Farmland, the Great Carbon Sink


In its fight against climate change, France launched the “4‰ Initiative” which aims to increase carbon reserves in agricultural land. A 0.04% growth in that storage could, in fact, stop the annual rise in CO2 in the atmosphere. On December 1, more than 100 organizations and states committed to this program.

What if one of the solutions for fighting global warming were hiding… right underfoot? More specifically, in our farmland. How, you ask? It is simple: human activities and deforestation lead to massive discharges of an additional 4.3 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year. Our oceans and forests can absorb a portion of that CO2. But as for the soil, it holds some 1,500 billion tons of carbon, in the form of organic matter.

What if one of the solutions for fighting global warming were hiding… right underfoot?

More eco-friendly soil, more fertile soil

Just a 0.04% annual increase in this stored carbon could stop the current rise in CO2 levels in the atmosphere. This finding was the inspiration for the 4‰ Initiative, sponsored by the French State under the Lima-Paris Action Agenda. Its aim is to encourage pro-active public and private players (states, local governments, research centers, companies, NGOs and more) to increase the carbon reserves held in arable soil (including prairies, pastures and forested areas). “This international research program reconciles food security goals with the fight against global warming and, as a result, has engaged countries at COP 21 that previously felt relatively unconcerned by the issue,” asserts the French Minister of Agriculture, Agrifood and Forestry, Stéphane Le Foll.

“Soil that is more carbon-rich is also more fertile. Its yields are higher, and it is more adaptable to climate change and more resistant to extreme weather events like drought,” explains Mathias Ginet, the 4‰ Initiative’s Climate Change Project Coordinator at the Ministry’s Globalization and Food Security Office. “At the same time, the land’s potential as a carbon ‘sink’ – which is two or three times higher than that of the atmosphere – can also be developed.” Along with the interest of countries outside the G20, particularly developing countries throughout Africa and in certain parts of Latin America.

This international research program reconciles food security goals with the fight against global warming. Stéphane Le Foll, French Minister of Agriculture, Agrifood and Forestry

Agro-ecological techniques

In concrete terms, which agricultural practices stockpile the most carbon? All paths – or almost all – involve agro-ecology, or the implementation of environmentally-friendly agricultural models and techniques, such as associated crops. “This involves planting different crops on the same plot of land, at the same time (legumes, cereals and corn, for example),” Mathias Ginet outlines. Another solution is to develop agro-forestry, or, as he puts it, “mixing trees, crops and livestock on the same plot or farm.” Similarly, farmers in tropical zones often utilize silvopastoral systems. “In three-story zones, you can find trees, livestock and forage plants on the ground: the combination of all three produces an ecosystem that tends to stockpile carbon.”

100 players already committed

More than 100 states and organizations (40 states, plus FAO, World Bank, research institutes, NGOs, professional organizations, companies, and private foundations, including, for example, the Livelihoods investment fund, which was chiefly co-created by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Danone to promote sustainable agriculture) made a commitment to support the 4‰ Initiative on December 1, by signing a joint declaration at COP 21.

In parallel, France is mobilizing its farmers: 50 French farms are now slated to become agro-ecological by 2020. Because today, agriculture has the means to fight climate change within its grasp, “by reducing direct CO2 emissions, changing animals’ diets and making greater use of methanization,” cites Mathias Ginet, by way of example. And, above all, agriculture can play its role as a carbon sink.

Photo © : Livelihoods

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