Agriculture is changing fast. With rising annual global carbon emissions, carbon negative farming is a sustainable solution that benefits farmers’ income and farm conditions. As climate change draws uncertainties for many farmers worldwide, carbon farming can provide answers to some of these problems. Let’s look at some of the ways how.
What you’ll learn in this article:
- Agriculture’s carbon footprint
- Defining carbon negative farming
- Carbon negative farming practices
- Top 5 benefits of carbon negative farming to farmers
- Where to get started in carbon farming
Is farming carbon neutral?
Agricultural processes contribute to carbon emissions. These greenhouse gas emissions come from the fields through crop or livestock production. Naturally, plants release carbon dioxide as they grow. However, certain farming practices can add more to gas emissions. Excessive chemical fertilizer application, for example, uses a lot of fossil fuel resources to produce only to end up polluting waters and lands because of over-fertilization.
These processes have become standard for most farms and have global implications for climate change. So, when asked, “is farming carbon neutral?” The answer is no — but there is hope.
Many farmers want to do better for the environment and the legacy they will leave behind for future generations without sacrificing profits. Carbon negative farming may be the answer many farmers look for. But what exactly is it and how does it affect operations and productivity on the farm?
Is carbon-negative good?
Agriculture is facing many challenges including climate change. On top of environmental implications, governments and financial stakeholders face pressures to address climate change. Working with regulations and other businesses, farmers who comply to adapt to climate change may gain favorable economic positions in the industry than those who don’t.
Operating within the context of carbon emissions, it’s easy to get swept up in the buzz. Don’t get lost in the terminologies with some key terms and definitions to know when dealing with carbon negative farming.
- Carbon neutral means that the amount of greenhouse gas emissions a business or a person produces is balanced by absorbing or removing equivalent emissions in the atmosphere. Similar terms include carbon neutrality or net-zero carbon emissions.
- Climate positive takes the concept of neutrality a bit further by committing to remove beyond the calculated carbon footprint.
- Carbon negative shares the same meaning with “climate positive.” Carbon negative (or climate positive) means to create additional carbon dioxide reductions from the atmosphere on top of the equivalent amount of gas emissions.
How does carbon-negative agriculture work?
In agriculture, carbon-negative farming is more commonly referred to simply as carbon farming. Engaging in carbon farming results in many positive outcomes that provide incentives to farmers who enhance the natural capacity of land ecosystems to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
In carbon negative farming, gaining “additionality” is important. Because plants and soils naturally store carbon, in carbon farming there must be carbon storage beyond the baseline.
Carbon farming techniques must be applied by the farmer to enhance soil carbon sequestration. Soils are excellent at storing carbon. In fact, soils are the largest land-based carbon sinks. So, when a farmer shifts to farming practices that boost soil carbon sequestration, a farmer can earn profits.
The 10 best practices to achieve carbon negative farming
- Reduced fertilizer application
- Reduced tillage
- Improved residue management
- Eliminating bare fallows
- Increased production of cover crops
- Sowing companion crops
- Improved task efficiency
- Improved water management
- Fuel-use efficiency
→ Read this guide to get an in-depth overview of the 10 recommended carbon farming practices
What farmer benefits can be achieved from carbon negative farming?
Carbon-neutral agriculture will have a huge effect on the planet but what about farmers?
Many positive outcomes can result from carbon farming that is considered a win-win-win for the climate, farmer incentives, and food production.
5 in-farm benefits of carbon-negative farming
- Soil health
Soils are the bedrock of food production. Because the goal of carbon farming is to sequester carbon in the soil, practices that achieve these are regenerative practices that impact soil health. Cover crops and eliminating bare fallows protect the surface of the soil from erosion. Reducing tillage enhances soil structure for nutrient and water absorption. Soils that are in the tip-top shop also enhance the rate at which soils can keep carbon for longer.
- New revenue streams
Successful soil carbon sequestration through carbon farming generates proof of work in the form of carbon credits or certificates. As more organizations and businesses seek to become carbon neutral and look for ways to limit their carbon emissions, they buy up carbon credits in farming to reach their climate targets. The pressure from businesses to reach carbon neutrality is growing, and so is the demand for carbon credits that pay for farmers’ carbon farming efforts.
- Enhanced financial opportunities
Much like growing crops, farming carbon results in harvesting carbon farming credits to be sold to buyers. But there are carbon farming programs that can provide pre-financing to farmers who wish to become better guardians of soil and climate in agriculture. This makes it easier for a farmer to adopt practices instead of waiting a certain period for the “carbon crops” to mature.
→ Talk to us about pre-financing carbon farming on your farm
Other business partners such as banks and other financial services providers are requiring operational plans for climate change to get access to business deals such as better rates for loans, or rent on farmlands. Engaging in carbon farming can put you in a better position to access financial services to keep your farming business running.
- Climate adaptation
Carbon farming is also referred to as climate-smart agriculture because the same practices that can enhance soil health and carbon sequestration also allow a farm to become more resilient in the face of climate uncertainties and extreme weather. For example, improved residue management promotes better soil structure than can better withstand strong winds and water. This can lead to fewer losses from unpredictable weather. Certain agroforestry designs also improve a farm’s microclimate and act as a barrier to winds.
- Yield and productivity
Techniques such as improving task and fuel-use efficiency can maximize how the farm runs without incurring unnecessary resource use. Optimizing farm management such as water use has benefits to yield especially when resources are limited and costly, allowing the farmer to allocate the budget for yield and productivity improvements. And soils rich in carbon are also known to enhance yield results for crops.
Stepping in the right direction with carbon farming
Carbon farming can be rewarding in more ways than one. As the future of farming hangs in the balance with the looming threats of climate change, farmers can stay ahead of uncertainties that lie ahead through sustainable farming practices.
Achieving desired results and incentives for carbon farming usually starts with the right carbon program. Find out which farming practices are suitable for your farm and what other financial opportunities are available to you through carbon farming.
- Tubiello, F.N., Salvatore, M., Ferrara, A.F., House, J., Federici, S., Rossi, S., Biancalani, R., Condor Golec, R.D., Jacobs, H., Flammini, A., Prosperi, P., Cardenas-Galindo, P., Schmidhuber, J., Sanz Sanchez, M.J., Srivastava, N. and Smith, P. (2015), The Contribution of Agriculture, Forestry and other Land Use activities to Global Warming, 1990–2012. Glob Change Biol, 21: 2655-2660. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.12865
- Rattan Lal. (2021). Negative emission farming. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation May 2021, 76 (3) 61A-64A; DOI: 10.2489/jswc.2021.0419A. https://www.jswconline.org/content/jswc/76/3/61A.full.pdf
- McFarland, B.J. (2011). “Carbon Reduction Projects and the Concept of Additionality.” Sustainable Development Law & Policy 11, no. 2 (2011): 15-18. https://digitalcommons.wcl.american.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1463&context=sdlp