What is a Low carbon transformation? Agriculture (Part VI)

5 min read

Climate change is one of the most important issues facing humanity. The world needs to employ technology to drive responsible progress and sustainable economic development while reducing our environmental footprint. The world is experiencing climate change unlike anything in the last 800,000 years. As temperatures rise, food production is expected to be disrupted and food prices are predicted to rise. Modern agriculture is a major contributor to global warming, as climate models highlight the effect that agricultural practices have on our atmosphere. In addition, this sector is a major contributor to land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. There are global efforts underway to support reforestation, but the GHG emission problem is a huge one. In fact it is a 35 Giga ton problem[1]; to put matter to perspective as a mental exercise, approximately 1.6 trillion new trees[2][3] would be needed to grow to absorb the existing average global annual carbon emissions (2020) assuming an average of 22 KG of carbon dioxide removed annually per tree[4]. This figure is challenging[5] and doesn’t even account for global economic growth.

Climate change and its effect on modern agriculture is one of the most pressing concerns facing food security in the world today. Adaptation to resist effects of climate change is complicated by regional and cultural variations in food systems. Food systems are diverse, some locations and modes of production are well suited to battle the future effects of climate change, while others are less so. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, these impacts of climate change are expected to be greatest in Africa and Asia[6]. These regions are the least developed and will be least equipped to adapt to climate change. The carbon footprint of the agricultural sector is around 12% of total global emissions[7] and 10% of emissions are within the US.[8] Modern agriculture also releases nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon dioxide into our environment.

While the US is not the largest contributor to the global GHG emissions, it is still important to tackle in order to reach the world’s goal of net zero. The agriculture sector may be key to the solution by sequestering carbon produced by other sectors of the economy. Although agriculture involves cultivating and planting crops that absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the net effect of modern agriculture is releasing GHG to the atmosphere which is counterintuitive at first, until more details are examined.

Modern Agriculture helped increase global food supply, Image: Wikimedia Commons

A Backgrounder on fertilizers

While revolution in agriculture during the 1960s increased farm productivity, it greatly depended on the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Since the 1960s, our use of artificial fertilizers has increased by 30 to 60%[9]. This indeed helped the world increase our food supply and has contributed to a higher standard of living. Pesticides are used to kill insects that would otherwise destroy crops; however, they also contaminate other plants and destroy weeds. The use of fertilizers and pesticides has greatly increased especially in developed nations. While the use of chemical fertilizer is reducing the need for labor and using less land due to increased crop yields. On the other hand, it reduces the amount of carbon being stored in the soil. This trend continues not only for crops but also from livestock, where from 1950 to 2050, global livestock production would increase by 117%[10].

It is critical to address the greenhouse gas emissions from sources other than crops. To do this, the livestock industry’s greenhouse gas emissions must be a central part of the conversation. It has been well documented that livestock production, including meat and dairy, contributes significantly to the greenhouse gases that are warming our planet. Non dairy cattle in the Americas and Asia produce a significant portion of GHG emissions through enteric fermentation[11]. One of the byproducts of the meat and dairy industry is a leading contributor to global warming; Methane, a greenhouse gas more than 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. To make matters worse, the global population is expected to increase by 2.3 billion people by 2050[12]. As the world’s population increases, so does the demand for meat and dairy products. With no drastic behavioral changes, it is predicted that the global consumption of meat and dairy products will double by 2050[13]. This projected increase will have an enormous impact on the environment, as the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions will grow by nearly 50 percent.

So what other promising solutions are out there to address agricultural emissions besides planting trees and reforestation? It’s time to usher in a new era in food production, this would include solid rehabilitation of land to induce higher levels of carbon sequestration, breakthroughs in synthetic meat technologies that have lower carbon impact, as well as behavioural changes in human’s consumption of meat and dairy.

Low carbon farming technology

Technologies such as sensors, drones, self-driving and GPS enabled tractors are being used to increase farming productivity hence reduce resources required, however, technologies that are targeting efficiency gains in farming do not necessarily mean an absolute reduction in emissions. Technologies that target less water usage, water recirculation as well as pesticide free and low fertilizer farming would have a larger impact on emissions. Newer waves of farming technologies are promising to deliver better efficiency with lower emissions. Vertical farming, hydroponics, aeroponics, aquaponics are technologies that can deliver better results[14]. Societal trends such as local and urban farming as well as indoor home farming technologies would deliver impact if they become mainstream.

Anaerobic Digesters

Anaerobic digesters help farms produce energy from cattle waste. This energy can be used to lower their fossil fuel or electricity consumption, or to to be exported to the electricity grid. Small and micro scale anaerobic digestion are promising solutions to reach the finish line provided that their economics continue to improve over time[15].

Synthetic meats

The past couple of years have been intesteting for alternative meat businesses like Beyond meat and impossible foods who are valued in billions of dollars and have products in the markets. However, the bottomline for such products is the carbon footprint per kg of meat[16] [17] versus traditional meat, which is claimed to be between 89% to 90% less GHG emissions. Still, these products are yet to reach cost parity with traditional meat. Another consideration for the success of these new technologies is scalability and availability of these products to enable them to displace traditional meat consumption which is an uncertain factor. The last consideration is the public appeal to plant based product versus traditional meat, this is why other celular agriculture technologies are targeting meat created in labs, however the costs are still very far from reality[18].

Plant Based Meat Burger, Photo: RBLFRM-Shutter stock

Eccentric Fermentation

Cattle’s diet Additives[19] can improve the efficiency of digestion hence reducing waste energy in cattle production that would otherwise be released as Methane gas. For centralized animal farming, a more controlled approach to control and capture methane may be another approach to mitigate methane emissions from the animal farming industry.

For the low carbon transformation to be successful, technology deployment has to be accompanied by adequate measurement, monitoring and verification of emission mitigation. Not doing so will risk the world going into a path of greenwashing where actions that are believed to mitigate emissions have little to no impact on global emissions. In our next article we will discuss what it takes to measure and validate the world’s transition to low carbon.


[1] “CO₂ and Greenhouse Gas Emissions ….” https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions. Accessed 4 Jun. 2021.

[2] “Planting a TRILLION trees to build a forest the size of the United ….” 4 Jul. 2019, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-7214433/Best-way-fight-climate-change-Plant-trillion-trees.html. Accessed 7 Jun. 2021.

[3] “1T.org.” https://www.1t.org/. Accessed 7 Jun. 2021.

[4] “Could Global CO2 Levels be Reduced by Planting Trees ….” 3 May. 2021, https://www.co2meter.com/blogs/news/could-global-co2-levels-be-reduced-by-planting-trees. Accessed 4 Jun. 2021.

[5] “Comment on “The global tree restoration potential” | Science.” https://science.sciencemag.org/content/366/6463/eaay7976. Accessed 7 Jun. 2021.

[6] “Summary for Policymakers — Global Warming of 1.5 ºC – IPCC.” https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/. Accessed 7 Jun. 2021.

[7] “Agriculture – IPCC.” https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/ar4-wg3-chapter8-1.pdf. Accessed 7 Jun. 2021.

[8] “EPA: Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions – US EPA.” 14 Apr. 2021, https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions. Accessed 7 Jun. 2021.

[9] “Nitrogen fertilizer: Retrospect and prospect – NCBI – NIH.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC33552/. Accessed 4 Jun. 2021.

[10] “Exploring global changes in nitrogen and phosphorus cycles in ….” 24 Dec. 2013, https://www.pnas.org/content/110/52/20882. Accessed 4 Jun. 2021.

[11] “The FAOSTAT database of greenhouse gas emissions … – IOPscience.” 12 Feb. 2013, https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/8/1/015009/pdf. Accessed 7 Jun. 2021.

[12] “Growing at a slower pace, world population is expected to reach 9.7 ….” 17 Jun. 2019, https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/world-population-prospects-2019.html. Accessed 4 Jun. 2021.

[13] “Global meat consumption to rise 73 percent by 2050 FAO ….” 14 Dec. 2011, https://www.meatpoultry.com/articles/4395-global-meat-consumption-to-rise-73-percent-by-2050-fao. Accessed 4 Jun. 2021.

[14] “13 Vertical Farming Innovations That Could Revolutionize Agriculture.” 2 May. 2021, https://interestingengineering.com/13-vertical-farming-innovations-that-could-revolutionize-agriculture. Accessed 24 Jun. 2021.

[15] “Implementation Guide For Small-Scale Biogas Plants.” 21 May. 2015, https://www.bioenergyfarm.eu/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/D3.2_EN-Implementation-guideline.pdf. Accessed 24 Jun. 2021.

[16] “COMPARATIVE ENVIRONMENTAL LCA OF THE IMPOSSIBLE ….” https://assets.ctfassets.net/hhv516v5f7sj/4exF7Ex74UoYku640WSF3t/cc213b148ee80fa2d8062e430012ec56/Impossible_foods_comparative_LCA.pdf. Accessed 24 Jun. 2021.

[17] “Beyond Meat’s – Center for Sustainable Systems – University of ….” 14 Sep. 2018, http://css.umich.edu/sites/default/files/publication/CSS18-10.pdf. Accessed 24 Jun. 2021.

[18] “The artificial meat factory – the science of your synthetic supper.” 23 May. 2019, https://www.sciencefocus.com/future-technology/the-artificial-meat-factory-the-science-of-your-synthetic-supper/. Accessed 24 Jun. 2021.

[19] “Explainers | CLEAR Center – UC Davis CLEAR Center.” https://clear.ucdavis.edu/explainers. Accessed 25 Jun. 2021.

Mike Hassaballa Mike earned a master’s degree in applied science in 2013, then he launched his career in the data centre industry. In 2015, he shifted gears and took on a Lead Engineer role in a company developing emission reductions technology. He then moved in 2018 into energy consulting. Mike focuses on most critical issues and opportunities in business: strategy, operations, technology, transformation, advanced analytics, and sustainability. Mike writes fascinating stories meant to be read by anyone. He excels in simplifying complex subjects and bringing a fresh new perspective to pressing issues.

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