Climate Mitigation Potential of Agricultural Conservation Practices is Significant!

June 17, 2020

A blog posted on the World Resources Institute (WRI) website last month dismissed the potential for regenerative agriculture and related systems to contribute to large-scale emissions reduction and carbon dioxide (CO2) removal – cuts that will be necessary to hold global warming below the 2-degree Celsius threshold set under the Paris Climate Accord signed by 194 nations and the European Union since it was negotiated in late 2015.

Given the important role the agriculture sector can play in addressing climate challenges while enhancing food security and improving public health, SfL welcomed a response to the WRI blog by a collection of globally renowned scientists with decades of experience in the study of our changing climate. These scientists contend that the combined severity of the climate change challenge, an urgent call to decarbonize the global economy, and an equally urgent need to actively draw down CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere means that regenerative agriculture takes its place among “all viable options” that must help solve the problem.

One representative of the experts rejecting the basic premise of the WRI blog is Rattan Lal, a soil scientist currently serving as a Distinguished University Professor in The Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences. Lal is an award-winning innovator recently honored as recipient of the World Food Prize, as well as a long-time collaborating partner with SfL and the Ohio Smart Agriculture initiative. Also, on the team is lead author Keith Paustian, an SfL senior advisor and professor with the Soil and Crop Sciences department at Colorado State University.

Renowned researchers from France and Scotland are also members of a rebuttal team that, together with Lal and Paustian, asserts that the science is clear: certain agricultural practices can contribute significant emission reductions and CO2 removal, as well as improve soil health.

“Unfortunately, we believe the WRI post confuses rather than clarifies the scientific and policy issues concerning the role and potential of regenerative agriculture to contribute to climate change mitigation,” the group states in their rebuttal.

They say the WRI piece “poorly characterize[s] the practices and principles comprising the suite of conservation management practices that are often referred to as ‘regenerative agriculture.'” They further list “widely understood” practices:

  • Maintaining (to the degree possible) continuous vegetation cover on the soil;
  • Reducing soil disturbance;
  • Increasing the amount and diversity of organic residues returned to the soil; and
  • Maximizing nutrient and water use efficiency by plants.

These practices maintain much higher soil carbon stocks than conventional annual croplands and, in general, work to increase soil carbon by increasing the amount added back into the soil. At the same time reducing, they reduce relative carbon loss rates that can otherwise occur through soil respiration and erosion. Annual cropland practices include low- and no-till management; more diverse crop rotations with higher frequency of perennial crops; grassed waterways and buffer strips; agroforestry (like hedgerows and windbreaks); integrated livestock management with improved grazing management; and the conversion of marginal lands to perennial grasses and trees. The team cites extensive literature and literally hundreds of long-term field experiments across the globe that document the unequivocal capability of these practices to retain and build soil carbon.

The WRI blog post speculates – but does not prove – that the adoption of regenerative practices might cause significant yield declines compared to conventional agriculture, therefore increasing pressure on landowners to convert forests to crop production – a move that would result in large carbon emissions from the “liquidated forest biomass stocks.” The internationally recognized soil experts dispute this assumption, stating that there appears to be no strong evidence to support it and that “it is more likely that in the long run, regenerative practices will reduce soil degradation and improve yield stability, resulting in less pressure for land use conversion.” In fact, one of the more attractive features of using soils as a CO2 removal strategy is that additional carbon can be stored in the soil, without land use or land cover change.

The rebuttal team lauded the WRI blog authors for listing multiple carbon-saving practices. But Lal and the others instead used the WRI list to reinforce a long-held SfL principle that conservation practices can – and must – work with other solutions to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions. SfL is proud to agree once again that it is “not productive to create artificial silos that seemingly decouple non-CO2 GHG emission reductions from CO2 removal and soil sequestration both.”

Some of the world’s greatest soil scientists – and SfL – have long concurred that climate change, food security, climate resilience, biodiversity and soil health are all interrelated parts of a new global imperative. “That imperative is for humanity to fundamentally re-imagine our agricultural landscapes, designing them to provide not only sustaining services (food and fiber) but environmental services as well, including climate change mitigation and adaptation capacity,” the rebuttal state. The team says that the problem will require many solution “wedges,” each contributing a modest part of the solution. In SfL’s own words, there is “no silver bullet.” SfL once again reminds policymakers to question those who denigrate proven and pragmatic climate smart agriculture pathways in the search for a nonexistent “perfect climate solution.

More Like This From Our BLog

Our Vision

An Agricultural Renaissance, led by innovative and entrepreneurial farmers, ranchers and foresters constructing sustainable, profitable and resilient systems that lay the foundation for a world of abundance on many scales capable of producing nutritious food, feed, fiber, clean energy, healthy ecosystems, quality livelihoods, and strong rural economies.