Agriculture and climate change are closely linked, and soils store vast amounts of carbon. But what happens when carbon sequestration in the fields of smallholders becomes a new focus in climate and agricultural policies? The article takes a critical look at various initiatives, including “climate-smart agriculture”, a concept that is being promoted by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and other bodies as a “win-win-win” solution to increase productivity, adapt to climate change and reduce emissions.
Agriculture accounts for one third of man-made climate change if land-use changes such as deforestation are included. If transportation, processing and packaging, refrigeration, trade and waste are also taken into consideration, estimates of the industrial food system’s responsibility for climate change can be put as high as 50 percent. In addition to carbon dioxide (CO2), other greenhouse gases have a major impact: about 50 percent of global man-made methane emissions (CH4) and 60 percent of nitrous oxide (N2O) are produced by agriculture, mainly by industrial livestock farming and fertilizers.
There are many ways to reduce these greenhouse gases while protecting ecosystems: from limits on meat production, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, to the regionalization of economic cycles to eliminate long transportation routes and the application of agroecology. However, the measure that is garnering special attention from governments, private companies and institutions such as the World Bank at the moment is the improved sequestration of carbon in farmland.
Carbon in the fields – a future business model?
Carbon in fossil fuels and that in plants and soils cannot be equated in terms of their climate impact. Furthermore, the calculation methods are highly controversial. Nevertheless, in recent years there has been a boom in projects and initiatives that calculate carbon storage in soils in order to subsequently sell emission credits – i.e. pollution rights – on voluntary or state emission markets. This approach started previously in the forestry sector through the controversial REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) mechanism. It is now to be applied in a similar way to agriculture.
The need for more humus and carbon in the soil is therefore increasingly linked to relieving other industrial sectors of the need to do their homework, i.e. to reduce their emissions. Proponents say that carbon storage in soils is associated with lower costs than, for example, shutting down coal-fired power plants or restricting transportation. The new hype surrounding the business with carbon in fields has a variety of dimensions:
For example, Hofer, the Austrian subsidiary of the Aldi discount grocery chain, has been touting itself as “carbon-neutral” since 2016. How is that possible? The discounter has by no means switched its product range to organic or changed its concept in any fundamental way. In addition to renewable energy for its warehouses and shops, the supermarket chain instead relies mainly on purchasing offset credits – including those from projects for ostensibly “documented” carbon sequestration in soils. These come from the Austrian “Eco Region Kaindorf” initiative, which sells humus certificates and is a pioneering project in German-speaking countries in this regard. Aldi also wants to present itself as a green supermarket in other countries in a similar way.
Terra preta – biochar that is produced when biomass is heated in the absence of air – is also up and coming. It can be produced on a small scale, purchased or manufactured industrially in order to achieve better yields in agriculture and to enrich soils with carbon. However, it is unclear how long the carbon will remain there and how it will affect methane and nitrous oxide storage in the soil; some studies have even shown negative effects on greenhouse gas sequestration. Increasingly, initiatives are trying to generate offset credits through terra preta – and thus legitimize emissions elsewhere. If the boom in biochar leads to its industrial use, this would also be considered geoengineering. The big question is where to source the biomass. This is already partly leading to increasing pressure on other areas and forests and a new form of land grabbing or “green grabbing”.
Another trend is conservation agriculture, in which the lowest possible tillage is supposed to ensure that carbon is left in the soil and less diesel fuel is used for plowing. Whether the method actually contributes to climate protection, however, is controversial. Companies such as Monsanto/Bayer, Olam and Danone are touting this no-till model in order to win new markets for suitable seeds, fertilizers and pesticides. Yet more pesticides and synthetic fertilizers are by no means climate-friendly.
Several international initiatives have emerged in recent years that link agriculture with climate protection and carbon sequestration, including Adaptation of African Agriculture (AAA), the French initiative 4 PER 1000, and perhaps the most important one: GACSA.
Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture: GACSA
The “climate-smart agriculture” (CSA) concept has been around for almost ten years now. It was developed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and is anchored in numerous national policies and development strategies. It is closely linked to concepts such as the green economy, sustainable intensification, precision agriculture and conservation agriculture. It also belongs in the context of expanding private-sector participation in development cooperation, with efforts to combine development, sustainability and economic growth through public-private partnerships and the involvement of transnational agribusiness.
According to the FAO, CSA provides a threefold benefit: It “sustainably increases productivity, resilience (adaptation), reduces/removes GHGs (mitigation), and enhances achievement of national food security and development goals”. This definition could also apply to agroecology, a concept promoted by La Vía Campesina, a global smallholder organization. However, the organization rejects CSA for monopolizing the concept of agroecology while greenwashing conventional agroindustry.
Founded in 2014, the Global Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance (GACSA) defines CSA as follows: “CSA is an approach to developing the technical, policy and investment conditions to achieve sustainable agricultural development for food security under climate change.” GACSA has been accused in many quarters of being too vague and of lacking criteria to define what actually constitutes CSA. Thus, both agroecological methods such as the use of crops with deeper root systems, crop rotation or agroforestry can be part of CSA, as can new technologies for precision farming, genetically modified seeds and animal species, as well as synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. The latter are explicitly included in CSA and promoted under a green mantle.
This is justified by claims that increased productivity would ensure food security, and that intensification would curb the expansion of agricultural land and thus deforestation. In reality, however, studies (such as reports by Global Agriculture, IPES-Food and the ETC Group) show that malnutrition is not due to a lack of productivity but to the unequal distribution of food and inputs.
In addition to intended productivity gains, the carbon sequestration in soils described above is at the heart of “climate-smart” strategies (see Box 3). This includes its monetary valuation by means of – controversial – calculation methods and the subsequent valorization of the storage capacity of soils. Through these carbon sinks, commodities are created: Carbon credits can be used to compensate for emissions elsewhere. Anyhow, this can block fundamental socio-ecological change.
There are many powerful players worldwide who have a vested interest in precisely this development. This is apparent from the list of GACSA members: GACSA has more than 230 members, including governments and NGOs as well as banks and agribusiness corporations. The list includes Danone, Syngenta, Kellogg’s and the International Fertilizer Association (IFA), while other member organizations and foundations have close links to Monsanto/Bayer, McDonalds and Cargill. Only around 4 percent are organizations that represent farmers.
The FAO, CGIAR and GACSA like to present CSA “success stories”. Unfortunately, few independent studies to date have examined whether the “win-win-win effects” proclaimed by those responsible for the projects actually reflect complex rural realities.
What the CO2 lens overlooks
Measures to prevent the climate crisis are urgently needed. But what happens if carbon storage in agriculture becomes an “ecosystem service” and soils a new “natural capital” in climate protection? Carbon-centric approaches tend to reduce complex measures to combat the climate crisis to mathematical calculations – calculations that sound objective and smart, but are based on inaccurate and selective methods. The impacts of these approaches on complex reality often remain underexposed and power structures are kept hidden.
If land gains in importance, this almost inevitably leads to speculation on valorization and land grabbing. Competition for the type of use arises: Should the land be used for offsetting emissions or for smallholder agriculture? Insurance companies, for example, have increasingly been buying farms or farmland to offset their ecological footprint while also speculating with the land.
In the petition “Our land is worth more than carbon”, dozens of organizations draw attention to the dangers of a purely CO2-focused agricultural approach that distracts from urgently needed major changes in our agricultural and food model toward agroecology and food sovereignty.
While some methods for storing carbon in soils have undeniably important effects on humus formation, biodiversity and food security, others are highly questionable – such as the use of genetically modified seeds and synthetic fertilizers. The CLARA network writes in a briefing that carbon stored in soils through agroecological practices should be seen as a helpful, but not calculable, addition to other necessary emission reductions. Greenhouse gas storage cannot be guaranteed in the long term, so there is no way around leaving fossil fuels in the ground.
“Turning our farmers’ fields into carbon sinks – the rights to which can be sold on the carbon market – will only lead us further away from what we see as the real solution: food sovereignty. The carbon in our farms is not for sale!” says La Via Campesina, the worldwide smallholder movement.
- Heinrich Böll Foundation (2015): Soil Atlas
- Michel Pimbert (2015): Agroecology as an Alternative Vision to Conventional Development and Climate-Smart Agriculture
- CCFD-Terre Solidaire (2018): Our land is worth more than carbon
- Action Contre la Faim (2017): Climate Smart Agriculture. Frame It or Leave It
- CLARA – Climate, Land, Ambition and Rights Alliance (2017): Climate Action in the Land Sector – Treading Carefully
- CIDSE (2014): Climate Smart Agriculture. The Emperor’s New Clothes?
- CIDSE (2018): The Principles of Agroecology
- Fern (2014): Misleading Numbers. The Case for Separating Land and Fossil Based Carbon Emissions