Agriculture could be carbon-negative by 2050, study finds
A groundbreaking new study suggests that agriculture could be carbon-negative by 2050, reinforcing Alltech’s long-held belief that agriculture has the greatest potential to shape the future of our planet.
Changes to agricultural technology and management have the potential to not only slow down the growth of greenhouse gas emissions from the global food system but actually achieve net negative emissions, according to the study, published earlier this month in PLOS Climate. These changes could result in an annual removal of 13 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) by 2050. To put this into context, the world currently emits about 50 billion tons of CO2 equivalent each year.
“Our study recognizes the food system as one of the most powerful weapons in the battle against global climate change,” said co-lead author Professor Benjamin Houlton, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. “We need to move beyond silver-bullet thinking and rapidly test, verify and scale local solutions by leveraging market-based incentives.”
The study, led by Houlton and Maya Almaraz of Princeton University, was organized by the World Wildlife Fund in collaboration with the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis and funded by The Rockefeller Foundation.
Using a global food system model, the researchers explored the influence of consumer choice, climate-smart agro-industrial technologies, and reductions in food waste as means to achieve net negative emissions by 2050. They also examined various scenarios under the conditions of full yield gap closures and caloric demands in a world projected to have a population of 10 billion.
Dietary changes and agricultural technologies were examined as options for reducing GHG emissions, including an analysis of carbon sequestration — the process of capturing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. While state-of-the-art agricultural technologies have the potential for substantial sector-wide negative emissions, the research team found that dietary changes had little effect on carbon sequestration.
The study identified several promising technologies for achieving net negative emissions, such as hydrogen-powered fertilizer production, innovative livestock feeds, organic and inorganic soil modifications, agroforestry and sustainable seafood harvesting practices.
A research alliance between Alltech and Archbold Expeditions is measuring the carbon emissions of beef production and carbon sequestration potential at Buck Island Ranch in Florida.
Scaling solutions to capitalize on carbon sequestration potential
Focusing on soil health, leading-edge nutrition and pasture management practices, and use of and climate-smart technologies will allow the agriculture industry to capture more carbon each year, according to Dr. Mark Lyons, president and CEO of Alltech.
“The biggest carbon sink that we can have is our land,” he said. “Agriculture is the answer.”
While agriculture currently contributes about a quarter of global GHG emissions, it possesses a unique capability to reduce its own emissions and capture and sequester emissions released by other industries. This makes agriculture a powerful tool in the fight against climate change.
“We are the only industry that captures carbon for a living,” said Dr. Vaughn Holder, Alltech’s director of ruminant research. “We’re the only industry that exists at the scale that is required to pull gigatons of carbon out of the environment and put it back into the soil. That’s our moral responsibility.”
Reducing emissions is important, but it won’t solve climate change, he said. Carbon sequestration is the ultimate solution. The challenge ahead lies in confirming and scaling technologies that enhance sequestration.
Agricultural technologies and practices required to increase carbon capture could be “regionally down-scaled according to local culture, economics, technology readiness and agricultural management capacities,” the PLOS Climate study concluded. “This makes agriculture a unique economic sector and reiterates that it should be a key focus when discussing climate targets.”
Alltech has been studying the agriculture industry’s ability to sequester carbon through a research alliance based at the 10,000-acre Buck Island Ranch in Lake Placid, Florida. The researchers have learned that grazing ruminant animals on land actually benefits the environment and improves carbon cycling. The team is measuring the carbon emissions of beef production and evaluating the effects of pasture management, grazing strategies, mineral supplementation and other nutritional strategies.
The results have confirmed that carbon-neutral – and even net-positive – beef production is possible at Buck Island, and that same potential likely extends to environments around the world.
“What Buck Island shows us is that with animals on the land, we capture more carbon than without them,” said Dr. Lyons.
Scientists at Buck Island are also working with Alltech E-CO2 and various partners to create precision tools designed to measure methane yields and intensity. The next step is the inclusion of advanced sequestering measurements that will evaluate how grazing practices, pasture management, nutritional strategies and other techniques affect the carbon cycle and make it possible for beef operations to sequester carbon.
The soil’s ability to sequester carbon is a critical part of the story. Alltech Crop Science and Ideagro, a recent addition to Alltech’s family of companies, are studying how microbial populations can enrich soil chemistry and nutrient density, leading to increased carbon sequestration in the soil.
The potential to capture carbon in the soil presents a significant opportunity for the agri-food community to embrace our critical role in combatting climate change while simultaneously improving soil health, boosting crop yields and promoting biodiversity.
“One of the most powerful weapons against global climate change is our food system,” said Dr. Lyons. “If we produce our food in the right way, we can deliver on some of those big objectives of having the right nutrition, of creating new economic opportunities, and protecting and renewing our natural resources. It's very exciting.”