Modern agriculture is often portrayed as a major contributor to climate change. But the advisory firm ICF International has issued a report stating that this sector can actually lead in the global efforts to mitigate climate change.
The study, commissioned by Monsanto, claims that the widespread implementation of more sustainable farming practices in the U.S. can prevent the emissions of more than 100 million metric tons of carbon and other greenhouse gases. That amount is the equivalent of planting more than 2.5 billion trees over the span of 10 years. Monsanto sponsored the study as part of what the company says is its commitment to become carbon neutral by 2021.
The ICF report cites EPA data that suggests farming generated almost 8 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants last year, including methane, nitric acid and ammonia. The total of 461 million metric tons of emissions associated with agriculture is expected to increase by 11 percent over the next 15 years. But if five different strategies could scale throughout the U.S., the agriculture sector could actually play a critical role in minimizing climate change risks, the authors of the ICF study say.
First, ICF recommends that farmers plant more cover crops between primary growing seasons so that farmland can serve as a massive carbon sink. Depending on which and where commodity crops, such as cotton, corn, soy or wheat, are grown, these cover crops can also help prevent soil erosion. Adding crops such as legumes, grasses and brassicas (which include mustard, canola and cruciferous vegetables) to rotations can help prevent soil erosion while preventing fertilizer-based emissions, including nitrous oxide, from escaping into the atmosphere.
Although there are some potential risks from expanding the cultivation of cover crops, as in the increased use of pesticides and other agrochemicals, the increased cultivation of these plants can overall become a net positive. Only 2 to 3 percent of American farmers regularly include cover crops on their land; ICF suggests that if this practice scales up, the agriculture sector can prevent up to 120 million metric tons of emissions by the end of 2020.
Conservation tillage, as in reduced- or no-till farming practices, is an additional suggestion by ICF to reduce agriculture’s contribution to climate change. In addition to decreasing farmers' needs for fuel and labor, improved tillage methods can increase the soil’s carbon moisture and carbon storage potential. The ICF study cites data suggesting there is much room for improvement on this front, particularly in soybean and corn production. If all U.S. farmers moved toward this method of sowing crops, the results in the next four years could prevent the emission of more than 30 million metric tons of greenhouse gases.
Precision agriculture, which uses “big data” and GPS technologies to identify the levels of fertilizers needed on a macro level, is another farming tactic that can lessen farming’s environmental impact. The report covers the effects of increasing the use of substances such as nitrogen inhibitors, which stall the oxidation of ammonium into nitrates. Other examples include urease inhibitors, necessary to slow down the breakdown of urea, a white crystalline solid common in animal feeds and fertilizers. The wider adoption of these inhibitors, especially in the production of grains and soybeans, could have a smaller but significant role in decreasing agriculture’s climate impacts: Almost 12 million metric tons of GHGs could be avoided in 2020, in fact, if the use of these substances become standard practice within farming.
Other practices ICF explores include the wider use of plant fibers such as corn stover, which are the stalks, cobs and and husks left behind after corn is harvested. Converting these plant materials into ethanol and other raw materials, which has led to the launch of pilot projects across the country including California's San Joaquin Valley, is one untapped resource touted in ICF’s research.
At this point, the ICF study suggests going after fruit that is high up on the tree. Critics say the production of ethanol is not necessarily cost-effective or offers much in the way of greenhouse gas emissions savings. Many investments in turning corn stover into cellulosic ethanol are due to government grants and other financial incentives. Those subsidies, and this industry, could disappear at any time over the next decade; and as far as automobile fuel goes, the evidence suggests that electric vehicles are gaining more acceptance from consumers.
Furthermore, the ICF authors recommend burning excess corn stover at coal-fired plants or converting it into biochar — projects worthy enough to explore at a pilot level, but will not curry favor with many environmentalists, regulators or even farmers, who may see such efforts as requiring much work and investment with little reward.
The Monsanto-ICF study offers ideas that merit consideration. Agriculture, despite its cyclical booms and busts, will become more consequential in a world sorting out how it will feed as many as 9 billion people by 2050. Unfortunately for Monsanto, its reputation gets in the way of this study resonating with many because of the optics of the company funding this study. The St. Louis-based agriculture technology giant was recently criticized for its actions behind what has been described as a “bogus” GMO-labeling bill. The company’s foibles overseas, from India to Argentina, also draw the ire of opponents.
Nevertheless, biotech companies will have to be part of the conversation as society figures out how to feed a hungry planet. And this ICF study offers a strong launching point from which policymakers, entrepreneurs and environmentalists can have a conversation with farmers on how they can take a leading role in solving one of society’s largest challenges in the years ahead.
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