Agriculture is both a significant source of the greenhouse gas emissions that are wreaking havoc with our climate and also one of the most powerful potential tools available to us to reverse climate change.
“No industry has a bigger impact on climate change than agriculture and food, both as a source of the problem and as a solution.” – Paul Hawken
It all comes down to carbon – a fairly ubiquitous element that is also the basis of all life on earth. Like water, carbon has a natural cycle. It’s stored in oil, coal, natural gas and living things. When those things are burned or die and decompose, the carbon gets released. Normally, that carbon would get recycled into new life forms, keeping carbon levels—and our atmosphere—in a dynamic natural balance.
However, since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, humans have disrupted that cycle, throwing the dynamic carbon balance off and resulting in an increasingly destabilized climate. Farming techniques like deep tilling, mono-cropping, and the overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are contributing to climate change by speeding the erosion of precious topsoil and killing off the micro-organisms that help build soil carbon and enable the soil to serve as a natural “carbon sink” by drawing atmospheric carbon back down into the Earth. Throughout history agricultural management has depleted global soil carbon stocks by an estimated 66 billion tons (about 50 times the annual emissions from agriculture).
But regenerative, carbon farming practices can actually reverse climate change by putting more carbon into the ground than is released into the atmosphere. Moving carbon out of the atmosphere and into the soil not only makes the soil more productive and resilient to climate change by improving both its infiltration and water holding capacities, it also helps to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. It’s estimated that regenerative carbon farming practices could mitigate as much as 4-6 billion tons of CO2 eq/yr or 10-12 percent of global human-caused emissions. By reducing chemical inputs, reducing or eliminating the tilling of our soil, and moving from mono-crops to diverse cropping systems—including cover crops—we can help reverse climate change while increasing food security and restoring fresh water supplies. This short video from Soil Story provides a great explanation of how this cycle works.
By committing to sourcing agricultural products from farms that use carbon farming practices, your company can help reverse climate change. Not only is this the right thing to do for the planet, it’s also a smart way to help reduce risk and build resilience in your supply chain. Farms that use carbon farming practices are more resilient because rich soils that are high in organic matter need fewer inputs (fertilizers and pesticides) and are better able to resist the droughts, floods, and other extreme weather events that are becoming increasingly common as a result of climate change.
What is expected of companies that commit to integrating carbon farming into their agricultural supply chain?
The goals are to increase the organic matter (a.k.a. carbon) in the soil and reduce carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in our atmosphere. Companies will work with the farmers in their supply chain to find ways to decrease their carbon and GHG emissions through things like increasing their use of renewable energy and energy efficiency, improving the efficiency of their crop inputs (fertilizers and pesticides), and increasing their soil organic matter and above-ground biomass (a.k.a. plants).
Please note that this commitment pertains to land-based farming. Livestock producers might want to make a commitment here for their land but also consider making a commitment to reducing Short Lived Climate Pollutants such as methane from manure and enteric emissions.
Companies committing to integrating carbon farming in their supply chain will be expected to complete an annual online questionnaire updating the Climate Collaborative on progress made toward the commitment. The questionnaire will be short and should not be burdensome to complete.
How can the Climate Collaborative help?
We’ve partnered with the Cool Farm Alliance (CFA) to help measure the net carbon emissions for the farming operations in your supply chain via their Cool Farm Tool. The process involves quantifying the change in both soil carbon sinks (increasing organic matter in the soil) and carbon/GHG sources (energy used, fertilizers and pesticides applied, etc.,) year-over-year and subtracting the sources from the sinks to determine the net.
While we’ve partnered with the Cool Farm Alliance to provide the Cool Farm Tool that growers can use to calculate their net emissions, you may choose another route to accomplish the same outcome. Ultimately, the path forward is to increase organic matter in the soil and decrease GHG emissions from farming. Be creative and consider some of the other resources listed below!
See how Organic Valley uses pasture to combat climate change.
Tools to help you measure net carbon and explain how to talk about it:
- Cool Farm Alliance’s Cool Farm Tool
USDA’s COMET-Farm Tool for calculating net carbon
- Insetting, supply chain impacts, agroforestry: PUR Project
Films on the potential of carbon farming and soils:
- Unbroken Ground by Patagonia Provisions
- The Soil Story by Kiss the Ground
- Carbon Farming with Eric Toensmeier - a Food Tank Webinar
Links for more information on carbon farming:
Check out the video on Implementing Carbon Farming in Your Supply Chain with speakers from Dr. Bronner’s, Sustainable Food Lab, Carbon Underground, Soil & More International, and Numi Tea
- The Carbon Underground
- IFOAM Organics International
- Rodale Institute
- Greenpeace - Cool Farming Full Report
- An inspiring look at regenerative farming projects around the globe
Downloadable guides from the Organic Farming Research Foundation: Soil Health and Organic Farming: An Ecological Approach
We are indebted for help writing this page to the Carbon Underground – a nonprofit organization that aims to educate the world about the power of healthy soil to combat climate change and to facilitate the transition of enough farms and grasslands globally to restore a healthy climate.