Earlier this year, the advisory firm ICF International released a report commissioned by Monsanto that detailed how agriculture was contributing to climate change and what the industry can do to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
The ICF assessed what it calls the four Crop Based Strategies: sustainable nutrient management, sustainable tillage and cover crops, producing ethanol from corn and corn stover to offset fossil fuel emissions in the transportation sector, and optimizing the use of excess crop residues.
The study reports that the U.S. ag industry contributed to 7.7% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2013, with nitrous oxide emissions from agricultural soil making up the largest portion of those emissions. According to the EPA, nitrous oxide from soil management contributed to 263.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. For comparison, nitrous oxide released from manure management was only 17.3 million metric tons that year.
The good news is that those numbers probably aren’t coming from your no-tilled soils. While the report admits there isn’t a consensus on the impact conservation tillage has on increased carbon sequestration, it estimates that if all farmers adopted no-till or another conservation tillage practice, it would prevent more than 30 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.
For no-tillers using winter cover crops, their impact is even greater. The report says that cover crops have the highest national mitigation potential, with most of the emission reductions coming from on-site carbon sequestration. If winter cover crops were used on all cropland acres currently not using cover crops, it could reduce nearly 120 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in the next 4 years, the ICF claims.
There are other changes growers could look into for reducing their carbon footprint, such as growing corn for ethanol production, which could offset fossil fuel emissions in the transportation sector by 20-plus million metric tons by 2020.
Growers could also increase their use of nitrification and urease inhibitors to reduce nitrogen loss and decrease the amount of fertilizer applied, which the ICF says would cut nearly 12 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2020. And adopting variable-rate and swath control technology would not only provide growers savings from reductions in pesticides and seed, it would also reduce more emissions — estimated at just over 12 million metric tons by 2020.
So to you no-tillers and cover-crop users — take pride in the practices you’ve adopted. Not only are they benefitting your farm and local environment, they are also helping solve a problem that is affecting every corner of our planet.