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Agricultural technologies can reverse climate change

The global food system is at a critical juncture with the impending surge in global population. This system, which currently contributes between 21% and 37% of Earth’s yearly greenhouse gas emissions, could skyrocket its emissions contribution to anywhere between 50% and 80% by 2050. 

Agricultural technologies 

But now, a promising study published in the journal PLOS Climate reveals how agricultural technologies can not only mitigate the escalation of emissions but potentially reverse it by ushering in net negative emissions.

The research was conducted by Benjamin Z. Houlton, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University, and Maya Almaraz, an associate research scholar at Princeton University.

Focus of the study 

“Our study recognizes the food system as one of the most powerful weapons in the battle against global climate change,” stated Houlton. “We need to move beyond silver-bullet thinking and rapidly test, verify and scale local solutions by leveraging market-based incentives.”

Dietary changes 

Several past studies have vouched for the transformative power of global dietary shifts in curbing emissions. One of the prominent recommendations in this realm is the “flexitarian” diet, advocated by the EAT-Lancet Commission. 

However, even if the entire global population adopted this diet by 2050, it would result in a mere gross reduction of 8.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions – a commendable yet inadequate figure in light of the net negative emissions target.

“Our study examines both dietary change and agricultural technologies, as various options for slashing emissions,” said Almaraz, emphasizing the inclusion of carbon sequestration analyses. 

Innovative techniques 

Contrasting the minimal influence of dietary changes on carbon sequestration, Almaraz noted that the array of agricultural technologies – even those few they studied – presents huge promise.

Among the myriad of innovative techniques, the study highlights the potency of soil enhancements for crops such as biochar, compost, and rock amendments, the promotion of agroforestry, sustainable seafood harvesting, and the introduction of hydrogen-driven fertilizer production. 

One intriguing method involves “enhanced weathering.” By integrating silicate rock dust into crop soils every half-decade, carbonate formation is expedited, gobbling up vast quantities of carbon dioxide.

Promising strategies 

Moreover, strategies like agroforestry, where trees are sowed on dormant farmlands, can sequester up to 10.3 billion metric tons of carbon annually. 

In addition, farming seaweed at the ocean’s crest and subsequently submerging it into the ocean depths can pull out a staggering 10.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. 

Livestock feed supplementation and applying biochar to farmlands are other promising strategies, capable of slashing methane and nitrous oxide emissions significantly.

Portfolio of solutions 

Food-system environmental action needs to start regionally. Houlton said that anaerobic digesters have been converting manure from New York’s dairy farms into electricity since the mid-1970s, reducing emissions, supporting energy self-sufficiency, and assisting in water quality improvements. 

The biogas resulting from the waste becomes energy that local electric companies can easily use, but this approach must avoid gas leaks and financial incentives are still necessary, explained Houlton. “We need a portfolio of solutions that are effective locally but have global impact.”

While individual dietary shifts towards healthier alternatives are commendable, Houlton asserts that to genuinely counteract the escalating greenhouse gas emissions, we need to rely heavily on agricultural technologies and management techniques.

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