Farmers have been cast as the “bad guys” in the environmental debate — planting and harvesting crops uses fossil fuels and applying fertilizers and herbicides causes pollution of the air and water, the story goes. Animals, especially those in “massive confinement facilities” produce manure that creates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Even cows’ burps are climate change villains.
We hear about “saving the planet” with “plant-based meat” and “meatless Mondays.”
That could be about to change. The reality of the hottest thing in farming today – regenerative agriculture — is not only environmentally friendly; it just might be the number one hero in the fight against climate change.
It turns out that growing crops pull carbon dioxide out of the air and storing it in the soil. Lots of carbon. In fact, practices such as switching from conventional tillage to no-till, diversifying plant populations with cover crops, and integrating livestock can sequester 1 ton of carbon per acre. More involved regenerative programs are believed to sequester five times that amount — enough that farming alone could reduce atmospheric carbon by enough to meet the U.N. goal of 7.6% reduction of carbon dioxide.
Those ruminant animals whose burps have “environmentalists” so concerned? Turns out they are the key to making drastic reductions in the amount of chemical fertilizers needed to increase crop yields to provide food for a growing world population at the same time they convert plants into human food protein with great efficiency.
The grains that are blamed for using up all those fossil fuels and fresh water can actually be grown with much, much less than farmers were using just a couple of decades ago. Those grains can also be made into products such as biodegradable foam for mattresses, cushions and clean burning renewable fuel. On the horizon is an emerging crop that can be used to make paper and biodegradable plastic ware.
Agriculture’s carbon footprint — far from being a contributor to climate change — is capable of being deeply carbon-negative. The good news for farmers is that the practices that make that carbon sequestration possible also result in a healthier bottom line for their operation, making them practices likely to be widely adopted across the agricultural sector.
Sequestering greater amounts of carbon means healthier soils, which in turn mean healthier plants that produce higher yields of those grains and other food and fiber.
Scientists are still measuring and studying just how far agriculture can go. The research so far is extremely promising, and the number of efforts are growing, as is the “carbon marketplace” that promises to offer farmers a payday for what they are putting under the ground in addition to the one that comes from harvesting what goes above the ground.
It's enough to make you feel downright optimistic. Coronavirus pandemic, trade wars and a crazy political season will all fade away. Healthy soil, water and air just might be lasting. Better yet, farming might have a path to sustainable profitability.