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16 April 2020

Seven ways to make crop production climate-neutral

Photo: Robert Wiedemann / Unsplash. 

Can crop production be climate neutral?  – a Swedish farmer cooperative company with 25 000 members and operations in 25 countries – says “yes”!

In a recently launched “Farming for the Future” report, Lantmännen underscores that achieving climate neutrality is not only about climate, but that sustainable food production has to rely on principles of resource efficiency, productivity and farm profitability. And, according to their analysis, it is possible to achieve these goals by following a seven principle strategy outlined in this article.

By all means, Sweden is a highly industrialized country with robust institutional capacity, which will play a role in implementation. Nevertheless, these principles could offer inspiration for other actors who wish to move towards climate-smart farming too.

Agriculture generates around a quarter of the global greenhouse gas emissions, including more than 40% of methane, a gas that has the highest warming potential. Reducing the climate impact of our food system includes consumer-side measures, like shifting to a more plant-based diet and cutting food waste. However, climate-neutral agriculture won’t happen without drastic reductions in emissions at the level of production.

Achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement by limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees by 2050 requires cutting greenhouse gas emissions by half every decade. Lantmännen is certain that their strategy can deliver on these climate goals within their agricultural production. So, what does this strategy consist of?

1. Transitioning to fossil-free farming

Swedish agriculture is highly mechanized, and most of the machinery runs on fossil fuels. Opting for bio-based alternatives or using electricity from renewable sources could cut greenhouse gas emissions from crop production by 10%, according to the report. Lantmännen’s ambition is to reach fossil-free machinery in the Nordic region already by 2030.

Another part of the transition is about rethinking the use of fertilizers. Currently, Swedish farming mostly relies on mineral fertilizers, as they are relatively cheap and handy to apply in a controlled way. However, mineral fertilizers are a major climate culprit. For instance, the production of mineral nitrogen fertilizer heavily relies on natural gas. Using more organic fertilizers, such as animal manure, or mineral fertilizers produced with green sources of energy could substantially reduce the emissions from farming. Nitrogen fertilizers produced with wind or solar power are under development but are still too expensive to be commercially viable.

2. Producing green energy from farmland

In Sweden, many farmers already grow willow and other bioenergy crops. But it is also possible to produce bioethanol, from grain, ley and plant residues through fermentation and distillation. Bioethanol can then be used to run farm machinery and food transports – a smart circular solution! Currently, ethanol produced from crop and crop residues is still more expensive than fossil alternatives and using agricultural land to grow energy crops generates debates about competition with food security. So, it is important to understand that biofuel is one element of the renewable energy portfolio and should be combined with other sources, like solar, wind and waste-to-energy.

3. Reducing nutrient losses

Conventional intensive cropping systems with high use of fertilizers and soil tillage leak nitrogen, both to the atmosphere and into water bodies. When nitrogen gets in the air it turns into nitrous oxide, a gas that traps heat and radiation and is considered 300 times stronger than carbon dioxide in terms of the greenhouse effect. When nitrogen leaks into water it causes eutrophication, choking aquatic life and leading to toxic algae blooms. It is possible to reduce nitrogen leakage by employing precision farming, optimizing the use of fertilizers and other inputs, as well as through smart liming and drainage measures.

Photo: Myriam Zylles / Pixabay

4. Designing cropping system to sequester carbon and increase biodiversity

Frequent tillage releases greenhouse gas emissions and reduces soil organic matter, making the soil less productive. Low tillage cropping systems need to become more common. Growing perennial crops, such as ley, can lock carbon in the ground. Perennial varieties of cereals, pulses and oil crops are still rare, but with innovation and breeding, they might become important sources of food in the future. Swedish farmers have started to introduce catch crops, such as oilseed radish and white mustard, and intermediate crops such as buckwheat or clover. These are not harvested but planted to catch and keep nutrients and carbon in the soil, which in turn reduces climate impact.

Biodiversity is also threatened by climate change. Higher average temperatures and shifting or disappearing habitats are constantly reducing the number of living organisms in the world. Including flower zones, shrubs or trees in the cropping system design can help maintain and enhance local biodiversity. These measures can also prevent erosion and capture carbon.

5. Developing sustainable plant protection

Increasing the efficiency of farming by maintaining and even increasing crop yields without using more resources is another effective climate action. High and stable yields require protection from pests, diseases and weeds, which is currently mostly done using chemical pesticides and by intensive soil tillage.

Developing and implementing biological control, plant protection solutions that are neither hazardous for the surrounding environment nor dependant on increased tillage, is an immense challenge for the future. Biological control can support early detection and treatment of pests, diseases and weeds are under development and will improve farming sustainability. One example is the application of a cabbage moth eating bacteria, which kills the pests when they start to eat on the cabbage leaves. Other biological control measures can enhance the prevalence of ladybugs, that enjoy eating aphids that are harmful to plants.

6. Investing in innovation and technology

New technologies can help us make our farming systems resource-efficient and climate-smart. Such developments as GPS data, satellite imagery and drone-borne sensors detecting field variations, can enable farmers to use fertilizers, water and pesticides in the exact required amount at every spot of the field. Advancement in plant breeding can bear new varieties that are high-yielding, disease-resistant and resilient against droughts, floods and other extreme weather conditions. According to the Lantmännen report, optimizing our farming systems can reduce the climate impacts of farming by about a quarter.

7. Adapting to climate change

Agriculture has a unique challenge – while being an effective climate solution, it is also highly impacted by the climatic disruption. So, the sector needs to be creative and flexible, combining mitigation and adaptation measures. In Sweden, warmer weather could generate some temporary advantages, making farming season longer, increasing yields and creating opportunities for growing new kinds of crops.

However, it does not mean the sector will not be affected by droughts, flooding and increased pressure from pests and diseases. So, investing in a climate-smart crop production system is the priority. Particular attention should be paid to water storage and irrigation, drought-resistant crops, biological control and diverse cropping systems that do not depend on the success of a single crop.

The challenges agriculture and farming are facing are many, and they are tough. But with the right technologies, knowledge and ambition, there is every reason to believe that climate-neutral crop production is possible.

Written by Jorunn Hellman, an intern at SIANI. She holds a Master’s Degree in Soil Science from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU.