Can farms maximize and still reduce greenhouse gas emissions?


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Decarbonisation of agriculture is crucial for the United States to reach net zero emissions by 2050. A new data-based approach looks at practices that are good for the land and profitable for farmers.

The world relies on American farmers to do much more than prepare their meals. In addition to producing food for humans and animals, American farmers produce raw materials for biofuel production.

In the process, the agricultural industry contributes about 10% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States. As the amount of land earmarked for agriculture is limited, farmers need to find more ways to work efficiently, sustainably and cost-effectively, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. With new practices, farmers can turn farms into a net absorber of CO2helping the United States achieve its goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050

Sustainable intensification is a two-pronged approach that many say can help. It seeks to optimize land use and management practices for maximum agricultural land productivity, while minimizing the associated environmental impacts. The trick is to find the right balance between the two goals.

Scientists specializing in agroecosystem modeling and life cycle analysis (LCA) from the State University of Colorado (CSU) and the US Department of Energy’s Argon National Laboratory (DOE) have taken a new analytical approach to the problem in a recent cultivation study of corn and soybeans in Iowa. They co-authored the article “A Approach to Landscape Lifecycle Assessment with Multiple Products to Assess Local Climate Mitigation Potential”, in its June 20 issue Magazine for cleaner production.

“The concept of sustainable agricultural intensification has been applied to a wider application of the landscape,” said one of the co-authors, Hoyoung Kwon, chief environmental scientist in Argonne’s Energy Systems and Infrastructure Analysis (ESIA) division. “We looked at productivity and greenhouse gas emissions, tried to optimize land management tactics and products, and explored various trade-offs that improve land and land productivity.

For example, farmers can clean and redirect crop residues (or ‘stover’) for biofuels, but a percentage of stover may remain in the soil for valuable sources of nutrients and carbon for future crops. Farmers can plant cover crops during the winter (or set-aside) season to supplement the removed hob. The authors have taken into account the energy costs of emitting from the planting of roof crops in order to fully address the net benefits of removing the stove and planting the roof crops. Farmers can also reduce the amount of land they cultivate after the end of the growing season, which reduces decay and reduces the amount of CO2 which originates from the soil. However, the farmer must cultivate part of the land to be ready for the next growing season.

While some farmers are already following one or even three of these practices, Argon scientists believe that a better understanding of their impact will motivate them more to do so, for real benefit.

“Our approach gives a holistic perspective and looks at the farmer’s point of view: What are all the products that can be produced on the land and what are the benefits of sustainability?” Argon. “Agriculture can be a risky exercise with a low margin. Profitability will always be the main focus. However, sustainability has a value that can be unrecognized. How can we combine all this with changes in land management practices to make agriculture more sustainable and improve farmers’ costs? “

The researchers looked at trade-offs and synergies between sustainable intensification and carbon conservation measures in a realistic scenario. They used two models – DayCent and greenhouse gases, regulated emissions and energy use in technology (GREET) LCA – to assess an agricultural area upstream of Des Moines, Iowa.

The DayCent model represents the daily flows of carbon, nitrogen and water between the atmosphere, vegetation and soil in natural and agricultural ecosystems. Scientists are relying on it to estimate greenhouse gas emissions from corn ethanol production and the effects of crop residues.

They used GREET to account for emissions from farm operations and the use of maize, soybean and maize crops as raw materials for biofuel production. GREET is widely used in the industries to assess energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, air pollutant emissions and water consumption related to biofuel supply chains and other transport and energy technologies. Co-author Michael Wang, interim director of Argonne’s energy systems and infrastructure division, is the chief architect of GREET.

According to the study, harvesting 30% of maize for biofuel production would increase farm income, double net profitability and increase overall landscape biofuel production by 17-20%. Removing the stove would also soften the greenhouse gases to some extent, but reduced the initial amount of good carbon in the soil by 40%. In comparison, integrated approaches, which include winter cover crops and / or reducing tillage intensity, would increase soil carbon, improve farm profitability and reduce more greenhouse gases.

“We focused on corn and soy, but our approach can be extended to other crops,” Hawkins said. “Many farms today are large industrial farms that are high-tech and rely much more on high-resolution data. We want to give farmers, regional planners and others in agricultural management a tool to calculate how to use land sustainably and get the most out of the land. This will contribute to both profitability and environmental goals. ”

The main research reveals practices, technologies key to sustainable agriculture

More info:
Trung H. Nguyen et al, Landscape Life Cycle Assessment Approach with Multiple Products for Assessing Local Climate Mitigation Potential, Magazine for cleaner production (2022). DOI: 10.1016 / j.jclepro.2022.131691

Quote: Can farms maximize production and still reduce greenhouse gas emissions? (2022, June 17) retrieved on June 17, 2022 from

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