IPCC Land Use Report Draws New Attention to Soil Carbon, Regenerative Agriculture
In the wake of the IPCC land use report earlier this month, with its urgent focus on food supplies, soil conservation, and natural methods of storing carbon, follow-up news stories in the United States and Canada are tracing the steps farmers are already taking to shift their practices.
“Many farmers probably haven’t read the new report from the United Nations warning of threats to the global food supply from climate change and land misuse,” writes San Joaquin Valley producer Alan Sano, in an opinion piece for the New York Times. “But we don’t need to read the science—we’re living it.” Facing a combination of drought, heat, and changing local conditions that threaten crop yields, “there’s not much debate anymore that the climate is changing” in one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions.
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Sano cites the IPCC’s call for “action on a sweeping scale” to avert declining food yields, instability in food supplies, increased soil erosion, and threats to water availability in the decades ahead, coupled with its identification of the global food supply system as a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.
“The good news is that farmers can be part of the solution,” he notes. “At our 4,000-acre (1,625-hectare) farm, where we primarily grow tomatoes, we started planting winter crops that require less water, like garbanzo beans and garlic. When necessary, we leave some fields unplanted for part of the year to save water for our high-value almond and pistachio trees. We switched to drip irrigation long ago, which efficiently delivers water to crops at their roots under the soil, protected from the hot sun.”
And he gives a litany of other steps the farm has taken. They’re protecting soil health, recognizing that “a living soil with lots of organic matter absorbs and holds more water and nutrients, retains more topsoil, and grows healthier plants that survive increasing pressures from pests and diseases.” They grow cover crops between seasons, while decreasing tillage to protect microorganisms, a practice that “keeps carbon in the soil, where it belongs.” And Sano, along with other area farmers, keeps in touch with a local farm extension program to keep up with soil health techniques and share their successes.
“This has been good for our business, too,” he reports. “We spend less on water, energy, and fertilizer and are getting good yields.”
But as farming becomes more difficult in the years ahead, “farmers will need more financial incentives to adopt practices that encourage healthy soils and water conservation, like government grants or cost-sharing arrangements. That kind of support would lower the barriers of cost and risk that farmers now face in trying new, climate-friendly ways of farming.”
Bloomberg tells a similar story with its profile of North Dakota farmer Dennis Haugen, who plants radishes and harvests their seeds but leaves the actual cover crops behind to enrich the soil.
“Cover crops have always been a part of agriculture,” the news agency explains. “But recently they’ve gained a fancy new name, regenerative farming, and increasingly they’re being marketed as a low-tech but effective weapon” against climate change. “They reduce soil runoff from heavy rains and flooding, retain water during stubborn periods of drought, and—looking to the future—they suck up greenhouse gases.”
“Farmers can potentially perform a service for all of us. That service is to sequester carbon and reverse climate change,” said David Perry, CEO of Boston-based Indigo Ag, which pays farmers US$15 to $20 per ton for any carbon they can demonstrably store. “Whether we’re consumers or governments, we should be willing to pay farmers to do that.”
In Canada, meanwhile, National Observer reports on the growing number of farmers increasing the organic content of their soil by using the land to capture carbon, in what The Canadian Press calls “one of the most decisively helpful options” to address climate change and land use. The approach “helps not just on the climate front but also for the sustainability and resilience of the soil,” CP reports, citing David Burton, a professor at the Dalhousie University’s department of plant, food, and environmental sciences.
“It’s a rare example of one of the mitigation options that has really, really big positive advantages beyond greenhouse gas mitigation,” Burton said. After decades of more intensive farming practices, “we’re realizing we can’t just push this thing to the max all the time. We’re going to have to start thinking about the condition of the soil.”
Burton said no-till seeding grew to 56% of Canadian cropland in 2011, a dramatic increase from just 7% in 1991. In the U.S., Bloomberg says, the latest Department of Agriculture census shows a 50% increase in cover crop acreage between 2012 and 2017.
Manitoba farmer Wes Pankratz, who adopted no-till techniques many years ago, echoed Sano’s arguments about the business value of healthier soil. “If you can build up the soil organic matter, your soil will be healthier, you can maybe grow a reasonable crop with a lot less inputs, which is good for the bank account as well as the environment,” he told CP. Now, he’s looking at planting non-cash crops, simply to add more carbon to the soil.
“When zero-till first came in, it just almost seemed impossible, and now we’re getting into regenerative agriculture and hopefully we’ll get that figured out, too,” he said.
In southern Saskatchewan, meanwhile, livestock farmer Blain Hjertaas is working with techniques he sees as an answer to the IPCC’s emphasis on animal agriculture as a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. “Agriculture is basically destroying our planet the way we’re approaching the system,” he told CP. But “it’s not the cattle, it’s our management that’s the problem. To concentrate them all into a huge feedlot, that’s an ecological disaster.”
Hjertaas’ alternative is to allow cattle to forage in a controlled area and relocate the herd every other day, so that they spread manure and fertilize prairie grasses that can grow waist-high in the two to three months before the animals return to each field. “The principle is: keep it green as long as possible, so we always want tall grass,” he said, adding that his approach sequesters more carbon than the animals produce.
Hjertaas agreed with Sano’s call for financial incentives to help farmers develop climate solutions. “I’m all for a carbon tax, we need to tax bad behaviour,” he said. “But what’s missing is we need to reward the good behaviour.”
Bloomberg points to a U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research study that suggests cover crops may be contributing to higher winter temperatures in North America. Union of Concerned Scientists senior analyst Karen Stillerman said that uncertainty underscores the need for further research and technical assistance to farmers, to ”seek to minimize any negative localized effects with strategies such as planting shorter cover crops and mowing or grazing cover crops before snowfall.”
At the same time, “we are looking for action at the federal level,” she added, including incentives for producers to “farm in ways that build a healthy soil and regenerate resources.” As one example, Bloomberg points to a $25-million carbon farming pilot project that was included in the 2018 U.S. farm bill.
With all early roads to their party’s 2020 presidential nomination passing through the midwestern farm state of Iowa, InsideClimate News says the nearly two dozen would-be presidential candidates for the Democratic Party are connecting farming to climate change as no past campaign has ever done. “Climate change is not happening in a hundred years, it’s happening right now,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). “We can do a lot with soil and conservation.”
“Rural America can lead the way on how we tackle climate change,” added Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), in a speech to farmers that included a specific focus on soil carbon.
“At least 12 of the candidates—Sen. Michael Bennet, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Cory Booker, Gov. Steve Bullock, former Reps. John Delaney and Beto O’Rourke, Gov. Jay Inslee, [South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete] Buttigieg, Gillibrand, Klobuchar, [Sen. Bernie] Sanders, and [Sen. Elizabeth] Warren—have issued policy proposals or statements that specifically address the impacts of climate change on agriculture or the role agriculture can plan in solving the climate crisis,” InsideClimate notes. “Some have called for spending more money on conservation measures that store carbon in the soil. “
“For candidates to be unveiling these very detailed plans is significant,” said Adam Mason, state policy director for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. “Candidates are thinking about how to inject climate policies into their rural agendas.”