You can keep track of the series here.  

Image credit: Shutterstock/jaroslavaV

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni