Sustainable farming to mitigate climate change

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Rabanales demonstration farm (LIFE Climact)

A clear message emerged at the November LIFE ClimAgri workshop at the European Parliament: faced with climate change, current intensive farming practices are unsustainable.

Farmers and agricultural experts at the ClimAgri workshop described a host of challenges facing the industry. Soil loss caused by erosion, more days with high temperatures, and high levels of soil degradation on their land are all factors negatively impacted by climate variations. And conventional tilling practices, which cause soil layering and prevent water from penetrating the surface, compound many of the problems. The farming industry has to find working methods which are sustainable for the environment and make financial sense.

Seizing upon carbon capture

Carbon storage is one vital way to mitigate climate change, says Emilio Gonzalez-Sanchez, LIFE ClimAgri project coordinator. “Our role is to break the cycle of carbon by storing it in agricultural soils.” In order to do this, the project is showing how the farming sector can use conservation agriculture to reduce the amount of carbon released from the soil. This activity is known as carbon sequestration.

“Farmers see soil degradation in front of their eyes, and have responded with ‘conservation agriculture”, says Amir Kassam, a member of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. “It is far more resilient and efficient than anything else we know.”

Conservation agriculture is a management practice which implies

  • avoiding tillage to disturb the soil as little as possible
  • creating a permanent groundcover with a growing crop or mulch
  • rotating or diversifying crops planted

Demoing conservation agriculture

ClimAgri has built a network of demonstration farms where conservation best management practices have been put in place. Conservation agriculture is at the forefront of these practices.

“20 years ago it was seen as mad to allow weeds to grow,” says Rafael Calleja, an agricultural engineer and farmer on the demonstration farm in Andalusia, Spain. “But weeds are our allies to protect the soil.”

The 13 demonstration farms in Portugal, Greece, Spain and Italy show significant environmental and financial benefits.

A study plot in Portugal, where organic matter had all but disappeared, showed increases from 0.2% to 2% of organic matter in 6 years. It also reported reduced soil run-off, lower machinery emissions and increased biodiversity. The farm implemented direct seeding – where seeds are inserted with a drill to minimise soil disruption – and crop cover.

In Italy, a demonstration farm is using precision technology including global satellites and geographic information systems to track data such as soil compaction, texture and nitrogen levels. These insights enable the farm to optimise the amount of seeds and fertiliser used. ‘Casoni’s Farm’ combines precision agriculture techniques with conservation agriculture in its search for sustainability.

Similar conservation techniques are being used on 3 plots in Greece, with no negative effects on yields.

Economical as well as environmental

Conservation agriculture has other significant benefits which can act as a real incentive for farmers. Results from ClimAgri demonstrations have shown

  • energy cuts of up to 35%, including less fertiliser and better use of pesticides
  • water savings of 30-40%, and reduced energy and labour costs of 50-70%
  • over 10% more organic carbon in the soil
  • Significant reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, as well as less nitrous oxide

Globally, conservation agriculture offers other opportunities well beyond the national perspective. The ClimAgri team notes that by implementing the practices more widely, the agricultural sector would offset greenhouse gas emissions from other sectors such as transport and energy. And the practices would help governments meet international agreements such as the Paris agreement, the EU’s 2050 low-carbon economy roadmap, and UN sustainable development goals.

Timely legislation

The EU is currently drafting significant legislation that will determine the next period of agricultural funding until the end of 2027. The European Parliament and European Council are assessing European Commission proposals on the EU’s common agricultural policy, known as the CAP. The Commission proposes that 40% of the next agricultural budget would contribute to climate action.

The Commission is also looking to streamline and simplify the EU budget, Jean-Claude Merciol, Head of LIFE at the Commission’s environment department explained. One way of streamlining is by running projects like ClimAgri which demonstrate repeated success in multiple EU countries.

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