Carbon Farming: A Solution to Climate Change?

Eric Toensmeier is the award-winning author of Paradise Lot and Perennial Vegetables. He is an appointed lecturer at Yale University, a Senior Biosequestration Fellow with Project Drawdown, and an international trainer. He has studied permaculture, useful perennial plants and their roles in agroforestry systems for over two decades. The Journal of International Affairs spoke with Toensmeier about these topics and how to achieve change in the agriculture sector. 

Eric Toensmeier
February 11, 2020

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): What do soil regeneration and carbon farming have to do with climate change?

Eric Toensmeier (ET): Regenerating soil involves increasing the carbon stored in the soil in the form of organic matter, and often increasing the carbon that is held in perennial biomass above and below ground as well. That essentially happens by photosynthesis: excess carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and stored in those soils and biomass. It is a drawdown of atmospheric carbon, which is necessary but it also makes farms and land more resilient to climate change itself. It is an adaptation and mitigation strategy. 

Adaptation means surviving our new, changing climate, figuring out how to make your farm able to withstand extended droughts, more intense storms, and greater unpredictability of weather as a result of climate change. That’s learning to live with climate change. Mitigation is slowing or reversing climate change by reducing emissions or sequestering carbon. 

JIA: How does carbon farming tie back to food security? 

ET: Food security makes the difference in whether people’s children survive or not. There is a certain sense of urgency in understanding what climate change impacts are and will be in certain regions. It’s a powerful motivator for doing this kind of work. 

If we do carbon farming successfully enough as part of a global effort for mitigation, it might not get so bad that we see major shifts in what people are growing, even though there are changes to some degree in certain places. We are seeing in West Africa that the Sahel savannah region is cutting into the rainforest at a rate of 30-40km a year. Farmers in that region have to learn how to farm like a savannah farmer, instead of a rainforest farmer, so they need new crops and practices. Some countries in the rainforest region are joining the Sahel country’s alliance to get access to information and resources on how to farm differently. Perhaps we are more concerned on the day-to-day level with adaptation than mitigation, but again, most of the best practices for adaptation also have powerful mitigation benefits. 

JIA: What are some current trends around the world tied to soil regeneration? Have you noticed any new trends since you wrote your book, The Carbon Farming Solution

ET: There have been huge changes. One big change was the Paris Agreement, which came out since then. It seemed like it was the moment when agriculture became part of the global discussion on solutions. It was the launch of the “4per1000” initiative, which is a global initiative led by France on soil carbon sequestration. It was the beginning of people taking it seriously. We no longer have to make the case that agriculture can be part of the solution. 

Agriculture has reached the big time in a way that it hasn’t before. The biggest trend is how rapidly things are changing in the Sahel region in Africa. So much of the writing about carbon sequestration is about what is in the United States, but I don’t think this is remotely the place where things are happening the fastest. The big story is in Sahel, where natural regeneration and evergreen agriculture have been spreading at a phenomenal and unprecedented rate. A coalition of organizations just received 85 million dollars to scale up two million hectares by 2025. That is almost the size of New Jersey. 

Another trend is that we have started to break down the processes more. I was part of Project Drawdown, where we looked at agroforestry, crops, approaches to annuals, fertilizers, and so on. We are looking at the potential of different solutions. Not all of them are equal and they do not all work everywhere. Some solutions sequester carbon, while some reduce emissions, and some do both. They are worth breaking down into their component parts. 

JIA: In what ways does carbon sequestration cut across regions, and in what ways does it not? In other words, does it work in some areas but not necessarily others? 

ET: I think about that a lot. We did behind-the-scenes thinking about that at Drawdown, which you can’t tell by looking at the book or website. So, all solutions are constrained by climate. Certain things right now are only available in the tropics, so that’s a constraint. Some are limited to humid areas, but not drier areas. There is a set of thermo-moisture regime constraints. Some are only suited to degraded land, but not healthy land. Some are only for farmers who are mechanized, and some for smallholder farmers. Some are only for relatively level and flat land, and some are appropriate for sloping land. Some are for cropland or grazing land. There is a whole bunch of solutions, but very few are applicable everywhere. The location and the situation of the farmers create constraints that narrow the options substantially. 

From there, the available finance, markets, education, and land tenure of the farmers shape the possibilities. Additionally, a favorable policy environment, at the regional or national level, can shape things. 

JIA: Speaking of policy, what do you think are the policy tools governments can use to encourage a carbon farming solution? 

ET: The first step is to remove policy support for non-climate-friendly practices. A report came out showing global agriculture subsidies are around 700 billion dollars per year, and about one percent of that goes to environmentally-friendly agricultural practices. At the global level there is a massive subsidy of unsustainable types of agriculture. The first step is to remove that, to give farmers that are using climate-friendly practices a more level playing field to compete in as producers. There are also opportunities to provide payment for environmental services to producers for choosing climate-friendly agriculture. That is one critical tool that we have available. 

We have seen interesting practices in some places like Brazil. There was a program that worked with small scale agroforestry producers, and required all of the public schools to buy at least 30 percent of their food from these producers and family farms in the area. That was an interesting approach. There is a combination of encouraging the practices you want and discouraging those you do not want. 

In many cases, access to loans is really critical. Until the most recent farm bill in the United States, in many places, farmers were unable to obtain insurance if they used cover crops. Cover crops are an important tool for building soil organic matter and sequestering carbon, which is an adaptation strategy. That has been fixed. 

In Niger, where farmer-managed natural regeneration was born, any trees on the farm were property of the government and farmers had to apply for a permit to prune them. Nobody wanted trees on their farm. When that policy was changed, it led to a big shift in having more trees on farms. In France, loans for trees on farms had much higher interest rates, because it was considered forestry instead of agriculture. When interest rates dropped, that unleashed the power of agroforestry in France. 

JIA: Farmers already operate on notoriously thin margins. How can farmers be best encouraged to switch from conventional to carbon farming practices? 

ET: There is a set of risks that farmers face in doing this. One piece is providing enough finance and markets. We are seeing some of the biggest companies in the food world, like General Mills and Unilever, beginning to finance producers to change their practices. We are seeing increased philanthropy and a lot of private finance getting into the game to figure out how to impact agriculture practices. Many countries are providing payment for environmental services. In many cases, farmers want to do these farming practices but cannot afford to. While these practices increase profitability, they do not do so in year one. It could take three years to switch to organic systems, a better grazing system, or six or eight years in switching to an agroforestry system. There is a need for capital to help people make this transition and that is one of the key challenges. Another challenge is that in many cases farmers are renting land. They don’t have secure tenure, and it doesn’t make sense to spend money and time implementing practices on land they do not own. In some cases, one challenge is access to the right kinds of seeds, equipment, and breeds of livestock. 

One of the solutions we are looking towards is consumer-driven change. As we saw with the organic, grass-fed, and plant-based milk movements, consumer demand can result in a shift in how people farm. There are efforts like ‘Kiss the Ground’ that try to build consumer change around agriculture and climate change. It is a complex and nuanced area, and a lot of the messaging that is going out is oversimplified. There are some things that science doesn’t have a consensus on yet with agriculture, which makes simplistic marketing challenging. Nuance is a hard thing to tweet. 

JIA:The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report stating that we have 12 years to limit climate catastrophe. Is the rate of change in agriculture fast enough before we reach a point of no return?

ET: At some point, we will hit the point of no return and it will be too late. We will basically transform every aspect of civilization, including agriculture, on a very short timetable. While changes are stepping up, it is nowhere near the rate at which it needs to be at before meeting the IPCC 1.5 degrees timetable. Despite farmers, policymakers, and companies taking on initiatives and doing excellent work, we are not going remotely fast enough. But it is still very much possible to mitigate climate change on a technical basis. It is 100 percent possible. The problem is people: getting them to make changes fast enough. There needs to be a mass movement. If you look at the growth of Extinction Rebellion or student strikes, these are rapidly growing phenomena, but they all need to be faster. 

JIA: Is there anything you think the general public can do to reduce their carbon footprint, presuming they are not farming? 

ET: People can shift their diet to a more plant-based diet with less animal protein in it, and get their animal protein from an environmentally friendly practice. The big place to start is reducing food waste. In the United States, about 40 percent of food is wasted. That’s a source of emissions if it goes to a landfill, but far more significantly, all emissions associated with producing that food were for nothing. There’s a huge opportunity to reduce our food waste whether it is at home, cafeterias, or restaurants: instead of being placed in a landfill, it can be diverted to other people who can eat it, fed to livestock, or composted. While some aspects of mitigation really have to be handled at the state or federal level, food waste comes down to the consumer.