Can You Picture a Carbon-Neutral Farm? We Can.

Oct 15, 2021 8:20 AM ET
Blog

Climate change has us all reimagining our relationship with carbon. But farmers have an even bigger stake in the conversation than most. How will the farm of the future help us deliver on our current commitments—and get closer to carbon-neutral? 

“Carbon neutrality.”

It’s a buzzworthy phrase that represents our global community’s growing desire to reduce our emissions, reverse climate change, and invest in the future of the Earth. And as a demographic that’s intimately invested in the relationship between the population and the planet, farmers are in a unique position to pursue the carbon-neutral goal. Even the slightest change to the year’s rhythms and weather patterns can have far-reaching effects to a farmer’s life and livelihood, so it’s no surprise that all eyes are on the agriculture industry when it comes to reducing and removing the carbon that contributes to climate change. For our part, we’re committing to reducing carbon emissions by 30% from the highest-emitting crop systems we serve by 2030. But even the most stringent steps in our pursuit of carbon-neutral agriculture can seem abstract and difficult to grasp. Instead of picturing what it means to do less of something, to really understand the role agriculture can play in moving toward carbon neutrality, we can instead picture the farm of the future: a carbon-neutral farm.

What does a carbon-neutral farm look like?

Surprisingly small. 

Big change begins with farms that are smaller in square-footage—but not smaller in ambition. Over the past 80 years, innovations in agriculture have allowed growers to produce the same amount of food on smaller and smaller plots of land—for today’s row-crop farmers, that means getting more than sixfold the amount of corn per acre from 1940. It’s what experts call “sustainable intensification”, and it’s key to feeding a growing global population without depleting Earth’s resources. Because when more can be grown on less land, that means less pressure to expand further into other areas—like forests and other wooded spaces that act as natural “carbon sinks”. 

Wildly efficient.

Of course, the agricultural innovations that have allowed growers to produce more on the same amount of land didn’t happen by accident. Humans have always pursued crop breeding that yields more with fewer inputs. Today, we’re continuing to reduce the carbon footprint of crops by introducing new, more productive varieties to market—varieties that are adept at growing with less space, can thrive in a changing climate, and need fewer natural resources to survive. One key example is hybrid rice.

When rice can be planted directly in dry fields, rather than requiring transplanting from inefficient, flooded rice paddies, the water (and carbon) savings are significant.

This type of hybrid has a significantly lower carbon footprint than other traditional varieties. For crop varieties that are already resource-efficient, there is still room for improvement. Seeds that arrive at the farm pre-inoculated against some of the leading threats to crop health can also reduce a farmer’s need to apply crop protection products throughout the growing season, in turn leading to fewer emissions on the farm—another important step toward carbon-neutral farming.

Highly connected.

Applying fewer crop protection products is one thing, but what about the instances when farmers don’t need to apply any at all? When it’s a guessing game to decipher a plant’s particular needs, overuse of crop protection products is inevitable. But to reduce carbon emissions in agriculture, we need insight into exactly what each crop requires, and when. Technology like Climate FieldView™ gives farmers a clear view of what their fields are lacking, with a level of precision that makes it easy to apply just the right products in the right places. And when integrated into other connected technologies like drip irrigation, those products can be applied with a light hand—and a precise reach. 

And maybe a little...messy.

In spite of all its efficiency and connectivity, the farm of the future might not have the pristine fields you’re picturing. In fact, at first glance, it’ll probably look a little messy. That’s because some of the most effective carbon-smart practices in a grower’s toolkit rely on reimagining day-to-day operations. Practices like no-till and strip-till (conservation tillage) require farmers to abstain from the frequent tractor passes that characterized field maintenance in the past. Not only does conservation tillage reduce the farmer’s reliance on fossil fuels, but it can also help boost the health of the soil biome underground, decreasing the need for commercial crop protection products and fertilizers. So while perfectly tilled, neat and tidy rows may start to become a thing of the past, these “messier”, more biodiverse fields are actually an investment in the future.

Planting cover crops is another climate-smart practice with compounding benefits. When cover crops are used in place of letting fields lie bare in between seasons, these plants actually pull carbon out of the atmosphere and store it underground—helping to counteract carbon emissions, and fortifying the soil with nutrients, beneficial microbes, and healthy root systems that can actually go on to yield healthier cash crops year-on-year.  For agriculture’s pursuit of carbon-neutral operations, this is a one-two punch: reversing existing carbon emissions, and helping insure against future emissions all at once.

These climate-smart practices make good sense for the planet—and increasingly, they make good sense for growers, too. As part of Bayer’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions in agriculture, farmers can be rewarded for adopting conservation tillage or cover cropping. Through the Bayer Carbon Program, fields in the US, Brazil, Argentina and the EU that use (or will use) these practices can be enrolled to earn benefits and incentives—incentivizing the kind of thoughtful farming that will lead us closer to a carbon-neutral future. 

Because when innovations on the farm make it possible for growers to achieve their goals and contribute to lower carbon levels in the atmosphere, the idea of “carbon neutrality” becomes more than just a trending topic—it becomes a tangible target we can all believe in.