The electric car has been monumental for clean energy. Is there an “electric car” for the agriculture industry?

A piece recently published by the Guardian criticized the global agriculture industry for its stagnancy in addressing carbon emissions. Calling for an advancement in climate-smart agriculture that would both increase yields and decrease emissions, they asked: “Other sectors like energy have made great breakthroughs in remarkably short periods of time, but where is the ‘electric car’ for agriculture?”

The “electric car of agriculture” might be right under our nose (or rather, under our feet): soil. Soils store three times more carbon than does the atmosphere, but this ability to store carbon has been rapidly depleted in many areas. Despite this overall decline, a variety of farming techniques including compost application, rotational grazing, and low tillage have begun to emerge and offer ways to enhance the natural soil carbon sink. Collectively, this portfolio of “carbon farming” techniques offers the opportunity to prove the electric vehicles (EVs) of agriculture. Here’s how:

                                                          Photo credit - Soil Carbon Regeneration

                                                         Photo credit - Soil Carbon Regeneration

1. It’s the early days for carbon farming -- research and development is critical.

When the first EVs were released, their environmental footprint wasn’t clear. Extensive manufacturing processes and battery disposal had the potential to cloud the carbon abatement potential of EVs. Nevertheless, extensive investments in research and development not only brought down the cost of EVs, but also cleared supply chain bottlenecks.

The same pathway is likely to hold true for carbon farming. Preliminary research shows that carbon sequestration could be a game changer for the agriculture industry, much in the way that EVs were expected to be for the transportation sector. While the price to implement carbon sequestering farming techniques are already in line with current carbon pricing schemes (at cost around $10/ton of carbon sequestered), further development could bring these prices down even further. In addition, more research is necessary to weigh the full life cycle analysis of carbon farming techniques, including considerations of increased land use and compost manufacturing. Further, without accurate and inexpensive measurement and verification techniques, carbon farming approaches will have trouble gaining access to carbon markets.


2. An EV in California isn’t the same as an EV in Wyoming; the same goes for soils.

Location, Location, Location. Ensuring that carbon soil sequestration methodologies produce the same “carbon negative bottom line” across geographies, climates, and types of land is no doubt difficult, but imperative. Electric vehicles highlight the importance of locale in calculating climate benefits. The electricity used by a car in “green” California will be generated with a different energy input mix than the electricity used by one in Wyoming, and thus the carbon savings amounted from switching to electric could vary greatly.

Considering the large and complicated field of microbiology, it’s safe to assume that soil research across geographies will be more difficult than simply accounting for renewables in a state’s energy mix. As a consequence, not only does the amount of science on carbon sequestration need to grow, but also research attuned to the local and specific needs of areas across the globe. There is a start - researchers from University of Washington marked the differences in carbon soil sequestration after the application of compost in 6 counties across California and further, the USDA has also worked to build, and will continue to improve upon, the COMET planner, which can help farmers implement soil carbon sequestering practices based upon their specific geographic and soil qualities. 

3. How do we get people to use these things?

When electric cars were first introduced, people worried (and still do) about the inability for EVs to integrate into their daily lives - range anxiety, silent acceleration, etc. Getting farmers and ranchers to adopt soil carbon sequestration agricultural methods can and will be difficult, particularly since agriculture is both largely decentralized and a trade of heritage. Akin to electric vehicle rebates, there are educational programs put on by NGOsgovernment incentives, and good ol’ word of mouth that encourage implementation. Work can be done speed up the process, but it won’t be an overnight switch for carbon sequestering farms, just as there are still conventional cars on the road, and likely will be for a long time.

In conclusion, the potential for carbon sequestering agricultural is both promising and exciting, much like the prospect of electric vehicles was a few decades ago.  There are important issues around agricultural carbon sequestration that need further exploration to unlock this potential. First, more research is necessary to streamline the carbon verification process and to also ensure that methodologies produce similar results across geographies and climates. In addition, since farmer implementation of these methods can be slow, strategically planned incentives are necessary to fully realize the potential of the industry. While agriculture has been historically criticized for its large carbon footprint, carbon sequestration in soils has the potential to turn agriculture into climate’s biggest asset.