Carbon: Star of Agriculture and Climate Science
Consider the carbon atom: six protons and six neutrons, surrounded by six orbiting electrons. Without it, life as we know it doesn’t exist. In fact, the term “carbon-based lifeform” is used to describe anything in the universe that approximates what we consider to be “alive.” Together with hydrogen and oxygen, carbon is one of the literal building blocks of all life on earth.
Carbon is especially important to agriculture because of the role it plays in driving photosynthesis and maintaining the planet’s climate. For farmers and climate scientists, ensuring ideal carbon levels requires precise attention to detail.
Farming and the Climate
Every aspect of our climate—including temperature, sunlight, rain and wind—is important to agriculture. Anyone who has farmed knows how much agriculture depends on the climate, especially considering the distinct challenges and opportunities found in each unique area of the world.
As civilization has evolved, we have also learned more about the complex and nuanced ways carbon contributes to our changing climate. We now have a more complete understanding of the roles played by burning fossil fuels, cutting down forests and plowing the soil.
In agriculture, plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and energy molecules called carbohydrates. This process contributes to the air we breathe and the food we eat. In climate science, carbon affects global temperatures, soil salinity, ocean levels, weather patterns and more.
As our understanding of farming, carbon and the climate has deepened, agricultural scientists have incorporated this new knowledge and insight to help farmers reduce carbon emissions, adapt to climate change and even mitigate its effects. In recent decades, we’ve also learned a tremendous amount about how the tools and processes pioneered by modern agriculture not only help farmers cultivate crops in the face of climate change, but also actively support a healthier climate as we work toward a more sustainable future.
One of the best examples of the intersection between innovation in agriculture and environmental stewardship, The Climate FieldView™ Platform is empowering farmers around the world to cultivate their crops while reducing the impact on our planet. By harnessing data gathered from satellites, in-field sensors and smart combines, the Climate FieldView™ app uses historic insight and predictive analytics to help farmers connect more intimately with their fields, so they can identify and address problems before they take hold. This allows them to apply the right amount of water, nutrients and crop protection products in the right place, at the ideal time. This level of precision enables farmers to use fewer inputs overall (e.g. fertilizers) while improving results in their fields, thus supporting resource conservation and helping reduce carbon emissions. And because digital tools monitor the soil composition, farmers can actively track their progress in sequestering carbon in the soil for more productive crops and a healthier planet.
Helping Farmers Help the Planet
The emissions produced by farming come mainly from burning fossil fuels to run equipment and from tilling the soil. Every time a tractor travels across a field, it generates emissions. That’s why crop scientists and data engineers have developed tools and techniques from GPS to precision farming equipment to help farmers reduce fuel consumption. Practices such as no-till farming are also exceedingly beneficial in reducing emissions because they don’t disturb the carbon that naturally rests in the soil, meaning it can stay there to benefit the plants and microorganisms that need carbon to thrive.
Innovations in agriculture not only help to reduce emissions, but to also capture carbon. By growing crops that are more productive while using less tillage, farmers are able to leave plant residues on the soil or grow cover crops to help remove more and more carbon from the atmosphere.
The Sky’s (Not) the Limit
To augment and improve what farmers can accomplish using traditional tools, data scientists in agriculture are exploring new ways to harness the power of information in the field. Today’s satellites can be equipped with a variety of imaging tools, from hi-res cameras to infrared sensors to give farmers an intimate soil-level view of their fields from the stratosphere. Each of these can provide farmers with important information about their crops, ranging from stages of vegetative growth and the absorption potential of chloroplasts to soil moisture levels and pest pressures.
Technology is also improving on—and under—the ground. The Bayer ForwardFarming initiatives are implementing cutting-edge digital tools throughout their land to gather insights both in and beyond their fields. In California, the Bowles Farming Company relies on a management system both on and off of the field to streamline the installation of grasses, shrubs and trees as part of their land conservation efforts. Additionally, Harborview Farms in Maryland is incorporating a robust soil sampling and aerial imaging platform to recommend ways to increase the abundance of beneficial soil organisms and organic materials for a healthier environment.
Closing in on Carbon Literacy
As the building block of life, carbon itself is not inherently problematic—rather, it’s the imbalance of carbon in our atmosphere that causes widespread climate challenges. Through agriculture, today’s best minds are finding ways to not only correct that imbalance, but ensure that we actively support our climate in the years to come. By combining an unprecedented level of observation through data analytics with farming methods like cover crops, no-till and precision practices, modern agriculture is helping farmers improve their operations while reducing their impact on the climate. This new vision and capability not only sustains our access to affordable food, but also helps farmers and our planet thrive together.