Without adequate policies, greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, forestry and fishing will see a 30% increase by 2050. However, land managed through sustainable agricultural practices could play an important role in containing the climate emergency.
According to data from the FAO, land conversion and organic soil drainage are responsible for approximately 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. It is precisely because of drainage that peat bogs are the third highest greenhouse gas emitter in the AFOLU sector (Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use).
It is estimated that soil can capture approximately 20 PtC (petagrams of carbon) over 25 years, equivalent to over 10% of anthropogenic emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, forestry and fishing have almost doubled in the last fifty years, and they could increase by 30% more by 2050 if there are no policies enacted to reduce them. In 2012, emissions generated through the use of synthetic fertilisers constituted approximately 14% of agricultural emissions. They are also the fastest-growing type, having seen a 45% increase since 2001. The FAO also reported that 33% of land is degraded and suffers from salinization, compacting, chemical pollution, the accumulation of non-biodegradable substances and the exhaustion of nutrients.
When land is managed in a sustainable way it can have an important role in mitigating the climate emergency, by storing carbon and reducing gas emissions into the atmosphere. If, however, land is managed through less sustainable agricultural practices, carbon stored in the soil can be released into the atmosphere in the form of CO2, thus contributing to the ongoing climate crisis. The constant conversion of meadows and woodland into farmland, which has been happening for centuries, has led to the release of large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. However, there is great potential for reducing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and improving carbon capture – thus improving soil resilience – by restoring organic matter in depleted soils and adopting conservation practices. According to the “4 per 1000” initiative launched on 1 December 2015 by France at COP21, a 0.4% annual increase of organic matter in soil would be enough to compensate for the increase in CO2 concentration tied to human activity, and would improve land fertility at the same time.
Other options for mitigating agricultural emissions include: improved feed and dietary additives, modifying animal diets to decrease nitrogen excretion; increased precision in fertiliser use (using the right amounts of the appropriate fertilisers at the correct time and place); and more frequent recourse to multi-cropping and inter-cropping cultivation techniques.
All these solutions can contribute to improving efficiency in the use of resources (nutrients, feed, water), which is an important step toward mitigating agricultural emissions in a manner that is also economically advantageous. The development of innovative production techniques – like agroecology and organic farming – allows for the optimisation of crop productivity while accounting for sustainability concerns. By focusing on soil fertility and closed nutrient cycles, these approaches promote crop rotation and favour nature-based solutions and chemical innovations that help treat parasites and diseases to improve land health and productivity. These practices have significant beneficial potential in terms of biodiversity, nutritional values, land viability and the improvement of soil and water quality. Even so, their feasibility is often questioned because they can result in lower yields and therefore require more extensive land use to achieve the same output as traditional systems. However, adequate yield comparisons with traditional agriculture are difficult to carry out because agroecology and organic farming approaches are based on synergy with other crops and the environment, which is not always directly measurable. In fact, mitigation measures must also include other metrics, such as access to credit, staff trained to enact the necessary practices, accurate monitoring of emission levels, and institutional regulations. The concept of sustainability, therefore, has to be applied to specific territorial characteristics, connecting different sectors and directing them towards a common vision that facilitates communication between the various projects being carried out in a given region.
This is the biggest challenge for the bioeconomy: new technologies alone are not enough to save us, we need intelligent ways of connecting and integrating them with one another to create a sustainable land management plan. Today, focusing on the chemical sector would show a lack of vision and economic grounding, whereas embracing the bioeconomy means accessing a context with high economic and social potential, with tendencies that counter those in the chemical sector.
However, a bioeconomy requires adequate infrastructure. The new model needs to be connected to the society and peculiarities of a given territory, focusing on diversified qualities. In fact, the bioeconomy is closely linked to the future of society: it is an important mechanism to guarantee a fair and sustainable future whose aim is not to limit supply and demand, but to change production and consumption models. The goal is for the needs of humanity to cease their negative effects on ecosystems and the availability of natural resources.
Land degradation and desertification are significant concerns for the EU, especially considering that soil is not a renewable resource. The need to enact measures aimed at stopping and reversing the progressive degradation of soil is ever more urgent. It is also vital to ensure that achieving food security involves the implementation of transformative technologies and practices that improve the soil’s carbon storage. In the short term, the reformed Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) should give strength to the best proven practices for sustainable pesticide use and management plans for livestock, water and nutrients that aim to reduce the use of fertilisers. More widespread separate collection of waste at the European level and the recycling of organic waste to produce high-quality composts, including soil-improvers that return nutrients and carbon to the land, will also contribute to limiting emissions in the EU.
In the coming years there will be an intensification of agriculture and forestry practices which will not undermine biodiversity. This will happen thanks to the adoption of innovative and precise farming models, as well as techniques enabled by digital services and the application of nature-based, biodegradable and eco-planned solutions. These include organic and sustainable fertilisers and bioproducts such as biopesticides and alternative foods to reduce the use of antibiotics. Furthermore, new models and techniques will be developed to monitor and evaluate the soil-organic matter dynamics for different terrains. Circular bioeconomy is a cornerstone that links agriculture and industry: it inspires a model for the production of biobased and biodegradable materials that serve both sectors, as well as sustainable agricultural practices and soil protection. According to the provisions found within documents published by EU bodies, between 2030 and 2040 there will be an array of new businesses, governance models and training instruments that will connect the AFOLU sector with other contexts via a bioeconomic framework. This will enhance regional interests and connections between rural, urban and coastal areas, contributing to the creation of wide-ranging value chains that will have many advantages for all parties.
Interview with Catia Bastioli, Novamont CEO
Catia Bastioli is CEO of Novamont and Matrica, President of Spring, the Italian Cluster of Green Chemistry, and President of the Kyoto Club. Also President of Terna since 2014.
Why is soil so important? What is being done to protect it in Europe?
“Soil is a non-renewable resource that is essential in maintaining life on Earth, as well as being the planet’s largest ‘carbon sink’. The linear model of development, that has also influenced the agricultural and agroindustrial context, has (over the last few decades) put the fertility of soils at risk and made a significant impact on CO2 emissions. Soil degradation is an environmental issue that is increasingly important in Europe, especially in the Mediterranean region. Only by promoting practices for the accumulation of organic matter in soil, such as the use of compost, can the phenomenon be inverted. The absence of a European directive on the issue has consequences not only for the emissions of greenhouse gases and the conservation and regeneration of land, but also for land contamination due to plastics, microplastics and other substances that can affect its fertility. However, important signals are beginning to arrive from Europe, such as the recent institution of a ‘Mission Board for Soil Health and Food’ whose objective is to support the European Commission in finding solutions to the challenges of food security and soil quality. These challenges, together with cancer, climate change, ocean health and climate-neutral cities, constitute the five main ‘missions’ to be faced at the European level.”
What is the bioeconomy’s contribution to soil health?
“A circular bioeconomy has to start with the regeneration of land and above all a requalification of agricultural land, promoting the creation of new, integrated value chains that are based on the spread of ‘best practices’, the sustainable use of biomass and the addition of organic matter. Regeneration must also occur in marginal, abandoned and non-cultivated lands, especially those with negative economic margins, even through the deployment of non-irrigated crops, thus encouraging the creation of new income opportunities for farmers. In this context, and through continuous innovation, it is possible to develop physical, chemical and biotech technologies that are able to use the raw materials produced.
Circular bioeconomy also means a cultural shift that has to change all of society and in particular consumption hot spots, such as cities and urban areas, that have an extremely important role in so much as they influence the demand of food types, production of waste, types of packaging, quality and quantity of single-use products, systems for collection and treatment of organic waste and urban and industrial sewage, as well as recycling practices for organic and non-organic materials. In fact, organic urban waste, sewage, phosphates from wastewater and organic fertilisers could be recycled to produce natural fertilisers that stimulate organic matter in soil, rather than being wasted in large quantities as they are today. This would be a virtuous example of circular economy. All of these sectors can help reinvigorate the fertility of soil and promote sustainable agriculture, through a transition to regenerative and socially inclusive practices.”
In what way do products need to change?
“According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, 72% of plastic packaging goes unrecovered, and only 2% is recycled for reuse as packaging or for similar purposes, whilst downcycling is worth around 12%, notwithstanding the many years of – albeit only verbal – promotion of recycling. The fact is that we cannot create virtuous development that starts from recycling low quality waste derived from products and applications that are designed for use and not for end of life. We must redesign the entire system of production and consumption in a circular perspective, consuming as little resources as possible, using them with wisdom and when necessary applying the eco-design instrument to avoid the creation of waste and allowing for high quality re-use. In terms of maintaining the health and fertility of soil, biodegradability in soil is a crucial aspect for all products in an agricultural context. This is especially true for those products that are likely to accumulate in soil, such as herbicides, lubricants, seed additives, slow-release systems, and mulch. Biodegradability in soil and water is also essential for products that accumulate in wastewater and sewage sludge, such as additives for hygiene products and cosmetics. Composting biodegradability becomes important for all materials that have a high likelihood of being contaminated by food residue and that would risk polluting organic waste, that would then end up at landfill rather than becoming precious humus. I am referring here to thin wrapping, stratified wrapping, food-serviceware and coffee capsules.
In a circular economy logic centred around soil and water quality, it must be clear that all liquid and solid streams of organic carbon have to pass through systems for composting, anaerobic digestion, and purification.”
What needs to be done to give the circular economy a push in the right direction?
“As shown in the Final Report of the High-Level Panel of the European Decarbonisation Pathways Initiative – which supported the European Commission in defining actions for a low-carbon-emission future – it is essential to have a long-term strategy, while working constantly to achieve short- and mid-term results.
The revolution plays out at the regional level on the issues of agriculture, the maintenance and improvement of soil fertility, the eco-design of products, and the relationship between cities and food. But equally important are the networks that enable this new commitment, the size and quality of plant-engineering and technology – first of all for composting and anaerobic digestion – as well as the development of chemical, physical and biotechnological processes that transform waste into viable products. This challenge also requires interdisciplinary and interconnected projects that can multiply, collaborate and remain inclusive.”