Decarbonising agriculture: solution is right under our feet

Published May 18, 2021
If farmers return to the “natural way of doing cultivation” on raised beds, that require no tilling and by using organic mulch, it is possible to reverse the damage. — AFP
If farmers return to the “natural way of doing cultivation” on raised beds, that require no tilling and by using organic mulch, it is possible to reverse the damage. — AFP

THE way we grow our food can either put carbon up in the atmosphere or down below into the earth. More carbon in the atmosphere leads to global warming, but the same when put into the soil can be good for us. The problem and solution is simply a matter of attaining the right balance, say experts.

The way we do agriculture is putting the carbon from the soil and biosphere into the atmosphere. Today, it is the second-largest sector after energy contributing 43 per cent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused both by use of fossil-intensive fertiliser and land-use change, which in turn, are driven by increasing demand for food.

But experts say we need to look at carbon, not as our enemy but our ally as agriculture can provide more options to reduce the carbon footprint than say transport, industries and infrastructure.

“Regenerative agriculture is both a source and storage for GHGs,” said 70-year old Asif Sharif, a progressive farmer from Pakpattan in Punjab province. He believes that by turning to regenerative agriculture and changing grazing practices we can reverse climate change, drawdown carbon and reduce usage of water.

If farmers return to the “natural way of doing cultivation” on raised beds, that require no tilling and by using organic mulch, it is possible to reverse the damage.

According to the Food and Agriculture Authority, of the total area of 79.6 million hectares, up to 23.3m hectares is cropped. Out of this up to 2pc of landlords control 45pc of farmland and 98pc control the remaining 55pc.

The forests cover 4.6m hectares and the rest of the land comprises culturable waste, densely populated forests and rangelands. Almost 80pc of the cultivated area is covered by an irrigation system.

Major crops like wheat, rice, cotton and sugar cane contribute around 4.9pc, while minor crops contribute 2.1pc to the country’s total GDP. The livestock sector contributes 11pc to the GDP (60.5pc in agriculture sector). It also remains the largest employer in the country employing over 40pc of the labour force. Still 20.3pc of Pakistan’s population (40m people) is undernourished or food insecure.

The annual per capita availability of water in Pakistan is estimated at about 1,100 cubic metres; almost reaching chronic water stress with 90pc going into agriculture and the remaining share split between industry and domestic use.

Mr Sharif has devised paradoxical agriculture called PQNK, short for paedar qudrati nizam-i-kashtkari, which he claims is the solution to all evils, including climate crisis, imbalance of CO2, water shortage, degeneration of soil, poverty of small farmers and even poor quality of food.

“All are interlinked to soil and the way we practice farming,” he pointed out, adding: “Agriculture when done correctly, is infinitely self-renewing.” He emphasised adopting improved farm management practices which in turn would give better crop yields and more productive livestock.

His 500-acre farmland is his laboratory and he has a huge following of farmers listening to his every word on YouTube (since 2008), many of whom are from Indian Punjab.

His Facebook page called Pedaver, with over 17,000 followers, has hundreds of video clips sent by happy farmers who followed his advice.

Mr Sharif said an acre of wheat crop absorbs more CO2 from the atmosphere than an acre of forest with trees because the surface area of leaves from a wheat crop is much more. But because a forest is not ploughed the carbon remains stored there. The wheat field, on the other hand, because it is ploughed after harvesting releases carbon.

The bovine problem

But within this sector, livestock account for 70-80pc of all agricultural emissions.

Gases produced in the stomach of ruminant animals (cows, buffalo, sheep and goats), mainly methane that an animal burps, is 80 times more potent than CO2 in causing global warming.

And according to Ghulam Habib, an animal nutrition expert, the GHG emissions from livestock in Pakistan are far higher than global averages. This is corroborated by a 2012 FAO study that found methane emissions from livestock in Pakistan to be double the emissions from country’s transport sector.

But reducing methane emissions from livestock is critical to decarbonising agriculture, he said, but it was a lot harder as it means tweaking the animals’ biology and physiology.

He described “poor breeding and farm practices” as major contributors of large GHG emission by this sector.

While feed additives could be central to attaining carbon neutrality, a surer way was reducing the number of unproductive livestock and concentrating on improving their genes, he said.

Pakistan has a (huge) livestock (cattle, buffaloes, camels, horses, mules, asses, sheep, goat) of 207.4m (2019-20) but more than 80pc of the animals suffer from poor health.

Mr Habib, a former professor at the Peshawar Agricultural University, carried out a detailed assessment of emissions from the livestock supply chain from cradle-to-farm, in 2017, and had hoped the study would serve as baseline information for further research and policy debate to come up with a sound plan.

But there has been little interest in using the findings in formulating a national action plan for reducing emissions in the livestock sector. It would require, the challenging task of calculating the amount of emissions generated by different species. But more importantly, getting an authentic counting of the livestock carried out.

The United Nations-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates a global methane reduction of 40pc to 45pc by 2030 is needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C, as cheaply as possible. Moreover, because methane stays in the atmosphere for only a decade, reducing its output can deliver a relatively quick win compared with CO2, which lingers for centuries.

Published in Dawn, May 18th, 2021

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