The food sector faces a conundrum: it is one of the industries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and it is also a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
The impact of global warming is already making farming more challenging, with increasing divergence of weather patterns and extreme climatic events. On the other hand, according to data from Eurostat, in 2015 agricultural emissions contributed around 10% of the EU-28’s total GHG emissions.
There is, however, growing optimism that agriculture can be part of the solution. By adopting climate smart practices and focusing on soil health, producers can not only reduce their contribution to emission levels – they can actually take carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil.
To investigate the viability of regenerative practices, a five-year European project, Strategies for Organic and Low-Input Farming to Mitigate and Adapt to Climate Change (SOLMACC), was established by five partner organisations from four countries - Sweden, Germany, Belgium and Italy. It was co-funded by the EU LIFE programme.
SOLMACC aimed to demonstrate that farming can be climate-friendly by applying a combination of optimised organic farming practices to respond to climate change.
“Agriculture must be part of the effort to meet the Paris Agreement objectives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and it urgently needs to transition to more resilient farming systems to adapt to the rapidly changing climatic conditions,” Tereza Maarova, SOLMACC project coordinator, stressed.
Strategies for climate smart production
The project, which has just drawn to a close, selected 12 demonstration farms in Sweden, Germany and Italy. At these sites, the farmers adjusted their agriculture techniques over the course of five years. Close scientific monitoring and supervision throughout the project allowed researchers to formulate predictions about the long-term impact on soil, biodiversity and climate.
The farming practices implemented within SOLMACC fell under four main categories: nutrient management, crop rotation, tillage management, and agroforestry. They were chosen for their expected positive impact on climate change mitigation and adaptation, their socio-economic viability, and potential co-benefits, such as clean water. All practices implemented were adapted to local farm conditions.
“The practices available depend on the farm structure, but also on the production system, soil type, climatic context and on the financial capacity of each farmer,” Maarova noted.
Techniques studied included composting using an innovative anaerobic treatment, Microbial Carbonisation, to stabilise organic matter and reduce soil erosion; the introduction or increased cultivation of grain and forage legumes cultivation that stabilise soil fertility due to nitrogen fixation and leads to carbon sequestration; reducing the depth of tillage that has the potential to increase organic matter in the top soil, to reduce soil erosion, and to increase water holding capacity; and cover cropping by planting trees and hedges around fields to sequester atmospheric carbon into plant biomass and soils.
“SOLMACC showed the wealth of technical knowledge and good will that exist among farmers and advisors and that can be put to good use to bring the food and farming sector up to the challenge of climate change,” Maarova said.
However, there is a caveat. For climate smart and regenerative practices to become widespread Maarova said farmers must be “made aware of the benefits for their farms” and the “right policy incentives” must be put in place.
Supporting the transition to agro-ecology
SOLMACC noted that the practices it encouraged are already “quite common” in organic farming. There is significant opportunity to encourage uptake in conventional food production, however.
To deliver a fundamental shift in methods of production, Maarova suggested that action is required from European regulators.
“The future Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has a key role to play in supporting farmers to tackle climate change and provide public goods, such as clean water, with the help of public money,” Maarova argued.
This position is supported by European organic producers’ association IFOAM.
Eric Gall, IFOAM EU deputy director and policy manager told FoodNavigator that the CAP should be used as a tool that “encourages the uptake of climate relevant measures and regenerative practices by farmers”.
Gall continued: “A new deal between citizens and farmers is needed to reward and incentivise those farms that are delivering positive climate and environmental outcomes. The use of public money to support the uptake of environmental and climate friendly practices, not fully recognised by our existing market frameworks, is essential to stimulate efforts to reduce GHG emissions and adapt to climate change.
“The principle of public money for public goods in the CAP would allow farmers to take up climate-friendly measures and to reduce other environmental impacts in a more integrated way.”
CAP 2020 proposals
Earlier this year, the European Commission presented a set of proposals designed to future proof Europe’s agri policy. The post-2020 CAP proposal offer a framework to design better targeted agricultural measures
Specifically, the EC said it wanted to outline new “obligations and incentives” to preserve soil health, encourage crop rotation and adopt practices that are beneficial for climate and the environment.
IFOAM welcomed parts of the proposal, such as the enhancement of CAP’s green architecture with the strengthening of the current cross-compliance rules and the creation of eco schemes.
“The increase in voluntary instruments to support the environment and climate… could be very positive as it would give farmers more choice on how they deliver public goods to Europeans, thereby encouraging their entrepreneurial ambition,” Gall said.
However, he warned: “It will all depend on the good will of national governments, and whether they dedicate enough budget to these eco-schemes. That is why 70% of the national CAP budget should be earmarked in the CAP proposal for environment and climate.”