COMMENT: Climate-positive agriculture: building a self-sustaining carbon sequestration ecosystem

Published 19:09 on August 26, 2022  /  Last updated at 11:11 on December 19, 2023  /  Contributed Content, Nature-based, Other Content, Voluntary

Through working with recognised carbon certification organisations, as well as investing in the development of new and more effective protocols, we can accelerate the move towards climate-positive agriculture and champion farmers as key participants in the climate change solution, argues Mike Frank of agricultural solutions firm UPL Corporation. 

By Mike Frank, President and Chief Operating Officer, UPL Corporation (subsequently appointed CEO on Sep. 1) 

We need to act decisively against climate change – but global challenges including rising living costs, energy crises, and food supply chain issues are increasing pressure to postpone vital changes. And it is a cruel irony that delaying necessary sustainability policies, practices and programmes, will only worsen these challenges in the long-term.

But what if we could reimagine our approach to sustainability in a way that creates win-win outcomes for all? What if we could create not just global decarbonisation policies and programmes, but also build an entire ecosystem to nurture sustainability across the food supply chain, communities, and the environment?

The global agricultural industry has a real opportunity to do this and to make a positive difference for farming communities, our global food future, and the planet. Even though some farming practices do contribute to global GHG emissions and some parts of the world are facing challenges from deforestation and land clearing, from crop to crop and country to country, the farmers we work with are already embracing a sustainable future.

They have experienced first-hand the detrimental impacts of climate change, from rising temperatures to extreme climatic events and unpredictable water availability. But many have also experienced the benefits good agricultural practices combined with efficacious technologies and solutions deliver in terms of productivity as well as the health of their fields and environment.

With the commitment of farmers and the wider sector, agriculture can become part of the climate change solution.

The key tool is not a new one. Carbon sequestration is well established as a vital resource in combatting climate change by reaching net zero. It is estimated soil carbon sequestration could remove as much as 5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year from the atmosphere, which is about 25% of the carbon reduction needed to avoid breaching the catastrophic 1.5-C global warming barrier. As recognised by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), agriculture, “could help store vast amounts of atmospheric carbon in the soil, while at the same time regenerating soil fertility, plant health and whole ecosystems. This is a no regret option that offers multiple benefits and deserves high-level visibility.”

Farmers can sequester carbon in both the soil (lithosphere) and crops (biosphere), combining new technologies with age-old good agricultural practices. These can include crop diversification, no-till practices, carbon-fixing bacteria, bio-fertilisers, cover crops, and smart irrigation practices, all of which can increase organic carbon stocks in soil, making the soil more fertile, and locking it away indefinitely.

But farmers cannot be expected to take on this burden unsupported. To empower farmers to seize this opportunity, at UPL we have partnered with the FIFA Foundation to make a firm commitment to work with farmers across the world to sequester a gigaton – that’s one billion metric tonnes – of atmospheric carbon in agricultural soils by 2040.

This is our Gigaton Carbon Goal – a new ecosystem that harnesses sustainable agricultural practices to make a significant contribution to global decarbonisation efforts. The pilot phase is currently underway, with more 100,000 small and medium-holder farmers supported across 230,000 hectares in Europe, the Americas, and Asia. So far, over 200,000 tons of CO2e of GHG emissions reductions have been certified or are in verification. By 2024, the programme will cover 1 million hectares worldwide and will then be scaled-up to cover more than 100 million hectares.

To make this process equitable for farmers, a Gigaton Carbon Goal carbon credit programme will provide crucial additional revenue. It is a simple way of ensuring that farmers are rewarded, incentivised, and empowered to benefit from implementing sustainable practices, and in time a credit system may develop for improving farmland management, such as by reducing fertiliser application and tillage alongside improving water and residue management; avoiding deforestation, planting new forests, and rehabilitating degraded land with new planting; and by reducing or substituting fuel and energy sources for cleaner varieties. Through working with recognised carbon certification organisations, as well as investing in the development of new and more effective protocols, we can accelerate the move towards climate-positive agriculture and champion farmers as key participants in the climate change solution.

This farmer-centric approach is critical. In Europe and North America, it’s all too easy to think of industrial scale farming and consider rolling out sustainable tools and practices an easy feat. However, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that between 70-80% of the world’s farms are run by families and a similar percentage of farms are smallholders, operating on just 7% of all agricultural land. These smallholders are already particularly vulnerable to climate change and making a change that even slightly reduces their harvest or profitability risks their and their communities’ livelihoods. That is why economically insulating farmers through the initial shift into sustainable farming practices is so important.

The good news is that farming techniques that improve Soil Organic Carbon (SOC) also improve productivity and long-term profitability, something we’re hearing from farmers who’ve already made this shift. That is why we are working to make sustainable outcomes a reality for all farming communities – whether that’s helping farmers grow more food on less land and perform crop diversification practices, empowering female farmers with stewardship training and Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs), or  exclusively distributing cutting-edge biological solutions that protect staple crops from destructive pests without damaging the environment.

Taken together, we are committed to creating a sustainable, climate-positive agricultural ecosystem with carbon sequestration, GAPs, sustainable solutions, and thriving farming communities at its heart. One that means sustainable practices become self-sustaining, benefitting farmers as much as they benefit the planet and ensuring that these practices continue, now and into the future. Working together, we can nurture this ecosystem so it can nurture us all.

UPL is a multinational company providing agricultural products and solutions, including seeds, biosolutions, crop protection products, and pre- and post-harvest solutions. It has a presence in more than 130 countries.