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Carbon farming: three obstacles and how to overcome them

Half of everything we eat is carbon. In fact, carbon is the basic ingredient of life - and of most of what we use in human activity, from chemicals to fossil fuels to cement to fibers. In fact, these activities release carbon, which combines with oxygen to produce the most infamous and most abundant greenhouse gas of them all: carbon dioxide (CO2). Today the conversation between the public and private spheres centers on trying to find alternative pathways for reducing climate-altering gases and reaching climate neutrality, that point of equilibrium where human activities no long impact either the climate or our natural resources.

The European Union has determined that by 2050, the entire economic system must be climate neutral. Specifically, the European Climate Law sets the legally binding target of gradually diminishing and ultimately eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, after which time human activities must absorb more carbon dioxide than they emit.

This ambitious goal means rebalancing carbon cycles, which can be done with three key actions: implementing a decarbonization strategy to slash the use of non-renewable energy sources by 95%; recovering carbon from waste and biomass thanks to the circular economy and the bio-economy; significantly expanding and disseminating technologies and long-term solutions for removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it.

Clearly, it’s the third point that interests the agriculture industry the most, and that we need to speed up. In fact, by removing and storing CO2, we can rapidly mitigate the effects of the accumulation of this gas in the atmosphere, and buy more time for clean technologies to evolve. The methods currenting being used to do this belong to two major families: the technological method of carbon capture and storage (CCS), which works directly at a process level, capturing carbon dioxide before it can reach the atmosphere; and the natural method based on balancing carbon cycles inside resilient ecosystems.

Most of us realize that reforestation and the very existence of wide swathes of forest absorb huge quantities of carbon from the atmosphere. But by changing farming practices, the agricultural industry could make a big contribution to cutting CO2 emissions too. While it’s true that agricultural production is responsible for a relatively small portion of the total amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere, but farming does generate far greater quantities of other greenhouse gases such as nitric oxide and methane (300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in terms of its climate-altering capacity). But going back to carbon dioxide, agriculture is the key to absorbing this gas from the atmosphere. In fact, by using a set of practices for managing farm production, which are referred to as “regenerative agriculture,” farmers can sequester and store carbon in the soil, and in the roots and leaves of the plants themselves. In a few simple words, they can achieve carbon negative, absorbing more CO2 than they emit. Without going into too much technical detail, scientists have demonstrated that this approach, if properly implemented, can minimize the use of fertilizers, cut fuel consumption (thanks to less intensive farming), mitigate the risk of flood and draught damage, and in addition to all this, can actually help gradually restore the ecosystem.

Ecosystem-based agriculture (as opposed to input-based, whether inputs are of chemical or biological origin) is a potential driver that could lead the entire economic sector to climate neutral. It isn’t a “degrowth” practice, but a completely different approach that’s already being implemented on millions of acres of farmland all around the world, an approach that unites production and sustainability. It’s called carbon farming, an appealing name in light of the times. So with carbon farming (which actually includes forest management too), estimates show that it would be possible to capture from 4 to 5 metric gigatons of CO2 per year, around one-third of what we need to hit the target of limiting the temperature rise to 2°C.

At this point, one question that immediately comes to mind: If there are so many benefits to carbon farming, why isn’t it already the most common model in agriculture? Why is it still open to debate? The obstacles (and these are the same throughout Europe) are technical, regulatory, and cultural.

From a technical standpoint, determining how much carbon dioxide is absorbed in an acre of land is a difficult task, to say the least, requiring reams of data. The carbon-absorbing capacity in this case depends on countless factors: soil composition, crop rotation, location, and environmental conditions to name a few. What’s more, to pinpoint the exact amount of carbon dioxide, we need comparative, granular samples taken over a number of years.

The bigger obstacles are the regulatory ones, but today the EU is working to tackle them, although admittedly not without difficulty and delays. In recent years, farms that have implemented carbon farming protocols are earning carbon credits (comparable to “white certificates”), sold in voluntary schemes, in most cases in an agri-food supply chain, when one or more participants need to offset emissions they generate in their production process. But voluntary schemes and certifying bodies follow different methodologies and get variable results (see the technical obstacles described above).

Added to this is the fact that the transition from traditional farming to carbon farming entails an initial drop in yields compared to conventional agriculture, at least for a few years. But for decades now, farmers have learned to think in terms of industrial agriculture based on mass production, and often the sole focus is to measure the capacity to generate liquidity in a single year, rather than to create long-term value. So as far as they’re concerned, an uncertain yield is the worst of all evils. So once again, the third obstacle is trap of “this is the way it’s always been done,” and the lack of managerial training in the agriculture industry.

The solutions for getting over these hurdles are within our grasp: legislation, research, and training. We have the scientific tools to calculate potential carbon absorption, and these are indispensable to standardize assessment methods and the necessary agronomic protocols. But we need to coordinate research and share results more quickly, the same way it happened with the development of Covid-19 vaccines. Seeing as the problem is a global one, a standardized system of parameters should become supranational legislation (European, in our case), just like carbon dioxide emissions are supranational. Another suggestion is for new EU agriculture policy to envisage specific tools for easing the burden of research and facilitating coordination, seeing that these efforts are in everyone’s best interest.

Beyond the necessary studies, the lack of a regulatory framework also hinders the creation of a business model for carbon farming, a model that should enable farmers to shore up their income from farming by selling carbon credits. That said, clearly if farmers don’t have the managerial tools to exploit this paradigm shift, we would have no choice but to make it mandatory and provide subsidies, forever.

In this author’s opinion, if we compare carbon farming to other sustainable approaches to agriculture, there is an enormous advantage: farmers don’t need to embrace a new life philosophy; they just need to learn certain technical and managerial notions. This makes carbon farming an extremely effective tool to ensure a sustainable food system. But we also need to push to change the business models of the entire agri-food supply chain, doing more and more to link the value of commodities to the ability to preserve the climate and conserve our natural resources.