Re-Imagining Agriculture: How to Raise Yields while Reducing CO2 Emissions

“Agriculture must, literally, return to its roots by rediscovering the importance of healthy soil, drawing on natural sources of plant nutrition, and using mineral fertilizer wisely.”

That’s the conclusion of a recent report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on sustainable agriculture.

When talking about sustainable agriculture, I often hear the criticism that “we cannot return to the methods of farming of 50 years ago.”  But that is not what sustainable agriculture is about. An increase in yields can be achieved with lower emissions (my working definition of sustainable) — not by being anti-science, but by re-imagining agriculture.

Methods of the past yielded less, which is not an option for a burgeoning global population. But the current fossil-fuel laden agricultural system is not an option either. So to meet today’s unique food and energy challenges of today, researchers and innovative companies are re-inventing agriculture and bringing ingenious solutions to realize true sustainability.

Here is a round-up of a few innovative methods.

Let’s begin with wheat, specifically perennial wheat.

Researchers at Michigan State University and the Land Institute have been working on creating a commercially-viable perennial version of wheat.  Contrary to the once-a-year, shallow-rooted annuals, perennial wheat has much deeper roots and can produce up to seven years in a row, thus reducing frequency of plowing. Deeper roots allow for greater uptake of nutrients, minimizing the amount of fossil-based fertilizers needed.

While perennial versions of wheat and other crops is still a ways off, a report from the Land Institute points out that “perennial crops could help restrain climate change. Their net values for global warming potential are negative, having been estimated at –200 to –1050 kg of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalents per ha per year, as compared with positive potentials of410 to 1140 kg per ha per year for annual crops.”  Clearly, more research is needed so that this important transition from annuals to perennials can take place.

The interaction of roots and mineral nutrients is an area of ongoing research. Dr. Bruce Velde and Dr. Pierre Barre of the École Normale Supérieure Geology Laboratory in France are examining the relationship between plant roots and nutrient uptakes. In their book Soils, Plants, and Clay Minerals: Mineral and Biologic Interactions, Velde and Barre examine how plants actually manipulate the soil substrate.  This opens up a whole realm of research on how to increase crop’s nutrient uptake efficiency.

But that’s not all Dr. Velde is examining.  A world-renowned geologist and soil scientist, Dr. Velde is exploring simple solutions to complex problems of fertilizer use. He discussed with me an area that needs a lot of improvement – fertilizer application:

“Using more traditional methods of agriculture (manure piles with straw) makes the most efficient fertilizing agent we know of (lasting about 4 – 5 years).  If you put raw excrement on the soil, it is eaten up by bacteria in a year’s time.  If you dump ammonia (factory) fertilizer, it lasts a portion of the year. The problem is delivery.”

An example of poor fertilizer delivery can be seen in Bangladeshi rice fields. Farmers traditionally apply two rounds of urea as a nitrogen fertilizer; however, much of the fertilizer never makes it to the plant and evaporates. Not only is this a waste of a farmer’s resources, the it results in increased nitrous oxide evaporation, the most potent greenhouse gas .

The FAO recommends a new method called Urea Deep Placement (UDP).  By placing the urea 7-10 cm below the surface, “UDP doubles the percentage of nitrogen taken up by plants, reduces losses to the air and to surface water run-off, and has produced average yield increases of 18 percent in farmers’ fields.”

Companies are taking an equally proactive role in the push for more sustainable agriculture. Exosect, a British integrated pest management company, is using low emissions technologies to increase yields  and reduce post harvest losses. I spoke with the CEO of Exosect, Martin Brown, who explained the challenges the company is addressing:

“Traditionally, the major agriculture chemical companies have targeted farmers with highly technical solutions. But it denies less developed markets due to cost and access. We think food production of the future will come from these markets.  The operations in the United States and Western Europe, they’ve reached a saturation level.”

One example of Exosect’s work in the developing world is their pheromone technology for controlling India’s number-one rice pest, the yellow stem borer.  They’ve seen an 18% increase in yield and an incredible 80% increase in biodiversity of crop fields. The added insect biodiversity actually controls some secondary pests as well. Farmers don’t run the risk of pests building up a resistance, as they do with traditional insecticides.

Here’s the groundbreaking part: in a study conducted by Exosect, if just 5% of the Indian rice farmers switched to this technology, 400,000 tons of CO2 would be eliminated annually.

Exosect has also partnered with Sylvan Bio, a fungi production company, to produce a post-harvest storage treatment to replace costly and environmentally damaging fumigation of grain stores. The technology will utilize the entomopathagenic (kills insects) fungus, Beauvaria bassiana to reduce pests in grain storage facilities.

This is just a small selection of the many solutions being developed. To learn more about some other techniques, check out the recent FAO report on sustainable agriculture.

— Tyce Herrman

Comments are closed.