Getting the Low Down on Carbon Farming

Blog story |
Getting the Low Down on Carbon Farming

Carbon farming is a term that has become increasingly familiar over the last 10 years, but many of us still feel in the dark about what it is. In this blog, we delve into the theory of carbon farming and explore its significance for landholders, the environment and communities.

What is carbon farming?

Carbon farming is the process of increasing the amount of carbon stored in soils, roots, wood and leaves.

The centerpiece of carbon farming is photosynthesis – the metabolic function of plants that converts sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and energy. Produced energy includes carbon compounds which are used to build plants, and they are also returned to the soil by the plant’s root system helping to build soil organic carbon.

All modern farming systems produce plant and animal products that contain carbon as a result of photosynthesis, but most farms lose more carbon than they store. This is because as crops and animal products are consumed as food, stored organic carbon is converted back into atmospheric carbon.

So, in order to farm carbon positively, farm businesses need to adopt farming techniques to store carbon and reduce losses. Carbon losses include the amount of carbon lost through crops and livestock sold, and also the amount of carbon emitted on-farm as part of regular farming operations.

Why do we want to store carbon?

There are 118 elements in the periodic table, so why are we picking on carbon?

The driver of carbon farming is the risk of global climate change. As a greenhouse gas, atmospheric carbon contributes to the warming of Earth’s surface, and it is this process that is responsible for climate change. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most consequential greenhouse gas because it has the ability to absorb heat and reflect it back towards Earth. It also remains in the atmosphere significantly longer than other greenhouse gases.

Carbon farming offers the chance for us significantly reduce current greenhouse gas emissions by storing carbon in the soil. One study showed that more than 100 billion tons of carbon* (equal to 367 billion tons of carbon dioxide) could be stored in soils globally, and this would effectively reverse our current, alarming climate trajectory.

What needs to change for carbon farming to work?

For carbon farming to be effective as a way to mitigate climate change, landholders need to adopt farming methods that sequester carbon progressively, leading to change over time. There are a range of different approaches that can be implemented to increase the amount of carbon including the use of biochar, perennial grains, agroforestry, permaculture and regenerative agriculture.

While some farmers are already investigating and even implementing ways to sequester carbon, there are a number of barriers to wide-spread adoption. Storing enough carbon to sell takes years, which makes investing in the necessary practice change unappealing to landholders. Because carbon farming is a relatively new concept, there is also a gap in the knowledge required to identify the most effective methods for Australia’s diverse range of agricultural zones. To work, carbon farming needs to be undertaken at a global scale, which will take time and significant research, guidance and assistance from governments the world over.

In our next carbon farming blog, we’ll look at the options for farm-grown carbon credits and what that means for the landholders producing them. Sign up for our Soil Matters e-newsletter to receive our next blog direct to your email inbox.

Find out more about soil carbon on our website or investigate the health of your own soils by speaking to our soil extension officer.

*Figure taken from Climate Solutions: Carbon Farming on the Pesticide Action Network website.

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