Can farming go Beyond Carbon?

Updated: Mar 31, 2021

A Couple of Definitions

"Sustainable agriculture: A whole-systems approach to food, feed, and other fibre production that balances environmental soundness, social equity, and economic viability among all sectors of the public, including international and intergenerational peoples. Inherent in this definition is the idea that sustainability must be extended not only globally, but indefinitely in time, and to all living organisms including humans.”- Stephen R. Gliessmani

”Sustainable agriculture means an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term:

  • Satisfy human food and fiber needs.

  • Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends.

  • Make the most efficient use of non-renewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls.

  • Sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and

  • Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole."

More simply, sustainable agriculture is the act of approaching conventional agricultural practices in a sustainable manner which fulfils the needs of the present without compromising the resources for the future.

The Challenges – Population Growth, Equity, Climate Change and Environmental Degradation

In the wake of exponential population growth, the agricultural sector faces some serious stress factors today. According to estimates by World Bank, if the current rate of growth continues, there will be 2.2 billion more people to feed by 2050. Farmers globally will have to produce 70% more food than today. Meaning, in the next 30 years we have to produce the same amount of food that has been produced in the last 8,000 years! In addition, the predicted increase in average temperatures by at least 1.5C by 2050 caused by climate change significantly reduces crop yields.

Agriculture or “Growing Things” accounts for 19% of the 51 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases we emit currently every year. Such is the centrality of agriculture that it is reshaping many of the great earth systems upon which planetary stability depends, such as the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity and ecology as a whole.

-As urbanization expands, each year forest cover equal to the size of Greece is lost to agriculture .

-Over 70% of freshwater withdrawals from natural sources are tied to the agricultural sector.

-Some agricultural practices contribute to water pollution due to fertilizer, pesticide, and manure runoff.

-Overuse of surface and ground water for agriculture creates a scarcity in many arid regions.

-Deforestation of native vegetation and tropical forests for agriculture has a positive correlation with elevated levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Sustainable Agriculture Provides a Solution

The pivotal work of the Drawdown group indicates that addressing the methods for food production could reduce atmospheric CO2 equivalents by 322 billion tonnes by 2050 – citing seventeen climate friendly approaches focused on agriculture.

The greenhouse gas reduction potential to 2050 of both regenerative agriculture (23 gtCO2e ) and conservation agriculture (17 gtCO2e) are significant.

It should be noted, however, that pigeonholing sustainable agriculture into tightly defined sectors is difficult, as Sustainable Agriculture encompasses a whole sector systems approach, as indicated by research from UC Davis Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program listing some of the most common sustainable agricultural practices:


  • Improving water conservation (irrigation and storage measures)

  • Managing and rotating crops to reduce water loss

  • Landscaping to increase water holding capacity of soil

  • Making maximum use of rainwater


  • Incorporating crop residue into the soil to avoid smoke from burning

  • Using appropriate levels of tillage to reduce dust

  • Planting wind breaks, cover crops or strips of native perennial grasses to reduce dust and runoffs


  • Reducing or eliminating tillage

  • Managing irrigation to reduce runoff

  • Keeping the soil covered with plants or mulch


  • Conventional agriculture is still dependent on fossil fuels as major energy sources. In sustainable agricultural systems, this reliance is shifted to renewable energy sources like wind, solar and hydro which are readily available and economically feasible.

Sustainable agricultural practices are not just restricted to farms but can be applied from the seed purchasing phase to distribution. Managing transportation emissions, using eco-friendly packaging, making use of renewable energy at farmers markets all contribute to sustainable agriculture and can have a big positive impact on growth of the global agricultural sector.

Individuals can also play a part in sustainable agriculture by shifting towards a plant-based diet; 70% of all global agricultural land is used to feed livestock and not humans. 70 billion from animals are reared annually worldwide for agriculture and the water required for this ranges from 35-76 trillion gallons annually. Without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75% (an area equivalent to the US, China, EU and Australia combined) and still be able to feed the entire population.

Why is it important?

Data on sustainable agriculture suggests increased crop yields as soil nutrients are constantly high and so is microbial activity which improves soil health. Better soil health implies farmers have to spend less to no money on synthetic fertilisers as the ground’s ecosystem replenishes itself. So, more profits overall.

Through these practices, pollution is greatly reduced. earthrhize partners NIHT Topaiyo, Papua New Guineau and Nii Kaniti: Forest Management, Peru which are REDD+ projects promote sustainable agriculture. REDD+ policies require tackling different drivers of deforestation in both the forestry and the agricultural sector. It is necessary to consider agricultural and rural development goals and taking into account all land uses in a holistic way and working to lessen the competition for natural resources. Such an approach ensures that the best possible balance is achieved among a range of different development objectives, including climate change mitigation and adaptation, environmental conservation, enhanced agricultural productivity and improved livelihoods. (FAO)

Interesting videos about sustainable agriculture:

The Futuristic Farms That Will Feed the World | Freethink | Future of Food

The next global agricultural revolution | Bruce Friedrich


Stephen R. Gliessman, "An Ecological Definition of Sustainable Agriculture," Principles of Agroecology and Sustainability(1998). Available at Agroecology Home Website:

"An Ecological Definition of Sustainable Agriculture," Principles of Agroecology and Sustainability(1998). Available at Agroecology Home Website: (6/9/08)]

US Farm Bill 1990 iii