• Sat. Jun 15th, 2024

Unpacking mitigation, adaptation pathways toward sustainable agriculture

Agriculture has a greater impact on the environment than any other human activity. It uses more land than any other human activity, resulting in deforestation and the loss of biodiversity, it uses more water — around 70% of freshwater is used globally — and it is responsible for around 24% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Concerns about the environmental impact of agriculture have grown in recent years, and this has resulted in the rise of, among other adaptations, “regenerative agriculture”. The term “natural capital” is bandied around frequently and featured prominently in the Food and Agriculture Organization’s State of Food and Agriculture 2023 publication.

Governments are increasingly linking agricultural support — the global value of which exceeds $350 billion, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — to environmental performance. In the UK, £2.4 billion has been earmarked as payment for the delivery of environmental public goods. In the US, the Conservation Reserve Program has operated since 1985 and can pay farmers collectively up to $1 billion or more, depending on the year. A database assembled by authors of a recent paper in Nature Food lists over 6,000 agri-environmental measures across the world.

Farmers benefit from environmentally-linked support, and can also earn income from so-called carbon farming by generating carbon credits and plugging into carbon markets. This is country- or region-specific, with the US having the most developed scheme. Many organizations are trying to help farmers in this area, but one challenge is that the prices of carbon can be very volatile and influenced by political decisions. Prices have also fallen over the last year, according to data from S&P Global Commodity Insights.

At the organizational level, many companies have made carbon commitments, with some having specific targets and initiatives. Assuming these companies are representative of companies across the agri-food chain, the following conclusions can be drawn:

  • Over half of the initiatives and targets relate to greenhouse gas emissions; water and biodiversity are less represented
  • 2030 looms large as a target date for the achievement of many company milestones

Click on table to enlarge

While some crop inputs, such as fertilizers and crop protection products, are seen as deleterious to sustainability, they also have a major role to play: first, in helping to mitigate the negative impact on the environment of agriculture overall, and second, in adapting to a changing climate. Conspicuously, seeds do not have any associated negative environmental impact and have enormous potential to contribute to both mitigation and adaptation — they are a universally good thing.

Crop yields as a pathway toward mitigation

The single most important contribution crop inputs have to make to the mitigation of environmental impact is through increased crop yields. The higher the yields, the less the impact per unit of output on the environment — whether it be water (crop per drop), land (sparing vs sharing) or the atmosphere. This is in line with the concept of “sustainable intensification” promoted by the FAO.

When discussing yield, it is important to distinguish between improvements that can be obtained by applying current best practice and those that relate to innovation.

When it comes to best practices, there are contributions to be made to improving yields from seeds, fertilizers and crop protection.

Where they are not already used, modern seed varieties and hybrids can substantially increase yields. In some parts of the world, notably in Africa, fertilizer use is sub-optimal and there is significant scope for increasing their use and crop yields, although there are significant infrastructural constraints to increasing fertilizer use, such as long transport distances resulting in expensive product.

Digital farming — a suite of hardware and software technologies applied to agriculture including drones, robotics, sensors, satellite imagery and farm management software — has a role to play in facilitating best practice by allowing better use of existing inputs and leading to marginal yield improvements.

When it comes to improvements in crop yields through new technology or innovation, seeds have most to offer. It has been estimated that around three-quarters of the improvement in crop yields achieved through the application of new technology can be attributed to seeds. This is reflected in the fact that research and development investment in the seed sector as a percentage of sales far outstrips that in both crop protection, where it is still relatively high compared to other industries, and fertilizers, where it is very low. R&D investments in seeds have resulted in many new technology becoming available, including new genomic technologies such as CRISPR Cas9.

With crop protection, there is scope to improve yields through innovation. There are 40-50 new active ingredients in the industry pipeline, and a major focus on finding new modes of action. However, the yield improvement obtained tends to be incremental at single-digit percentage points.

Stewardship, digital farming and other pathways

Moving away from the harnessing of yield gains to improve environmental performance, the correct use and production of fertilizers and crop protection products can make an important contribution to a net reduction in environmental impact.

There are specific measures in each area:

  • Fertilizers

    • Green ammonia – Production of ammonia in ways which produce lower levels of GHG emissions can make a major contribution to mitigation. There are various green ammonia projects around the world, but these are limited to certain forms of nitrogen
    • The 4Rs – This refers to using fertilizers from the right source, at the right rate, in the right place at the right time. A significant amount of GHG emissions comes from the use of fertilizers in the field. The 4R code of practice is aimed at using fertilizers more efficiently, which will in turn reduce the amount of GHG emitted and the amount of fertilizer that ends up in waterways. Digital farming can help here, particularly though variable rate fertilizer application, which matches the dose to the specific soil conditions in different parts of the field.
    • Biofertilizers and bio-stimulants: Biological products, a rapidly expanding segment on the market, can be used to enhance nitrogen use efficiency and reduce the levels of synthetic fertilizers

  • Crop protection

    • No-till, a technique that has been around for decades, can be used to minimize soil disturbance and avoid release of soil carbon to the atmosphere
    • Stewardship refers to the correct and safe use of products by the end-user, such as farmers in case of fertilizer and crop protection products. Additionally, regulatory requirements are leading to ever safer products
    • Variable rate crop protection application refers to adjusting the dose of product applied, depending on the type of target being controlled and its severity using digital technologies such as optical recognition. While there is a lot of work being conducted on variable rate CP and target spraying, and there are services available, the benefits are less obvious compared to fertilizers. This measure is much more complex and uptake has been slower
    • Biologicals: the biological control sector is evolving rapidly, although the first products were introduced in the 1970s and still lead the market

  • Digital farming

    • This covers a wide range of technologies with differing benefits and degrees of complexity. Benefits tend to be incremental. So far, they have proved greatest in relation to fertilizer use where reductions in doses can be achieved through variable rate application. This is reflected in the uptake of this technology

Adaptation to climate change

While mitigation limits the increase in global warming, a certain amount seems inevitable. The consequences of climate change — more extreme weather with higher temperatures, droughts and floods — will require farmers to adapt their practices and need industry support to do so.

  • Seeds – Seeds have a huge role to play in adaptation as well as mitigation. More R&D, measured as a percentage of sales, is going into seeds than any other sector. Companies spend 15% of sales on R&D on average. This is being channeled into a range of new technologies, particularly new genomic technologies

  • Fertilizers – The use of some biological products contributes to fertilizers performing better in stress conditions

  • Crop protection – As biologicals are often more target-specific than broad spectrum crop protection products, by definition they have less impact on non-target organisms and a less deleterious effect on biodiversity. Traditional products, such as plant growth regulators, can also help crop withstand environmental pressures, while some fungicides have additional benefits of contributing to plant health

There are many other specific interventions that can be made in the agriculture sector, both in mitigation and adaptation, to address environmental changes.

If the environmental impact of crop inputs is to be limited, or even reversed, the policy dimension will be very important. At the societal level governments are increasingly linking agricultural subsidies to agri-environmental measures, as well as establishing carbon trading schemes. At the organizational level, companies are setting targets and making commitments to reduce their impact on climate, biodiversity and water. At the level of the individual, farmers can adopt regenerative agricultural practices and generate carbon credits.


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