What would a carbon and soil-positive system look like, and how could it be achieved?
Can current technology solve agriculture’s carbon and resource-sustainability issues? Some certainly think so, but both the farming and non-farming community need to be imaginative in implementing those technologies – and accepting of the costs.
Vern Osborne, professor of animal biosciences at the University of Guelph, believes current technology can already transform agriculture into a carbon-sink. The only barriers are self-imposed limitations in terms of willingness to understand how those technologies can be used, and to pay for them.
During a presentation at a January precision-tech showcase in Ontario, Osborne detailed a variety of environmental, economic, and social challenges – including competition from competing food technologies (e.g. 3D printed food), air quality concerns, water concerns, and an ever-shrinking body of arable land – being faced by farmers around the globe.
However, he also says there is tremendous opportunity to alleviate such concerns through the energy sector, and particularly, through what he calls the “building envelope” of farms; that is, the infrastructure technology and design used to harness a farm’s true energy potential.
An example of a highly-effective building envelope, says Osborne, can be found in the United States’ new Ford-class aircraft carriers – navy craft which hold everything required for extended operations within its walls.
“Everything we need to solve our issues is in that Ford class carrier. We just need to bring it to ag,” Osborne says. He makes particular note of its internal energy generation and storage systems, and how the same idea could be applied to farms.
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Due to its generally favourable climate, access to water, and other factors, the Great Lakes Region was highlighted by Osborne as a region which could be “the best carbon sink” and one of the most powerful rural economic areas in the world. But due to a lack of will on the part of industry as well as governments, and a lack of recognition that progress can be – and indeed is – being made in sustainable food production, the region’s potential remains largely unrealised.
This applies to the lack of incentives for farmers to pursue serious levels of ecologically-minded changes to their businesses. Planting trees in the middle of a field used for cash crop production, for example, might make environmental sense, but financially it doesn’t work. However, if farmers could get paid for those trees, or somehow for the carbon-positive impact of the area, Osborne says that potential carbon sink starts to make economic sense.
The greenhouse gasses generated by livestock, too, could be harnessed and employed for energy in the right barn system. Storage for that energy – or even for water – could also be incorporated into the structure itself, as is done in the greenhouse industry. Combining greenhouse technology and designs with livestock production, he says, is just one example of how two industries could combine efforts for wider benefits.
“Why don’t the greenhouse and dairy people talk to each other,” says Osborne. “There’s tons we can do with carbon farming.”
These ideas are central to the University of Guelph’s Mission 2050 project – a plan to replace the school and province of Ontario’s current dairy, swine and poultry research stations with completely sustainable and self-regulating facilities . This includes in-wall heat and energy storage, carbon capture systems in every barn, water filtration and re-use systems, and so on.
As the project’s science and design lead, Osborne stresses the sustainability shortcomings of the University’s newest dairy research facility – the project’s first phase was officially completed in 2015, though without many critical features initially incorporated into the design plan – also stems from a lack of financial will. “We have a tremendous asset sitting in our own boundary lines,” says Osborne.
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Employing technology to farm carbon and improve soil health is already a widely adopted idea in the corporate world, according to Kaytlyn Creutzberg, an Ontario farmer and Nuffield scholar who analysed changing sustainability and marketing policies of some of the world’s food giants.
More specifically, she says “regenerative agriculture,” not merely sustainability, is increasingly being adopted as a mantra by these companies. Indeed, McCain’s, General Mills, Danone, McDonalds and others have all incorporated regenerative concepts as key elements of their own sustainability initiatives.
General Mills specifically, for example, identified five core principals for their suppliers: minimise soil disturbance, maximise crop diversity, keep the soil covered, maintain living roots year-round, and integrate livestock. What’s more, they are tying soil health directly to consumer health – and focusing on people’s children – in an effort to drive demand.
Agriculture has huge potential to be net-zero or better. We just need to commit as an industry, and be recognised for it
“General Mills has a ‘sustainability and social impact officer’ position. It’s not a fad,” says Creutzberg. “They’re still looking to mitigate disruptions in their own supply chains, particularly in a changing climate […] Farmers, and the profits they need, are nearly always missing from these conversations. General Mills are considering themselves soil professionals, and I’m not sure we want that.”
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But this state of affairs affords farmers opportunity as well. Regenerative farming practices build on what farmers already do, says Creutzberg. With a little effort – in terms of both communication and changes to production – those same farmers could position themselves as prime suppliers for regenerative-minded companies.
Companies like General Mills are also starting to offer programs to help farmers transition to strategies that said companies consider to be regenerative. She adds this indicates companies are not going to consider “regenerative products” to be premium products, and thus farmers’ likely won’t be paid more. However, now-volunteer transition programs can relieve some of the financial burden of adopting new management strategies. “Let’s try to be regenerative and attract buyers in the marketplace,” she says.
Whether it’s accessing “regenerative” markets of simply offsetting the costs of carbon taxation, Osborne offered similar sentiments. “Agriculture has huge potential to be net-zero or better. We just need to commit as an industry, and be recognised for it.”