Farmers Are Key to Fighting Climate Change

A new study shows how increasing crop yields and restoring some agriculture land to forests and wetlands can result in dramatic cuts in carbon emissions.
Farmer Mike Gorton's dairy cows make their way home for milking at his farm near Macclesfield in Cheshire, England. (Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Jan 5, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

The United Kingdom aims to cut its carbon emissions 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050, and scientists think farmers can play a key role in achieving that target.

A new study finds that if farmers can increase their yields, use less land for crops and livestock, and restore some woodlands and wetlands, they can reduce their emissions 80 percent.

“Land is a source of greenhouse gases if it is used to farm fertilizer-hungry crops or methane-producing cattle, or it can be a sink for greenhouse gases through sequestration,” said Andrew Balmford, a professor of conservation science at Cambridge University. Balmford led the study, published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change, that is the first to look at how land restoration can offset carbon pollution on a nationwide scale.

“If we increase woodland and wetland, those lands will be storing carbon in trees, photosynthesizing it in reeds, and shunting it down into soils,” Balmford said, adding that the restored landscapes would allow native plants and wildlife to repopulate the regions.

About 70 percent of the U.K. is designated for agriculture, and farmers are responsible for nearly 10 percent of the country’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. Food consumption is expected to increase as much as 38 percent by 2050.

The challenge is to achieve the legally binding carbon cuts laid out in the U.K.’s Climate Change Act without increasing reliance on imported food.

Balmford said the researchers consulted with crop and livestock experts to come up with the best potential options to increase crop yields by 2050.

“They would require a substantial increase in agriculture research and development, but the yield increases we modeled were all considered technically feasible by 2050 by the panel of crop and livestock experts we consulted,” Balmford said.

The most promising areas highlighted in the study include developing improved crops capable of capturing more nutrients from fertilizers and that are more efficient at using water for photosynthesis.

If crop yields are increased, the area needed for food production can decrease, and carbon-storing trees and natural wetlands can take their place.

In a best-case scenario, the study estimated crop yield increases of 1.3 percent per year, which could free up as much as 30 to 40 percent of the U.K.’s current farmed land.

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If that land was then used to grow the U.K.’s current forest cover from 12 percent to 30 percent and restore 2,700 square miles of peatlands, agriculture could reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050.

Balmford said the key is to encourage farmers to not just abandon land but also to replant it.

“Active planting would generate greater climate mitigation and biodiversity gains than simply abandoning farming,” he said. “Landowners would have to be incentivized take this on, which would require significant redirection of existing agricultural subsidy schemes. These changes would take time.”

The study emphasizes that achieving that goal will require a mixture of crop yield increases and land restoration, along with a reduction in food waste and meat consumption.

“Reducing meat consumption appears to offer greater mitigation potential than reducing food waste, but more importantly, our results highlight the benefits of combining measures,” Balmford said. “For example, coupling even moderate yield growth with land sparing and reductions in meat consumption has the technical potential to surpass an 80 percent reduction in net emissions.”