Growers to provide feed, fiber and fuel and now according to a new report released during a press conference at the Farm Progress Show this week, farmers, or agriculture, can also help combat climate change through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). ICF International conducted the research entitled, “Charting a Path to Carbon Neutral Agriculture: Mitigation Potential for Crop Based Strategies,” and found that widespread adoption of recommended practices could potentially result in more than 100 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent emission reductions in the U.S. alone.
“This report shows promising results and helps confirm the significant impact farmers can make when they adopt and maintain the practices noted in the report,” said Michael Lohuis, Ph.D., Lead Scientist for Environmental Strategy for Agriculture for Monsanto who commissioned the report as part of the company’s commitment to achieve a carbon neutrality by 2021. “The carbon-smart practices mentioned, coupled with innovations like biotechnology and advanced breeding, are vital tools that can help farmers adapt to and mitigate climate change. At Monsanto, we are committed to encouraging the use of innovative farming techniques and carbon smart practices that will help reduce emissions.” Lohuis also noted that Monsanto is sharing data and modeling results to help encourage the ag community to adopt the best sustainability practices.
The report focused on near-term strategies, including:
- Cover crops. The report found that the greatest near-term potential for reducing GHG emissions through agriculture comes from the planting of cover crops, grown between primary crop seasons. Cover crops, which are currently grown on only about 3-5 percent of U.S. crop acreage, can prevent soil erosion and help to absorb and keep carbon stored in the soil. (Also during Farm Progress the Iowa Ag Water Alliance announced a conservation strategy that also included the role of cover crops in nutrient management.)
- Conservation tillage. The second largest potential comes from reducing or eliminating soil tillage, which enables farmers to save money and resources while limiting the amount of carbon released from the soil into the atmosphere. This practice also helps preserve soil structure and soil organisms, which improves soil health. (During Farm Progress a new multi-industry collaborative was announced, the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, with a focus on expanding conservation practices and tools as promoted in part by the Soil Health Partnership.)
- Precision nutrient management. Precision agriculture and nitrification inhibitors can be effective in reducing GHG emissions. Precision agriculture helps determine the appropriate amount of fertilizer and pesticide to use on the field, and where they need to be applied. By using GPS guidance and variable rate technology when applying the inputs, farmers optimize nutrient and fuel use while improving profitability. By adding inhibitors, farmers utilize fertilizer more efficiently, reducing emissions and achieving the same yield.
The report also found that long-term strategies also can help reduce carbon emissions, but will require more research and time to scale-up. These strategies include:
- Ethanol production from corn stover. Corn stover (the stalks, leaves and cobs left in the field after corn harvest) represents a sizeable renewable source of biomass to augment ethanol production. This material could help reduce emissions from fossil fuels while sustainably managing excess crop residues in the field.
- Utilize crop material left in the field after harvest. There also is a possibility that available excess corn stover could be burned alongside coal in coal-fired power plants, which would reduce the amount of fossil fuel used through the use of this renewable source of energy. Available corn stover also could be processed into plant-based charcoal (biochar) that could be incorporated into the soil to increase soil health and store carbon in the soil not in the atmosphere.
“Agriculture has the potential to play a critical role in addressing climate change,” added Debbie Reed, Executive Director with the Coalition for Agricultural Greenhouse Gases. “This report adds another critical set of data points to help quantify and demonstrate how the agriculture community can take actionable steps, both in the near-term and long-term that will have a substantial and positive impact on our planet.”
Listen to the Combating Climate Change with Ag press conference here: Combating Climate Change Report Presser