Carbon farming, or soil carbon sequestration, involves a wide range of agricultural practices with the primary goal of removing excess carbon from the atmosphere to reduce global warming. Carbon farming can help achieve carbon neutrality by storing carbon in the soil where the carbon can improve soil fertility and nutrient retention. This, in turn, boosts crop productivity and aids the progress being made towards food and nutrition security globally.
Plants absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide to produce food. They also convert the gas into a stable, solid form of carbon and store it in the soil through direct or indirect fixation. Unlike carbon farming practices that emphasize keeping the carbon in the ground for long periods, several conventional agriculture practices, such as unscientific plowing and tractors, tilling, overgrazing, etc. Using these techniques and applying fossil-fuel-based agrochemicals results in the release of this carbon into the atmosphere rather than capturing it. For carbon farming to be effective, the carbon gains from the conservation and/or land management practices need to exceed the carbon losses.
What is the Need for Carbon Farming?
Top 10 Carbon Farming Practices
Carbon farming practices are prevalent in regenerative agriculture, permaculture, organic farming, and other food production methods. Examples of effective and practical farming methods include:
Using the residual biomass after harvest as organic to cover the soil, instead of burning it
Organic mulching offers several benefits, including regulating soil temperature, increasing soil nutrients, restricting the rate of evaporation to retain soil moisture, suppressing weed growth, controlling erosion, and improving overall soil health.
Replacing conventional tillage practices with conservation tillage, i.e., reduced/no-till
Tilling loosens and aerates the soil and raises the organic content or carbon to the surface, promoting crop growth. When the trapped carbon is released in massive amounts, it reacts with the oxygen in the atmosphere to produce carbon dioxide.
Cultivating cover crops during the off-season instead of leaving the croplands bare
Cover crops prevent soil erosion, regulate moisture, suppress soil diseases, pests, and weed growth, and attract pollinators. Additionally, they serve as mulch and a source of organic matter and can be used for grazing or as fodder for livestock. Depending on crop type, some of them can contribute to nitrogen uptake.
Alternating monocultures with high-diversity crop rotations and integrated farming practices
Incorporating those crops into cycles that return higher volumes of residue to the soil contribute to higher soil organic carbon stock. Increased organic matter ensures healthy, biologically active soil with fewer problems concerning crop fertility, pests, or diseases. Crop rotations also enable farmers to earn an additional income.
Substituting intensive application of chemical fertilizers with integrated nutrient management and precision farming
Indiscriminate use of fertilizers results in excess nitrogen in the soil, which leads to soil acidification and salinization, and water pollution due to fertilizer runoffs. While precision farming allows farmers to target specific areas instead of blanket spraying, carbon farming practices revitalize soil naturally and reduce the need for synthetic products.
Integrating trees into agriculture through cropland agroforestry
Agroforestry, when properly practiced, offers several benefits. The carbon sequestration rate is at least five times higher than the per-hectare rates of enhanced annual cropping practices without trees. It allows farmers to produce more food on the available land and derive an additional income. Also, nitrogen-fixing plants can improve fertility without the need for synthetic fertilizer.
Reintroducing livestock into crop production for nutrient cycling
Livestock grazing after crop harvest promotes the conversion of high carbon residues to low carbon organic manure. Cover crops such as cereals and legumes provide for animal grazing and allow more nutrient cycling from crop to soil while also sequestering carbon into the soil. This practice also mitigates challenges and expenses related to concentrated animal feeding operations.
Protecting carbon-rich soils that act as natural carbon sinks
Draining wetlands and peatlands releases large volumes of carbon dioxide when atmospheric oxygen decomposes the organic matter that accumulated carbon over many millennia. It further results in the loss of productive land and biodiversity due to soil subsidence and higher flood risks. Stopping drainage and rewetting drained peatlands can essentially solve these problems.
Rotating livestock periodically through pastures and a series of small paddocks
Managed rotational grazing allows grasslands to rest and recover while the animals’ grazing patterns and the natural manure distribution help regenerate carbon in soils. The organic matter that the herds trample into the ground also enriches the soil’s carbon content. Further, grazing brings down the economic cost of feeding the animals.
Using compost to restore soil fertility and increase grassland carbon storage
When spread over the soil surface, compost sequesters carbon in a stable form that is not easily oxidized. It enhances the land’s resilience to extreme weather events, like floods and drought. It mitigates other forms of emissions, such as releasing methane and nitrous oxide due to the rotting of organic materials.
How Does Technology Aid This Process?
Agriculture is one of the leading contributors as well as victims of climate change. According to a recent Cornell University study, farming productivity has dropped 21% since the 1960s due to climate change despite several significant advancements in science and technology. If this disastrous trend were to continue, it would become impossible to produce enough to sustain our planet’s growing population.
For this reason, governments, policymakers, and global organizations are setting targets and pathways to achieve carbon neutrality by the mid-21st century. Given this backdrop, the agroecosystem must adopt emerging technologies to tackle climate change threats actively and improve climate resilience.
Digital technologies of the modern era, such as Cropin’s, are optimizing food systems by enabling stakeholders to collect and analyze billions of datasets at every crop production and distribution point. Cropin’s cloud-based platform relentlessly aggregates data from satellites, drones, soil sensors, and other IoT devices to identify even the slightest change in crop growing conditions.
With accurate and near-real-time intelligence, growers can make well-informed decisions regarding the soil health, crop and variety to cultivate, the type of fertilizers, pesticides, or other treatments required, irrigation management, crop rotation schedules, and other regenerative farming practices to follow. The insights also help them maximize profits and reduce waste.
Large businesses can educate farmers about carbon farming practices and guide them towards a more sustainable way of agriculture. With precision agriculture, farmers can partner with food and agri-businesses to track and record data to qualify them for carbon credits. Precision farming also facilitates them to improve resource efficiency by restricting its usage to only where required.
Following harvest, the continuous monitoring of supply chains to match agricultural supply with consumer demand helps reduce wastage and postharvest carbon emissions. Traceability and blockchain systems increase end-to-end transparency, prompting growers to be more diligent about the practices they follow.
While agriculture contributes significantly to GHG emissions, it is also a viable approach to control and even lower these emissions. A recent IPCC report estimates that croplands and grasslands have the highest potential for carbon dioxide removal and can sequester 0.4 to 8.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year, accounting for about 20% of current greenhouse gas emissions. Agricultural land covers nearly 38% (five billion hectares) of the global land surface, which provides ample opportunities to achieve a carbon-zero future within the next few decades.
The abundance of big data is closing the information gap and reducing the fragmentation between the diverse actors of the food systems. Technological innovations are establishing intelligent, unified, and collaborative business networks around the world. It paves the way for food production that incorporates responsible and sustainable production, sourcing, design, distribution, recovery, consumption, and reuse.