Agriculture: Copenhagen's blind spot

A seedling pushes through the earth
We ignore soil carbon at our peril
By not properly discussing agriculture at national or international climate negotiations, we are avoiding tackling not just a huge source of emissions, but also a potential carbon sink

We may not get a new climate treaty at Copenhagen this year. Given the desperate urgency of tackling climate change, any delay is indefensible. But even now there is a glaring gap in the emissions on the table for discussion at Copenhagen.

Food, farming, forestry and land use change are together responsible for a third of global greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions. Soils contain more carbon than the atmosphere or the oceans. Historically, around 10 per cent of human induced greenhouse gas emissions came from land use change. Forest destruction and land use change is frequently driven by agriculture, and in particular by demand for more industrially produced pork, chicken, beef and dairy products.

Yet farming hardly features in national or international climate change discussions. Worse, people convinced that there must be a magic bullet to solve these problems frequently turn to agriculture for salvation. Biofuels, which often increase rather than decrease ghg emissions, were the first example of this, and attempts to get moribund and out-dated GM technology back off the ground are another.

Difficult to measure

Greenhouse gas emissions from farming are especially difficult for scientists, let alone politicians, to understand. The complexity of the relationships in farming between the nitrogen cycle, the carbon cycle and releases of methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide from soils, balanced against quantity of food produced and a host of other variables, are daunting. Then there are cultural, economic, political and social aspects of farming, and vital concerns about food security, resource depletion, local production, animal welfare and wildlife conservation.

It is not surprising that people in- and outside agriculture seize on simple solutions, hence the flurry of excitement about biofuels and eating less meat. In the UK, the Government is fixated on anaerobic digestion (a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from some animal and green wastes), and more efficient use of artificial nitrogen fertiliser. But tinkering at the edges will not be enough - systemic changes in farming are needed.

Changing what we eat

The solution to all of this is, in fact, simple – but only if we accept the need both to change to climate-friendly diets and climate-friendly farming. We need to change from the Western model of meat intensive diets, to diets with less dairy and meat, more grass fed beef, lamb and mutton, and more fruit, vegetables and pulses. We need to change from industrial agriculture, dependent on artificial inputs like oil-based nitrogen and mined phosphates, to a system that relies on the sun to fix nitrogen through legumes, such as clover.

In the UK, this would allow us to give up our reliance on industrial (especially white) meat and dairy production, routine use of antibiotics in many livestock systems, and the widespread use of artificial poisons - pesticides - to kill insects and plants that compete with crops. Instead, extended crop rotations and mixed crop and animal farms provide defences against competing plants and insects. Half our wheat goes to feed animals: in future most would be available to feed people. We would end the massive imports of protein, mainly soya, to feed intensively-farmed animals, and imports of vegetable oils, mainly palm oil, to feed the processed food industries.

A new climate treaty needs to signal to the world that agriculture must change direction from the disastrous course it has been on over the last sixty years. The UN Committee on Trade and Development and many development NGOs recognise that the best hope of feeding the hungriest people in the world lies with agri-ecological systems of farming, of which organic is the best example. This is what the IAASTD Report, based on the work of 400 international scientists, recommended.

Putting carbon in the soil

The Soil Association has just published a major report on soil carbon showing that we could reduce UK emissions from farming by nearly one-quarter over the next 20 years just from the additional carbon sequestered in soils, if we converted to organic farming. Globally, the Soil Association estimates that soil-carbon sequestration under organic farming could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions from all sources by 11 per cent. Reports published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation suggest that a switch of the world's agriculture to organic would reduce all greenhouse gas emissions from farming by nearly 60 per cent - and over 80 per cent with improved techniques.

According to the IPCC, 90 per cent of agriculture's GHG mitigation potential is from soil carbon sequestration. Based on a review of all the available studies, we have found 28 per cent higher levels of soil carbon in organic compared to non-organic cultivated farmland in the UK. The amount of carbon sequestered each year if all the UK was organic would be equivalent to the annual emissions of 1 million family cars, and this would continue every year for a period of at least twenty years. The immediate adoption of this approach over 20 years represents a quicker and more effective means of locking up CO2 (by using soil as a carbon sink) than any other single strategic approach. If all UK cultivated land was converted to organic there would also be reductions in N2O emissions, but just the soil carbon sequestration would be equivalent to 23 per cent of UK current agricultural emissions, two to three times the UK Government's 2020 target for emissions reduction from farming (6 per cent - 11 per cent).

Unless we combat climate change we won’t be able to feed the world whichever way we farm. Agriculture is the only industry that can take carbon released into the atmosphere and return it safely to the soil. Carbon remains in soils for one hundred years or more, but the biggest gains are in the first twenty years, exactly the period when we need to do most to combat climate change. This is why agriculture is too important to be left out of any new climate change treaty.

Peter Melchett is policy director of the Soil Association

Useful links
Soil Association soil carbon report

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