Friday, April 19, 2024

Sustainable agriculture and the transition to low-carbon economy


In agriculture, sustainability is a complex idea in many facets including the economic aspect where farming should be a profitable business contributing to a robust economy, the social where dealings with the workers should be fair and have a mutually beneficial relationship with the surrounding community and the environmental, whereby good stewardship of the relied on natural resources is practiced. From building and maintaining healthy soils, managing water wisely, and promoting biodiversity to minimizing air and water pollution.

Over decades of science and practice, several key sustainable farming practices have emerged. Rotating crops and embracing diversity through intercropping has improved soil health and pest control. Planting cover crops like clovers during off-season times when soils might otherwise be left bare has minimized soil erosion, replenished nutrients, and kept weeds in check reducing the use of herbicides. Adopting agroforestry practices by mixing trees and shrubs into the process has provided shade and shelter to protect plants, animals, and water resources while potentially offering additional income.

Eliminating or reducing tillage, a method that involves inserting seeds directly into the soil can reduce soil erosion as compared to traditional plowing which prepared fields for planting and prevented problems associated with weeds though caused soil loss. Integrating livestock and crops is proven to be eco-friendly especially when the vast acres of crops, majorly corn, provide cheap and reliable cattle feed. In return, it requires heavy application of animal manure.

Due to global environmental problems, low-carbon agriculture has gained recognition, increasing carbon farming momentum in both developing and developed countries. International communities are looking into the power of this technique to offset carbon dioxide emissions. The UN intergovernmental panel on climate change has noted that regenerative agriculture is a viable option to address this crisis. Farms, both big and small, have commenced acting. In Nagasaki, entrepreneurial farmers are practicing an effective and cost-efficient technique that is gaining popularity among home gardeners. To make natural fertilizers, they ferment food scraps that would be normally thrown away putting them in air-tight containers, and adding rice bran and salt. The lactic acid bacteria ferment the scraps which result in fluffier soil. In a month’s time, the end product is mixed into the soil making it nutritious to grow organic vegetables.

Another option to make nutritious soil is through weeds where a high ridge is created then the dry weeds cover the soil. Little amounts of soil are sprinkled over them to lightly press them down and prevent fungi from consuming them. To add moisture that will fasten the fungi decomposition process, moderate amounts of water is sprayed. Thereafter, it is covered with a black plastic bag to promote the active growth of filamentous fungi and keep it moist. Filamentous fungi feed on carbon to grow, eventually extending hyphae that play a crucial role in intertwining with the released carbon thus supplying plants with nutrients, minerals, and moisture. In addition, the hyphae have developed a symbiotic relationship with the plants serving as extra roots helping plants take in more nutrients and grow more vigorously. All these nutrients needed to grow crops from the ground are made available courtesy of the micro-organisms. As a result, there’s little capital utilization, and carbon emissions, and crops grown using this method are said to be more resilient against disease and pest infestation making it healthy for human consumption.

During the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, soil rose to the international limelight when the ‘4 per 1000 initiative’ was introduced to minimize carbon emissions. In achieving this goal, people are looking into an age-old material known as biochar, a type of charcoal made by burning biomass such as wood and bamboo. In Yamanashi, various farms actively use biochar to assist in better growth of roots while ensuring the soil stays moist and fertilized. For abandoned orchids, the trees are cut, turned into biochar, and returned to the soil. Trees take in carbon from the atmosphere to grow and extend their branches. By turning them into biochar, the absorbed carbon can be locked in for decades. Burying it will help trap atmospheric carbon into the earth as well as aid in soil regeneration. Saplings are planted and the tree grows within a timeframe of five to ten years beginning to bear good and flavorful fruit. This has become an opportunity to provide new lives for old trees instead of being thrown away as waste. Others are finding different ways to make use of biochar. Local dairy farms purchase it and mix it with sawdust for cowsheds. Eventually, it is turned into fertilizer providing extra income to the dairy farmers who sell to the crop-growing farmers building a circular economy.

Many of these practices have a common focus on soil solving a number of the problems associated with industrial agriculture by keeping farms protected and teaming up with living organisms. In conclusion, healthy soil is co-related with healthy crops as it retains water like a sponge ensuring farmers and communities thrive in all seasons.

Dr. Edward Mungai
Dr. Edward Mungai
The writer, Dr. Edward Mungai, is a global sustainability expert. He is the Lead Consultant and Partner at Impact Africa Consulting Ltd (IACL), a leading sustainability and strategy advisory in Africa. He is also the Chief Editor at Africa Sustainability Matters. He can be contacted via

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