The agriculture industry is a diligent and vibrant community. But fulfilling work is never without its challenges. With a population expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050,(1) the industry will need to produce 56 per cent more food to meet the demand.(2) This is a large responsibility, but it certainly isn’t the only one. The industry’s environmental responsibility is also top of the list. Sustainable agriculture (or regenerative agriculture) ensures a future where precious resources like water, soil, and air are taken care of for future generations. This is done through several principles and farming practices, which preserve and rehabilitate farming ecosystems.(3)
Agriculture accounts for 11–15 per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with fertilizer representing about 1.5 per cent through its release of nitrous oxide (N2O). However, without the use of fertilizer, agriculture production would decrease by 50 per cent.(4) Finding the balance of producing more food with less climate impact is a challenge, but proper resource management is a budding solution, keeping nutrients where they’re needed without being lost to the surrounding environment. Best practices such as 4R Nutrient Stewardship, apply fertilizer and other inputs (like water and pesticides) at 1) the right rate, 2) the right time, 3) in the right place, and 4) using the right nutrient source.(5)
Inputs: Resources used in farm production, including seeds, fertilizer, chemicals, feed, energy, etc.(6)
Often technology pairs with best practices to create more efficient and sustainable methods of production. Variable Rate Technology (VRT), a form of precision agriculture, uses data collected by satellites, sensors, drones, and other internet of things (IoT) technology to create a map of the differences within each field. The information then allows farmers to dispense targeted amounts of inputs only where they are needed, without having to pass over a field more than once. Variable rate application can reduce fertilizer use by as much as 10–30 per cent while still maintaining the same crop productivity.(7)
Food Loss and Waste Emissions
Food loss and waste is another contributor of GHG emissions. When food ends up in the landfill it is prevented from breaking down naturally because the landfill creates an anaerobic environment (one without oxygen), causing the release of methane gas, a GHG that is twenty-five times more potent than carbon dioxide.(8) In North America alone, wasted food contributes to 193 million tonnes of GHG emissions.(9) Globally, if food waste was a country, it would be the world’s third largest contributor.(10, 11) There are many ways food loss and waste can be prevented, including improved storage techniques, redistribution of overstock to food banks and other organizations, less confusing “best before” labels, composting, and lastly, upcycling food by-products not consumed by humans.
Livestock farming is a great example of upcycling in action. Cattle, hogs, and other animals eat the by-products of foods like soy, corn, canola, and oats, preventing them from ending up in the landfill and upcycling it into an even better product (beef, pork, or other meats).
There are many ways in which agriculture is part of the solution for cleaner air. Plants, for instance, are nature’s best carbon dioxide scrubbers. Plants naturally absorb carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen. In farming, all crops play their part in this process. Agroforestry, however, is especially helpful. Tree farms not only produce the Christmas trees that appear every year around December, but they help mitigate climate change by capturing and storing carbon, enriching soil with nitrogen, and improving overall air quality by releasing oxygen. Trees have even been integrated into crop fields or pasture land to block wind and prevent erosion.(12)
Did You Know?
According to the Keystone 10 Million Trees Partnership, a mature tree absorbs 48 lb. of carbon dioxide every year, and an acre of forest can absorb the carbon dioxide emitted by two cars annually.(13)
As with any sector that requires transportation, the agrifood industry is a globalized food supply chain that sees products shipped all over the world. In a US study, transportation from inputs to final delivery made up 11 per cent of total GHG emissions created by the food system.(14) There are ways that agriculture is working to help make an impact in these numbers, including local alternative agriculture, like city rooftop gardens, and biofuels. Biofuels are a green fuel alternative to fossil fuels, usually comprised of canola or corn ethanol, that is inching into the energy sector. Today, renewable fuel regulations in Canada mandate that 5 per cent of the gasoline pool and 2 per cent of the diesel pool be renewable fuel. As a result, a total of 5.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) per year were avoided in 2018 and 40 MtCO2e in 2010–2018.(15)
For more information on agriculture sustainability explore our Nourishing Minds publications here.
1 UN—News, 2017
2 World Resources Institute—How to Sustainably Feed 10 Billion People by 2050, 2018
3 The Climate Reality Project—What is Regenerative Agriculture?, 2019
4 International Fertilizer Association—Estimating & Reporting Fertilizer-Related Greenhouse Gas Emissions, 2018
5 Fertilizer Canada—Stewardship
6 Teach Me Finance—Farm Inputs
7 Future Farming—Precision Farming Could Help Reduce Climate Gas Emissions, 2018
8 FactCheck.org—How Potent is Methane?, 2018
10 Food Matters Action Kit—Food Waste, the Environment, and Climate Change
11 Our World in Data—Food Waste is Responsible for 6% of Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions, 2020
12 Common Pastures—Trees Improve the Soil, 2016
13 Keystone 10 Million Trees Partnership—All About Trees
14 York University—Challenges of Food Transport in Canada
15 Navius Research—Biofuels in Canada 2020