Carbon farming: a horse saddled with the wrong bridle

By Sarah Wiener
Sarah Wiener is an organic farmer, chef and MEP for the Austrian Green Party.

“Carbon farming” is the new buzzword for a supposedly eco-friendly form of agriculture. As part of the Farm to Fork strategy, the EU Commission also announced an initiative in this area. It was published in the spring of 2022 and is part of the EU’s strategy for sustainable carbon cycles. To achieve the goal of storing more greenhouse gases than emitted by 2050, half of the carbon dioxide is to be stored artificially and the other half naturally.

Part of these “natural solutions” are the rewetting of peatlands and carbon allowances for the storage of carbon in arable farming. However, the highly technical approach and the narrow focus on storage, despite the low climate relevance of certain practices, turn what initially sounds like a good idea into a horse bridled the wrong way.

Problems with measurement and remuneration

In its Carbon Farming Initiative, the EU Commission points out the biological, technical and legal difficulties of storage, measurement and remuneration in agriculture in great detail. Yet, it advocates precisely the instrument of measuring and remunerating stored carbon in the soil via CO2 allowances – and favors this instrument over rewarding sustainable land management practices that benefit both humus build-up and other ecosystem services. The Commission fails to provide a convincing rationale for this.

However, in the Soil Conservation Strategy, also presented in 2022, one reads, “The banking and financial sectors are increasingly interested in investing in farmers who adopt sustainable practices and increase soil carbon levels, and in creating market-based incentives for carbon storage.” It is not hard to tell where this is going.

If we want to achieve safe emission reductions in agriculture as well, then we must first and foremost move away from the use of synthetic fertilizers. This would reduce greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture much faster and more reliably than carbon farming, because agriculture’s biggest contribution to climate change comes from the extremely energy-intensive production and application of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.

Reduction of livestock

With a reduction of the livestock population tied to land area and pasture husbandry, agriculture’s second-largest share in climate change could be significantly improved. This is because pasture farming in particular contributes to climate change mitigation due to the humus stored under grassland. Apart from soils in permafrost regions, peatlands and grasslands contain the majority of carbon stored in the soil. Protecting these biomes must therefore be a top priority.

Aside from forests, grassland is the largest biome on our planet, covering about 40 percent of the vegetated land area. But ruminants are needed to protect grassland, because only grazed grassland persists, and the more regularly it is grazed, the more humus is built up. Against this background, ruminants must therefore also be evaluated differently than just by their methane emissions, because they are active climate protectors when grazing.

Particularly questionable with regard to the planned carbon storage in the soil is the use of biochar: Increasing the carbon level in the soil via this approach is not equivalent to a sustainable agricultural model and the build-up of high-quality humus. If the focus is on the stability of carbon in the soil, then this is at odds with promoting an active soil life. This urgently requires degradable carbon substrates to maintain soil functions. An active soil life means humus build-up, but always also conversion and decomposition.

No soil improvement through biochar

To have an impact on the climate, huge amounts of plant carbon would also have to be used: For example, to achieve about one percent of Germany’s 2030 greenhouse gas reduction target, all of Germany’s available biomass would have to be processed into biochar. An unrealistic scenario. Moreover, regardless of the feedstock, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed in the charring process, which are carcinogenic and mutagenic – truly not a soil improver.

Also, foregoing the plow is still equated with carbon storage, although this has long been disproven (increase only near the surface and decrease in the subsoil). The study “Greenwashing & viel Technik! Vermeintlich nachhaltige Lösungen für die Landwirtschaft” exposes this well.

We need to approach sustainable, climate-friendly agriculture systemically instead of abusing soils as carbon storage sites. This can be done via compost application and agroforestry. But the main factor is the roots, which are the biggest humus producers. Therefore, diversity on and in the soil is paramount, it promotes all ecological functions. The one-sided focus on carbon storage completely overlooks the fact that soil management is about maintaining ecosystem functions, biodiversity, cycling, water storage, water purification, evaporation, cooling, healthy plants, healthy food, and much more.

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