There are ‘no free lunches’ is a perfect way to sum up the deep impact industrialised agriculture has had on our planet. The modern-day gift horses of industrialisation and the global supply chains have allowed us to expand our horizons and our “palates” — turning the erstwhile “life source and a public common” into a global business opportunity.

Agriculture is now a surgical economic activity. This leads to the new epoch of ‘corporate-environmental food monopolies’, as stated by Harriet Friedman and Phillip Mcmicheal in their seminal paper.

We know now, beyond any doubt, that industrial agriculture gets less food out of the ground, with fewer nutrients, less efficiently, more expensively, and with greater environmental devastation than small and organic farming. This is no longer a debate. In other words, modern agriculture externalises its true cost to others.

To be fair, agriculture, along with ‘writing and cities’, launched what we now think of as civilisation and global trade did pull millions out of poverty but it is also significant to remember that it has also kept a colonialist imprint on the planet in a different way: with differentiated access to nutritious food, reducing the biodiversity of our diet, injudicious ecological practices like monocropping and systematic erosion of soil and mounting cost of technology, chemicals — exiling the farmers out of their fair share of the progress and most importantly, deepening the climate change crisis. So what can fix the broken food systems of our times?

An alternative model

Carbon farming promises a bold new agricultural business model — one that fights climate change, creates jobs, and saves farms that might otherwise be unprofitable. In essence, a climate solution, and increased income generation opportunity and ensuring a food security net for the population — right under our feet.

Carbon Farming is a whole farm approach to optimising carbon capture on working landscapes by implementing practices that are known to improve the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and stored in plant material and/or soil organic matter.

Carbon farming can incentivise our farmers to introduce regeneratively practices in their agricultural processes — helping them shift their focus from improving yields to functioning ecosystems and sequestering carbon that can be sold or traded in carbon markets.

It not only improves the health of soil but can also result in improved quality, organic and chemical-free food (farm-to-fork models) along with boosted/secondary income from carbon credits for the marginalised farmers.

The total value of the global carbon markets grew by 20 per cent in 2020 — the fourth consecutive year of record growth — and is well on its way in raising critical mass of investors.

The value of traded global markets for carbon dioxide (CO2) permits grew by 164 per cent to a record €760 billion ($851 billion) in 2021.

Carbon thus can effectively prove to be the ‘cash crop’ of the future for farmers. There is also a case for our soil.

An international initiative called ‘4 per 1000’, launched at the 2015 Paris climate conference, showed that increasing soil carbon worldwide by just 0.4 per cent yearly could offset that year’s new growth in carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel emissions.

Studies show that soil removes about 25 per cent of the world’s fossil-fuel emissions each year and has been the missing link from the globally prescribed carbon management practices and narrative.

Soil is one of the most untapped and underutilised defences against climate change and acts as an efficient carbon sink. And India should capitalise on it to achieve its Net Zero target and decarbonising pathway.

According to the Third Biennial Update Report submitted by the Union government in early 2021 to the UNFCCC, the agriculture sector contributes 14 per cent of the total GHG emissions.

Amongst these, greenhouse gas emissions from rice cultivation during 2016 accounted for 71.322 million tonnes “CO2 equivalent”, which analysts say might have gone up to 72.329 million tonnes “CO2 equivalent” during 2018-19. This can be reduced by switching to regenerative agriculture practices and carbon farming can institutionalise and accelerate that shift. Regenerative agriculture and climate farming has gained wide acclaim and patronage globally.

It is also big on political agendas and climate manifestos. It was reported that Advisers to US President Joe Biden have suggested that the new administration launch a carbon bank for farmers as part of a plan to fight climate change, using the Commodity Credit Corporation — the same government war-chest Trump used to bail out mostly white, mostly wealthy farmers for income lost due to his trade war — to pay agricultural producers to sequester carbon in the soil. He has already declared the soil to be the next frontier of climate change fight. This is also followed by the global private sector boom with corporate behemoths like McDonald’s, Target, Cargill, Danone, General Mills, and others pledging to use funds to support regenerative practices and many food brands like Applegates — launching their own regenerative food brands to entice the climate conscious consumers.

April 2022, in fact, has been the biggest year in carbon capture investment with big tech companies like Stripe, Alphabet, Meta and Shopify announcing $925 million worth of carbon removal offsets over the next eight years. Stripe had spent $15 million last year in buying carbon credits.

Netflix’s much publicised documentary Kiss the Ground that makes a compelling case for the healing power of soil for our food security, nutrition and climate has also becomes a ‘global sales pitch’ for a transition to the regenerative agriculture.

This private sector enthusiasm and burgeoning market sentiment has to be matched by public sector boost.

Meghalaya leads the way

In India, Meghalaya is currently working on a blueprint of a‘carbon farming’ Act to create a prototype of sustainable agriculture model for the entire North-East region. North-East Region has shown tremendous progress in adopting organic and sustainable agriculture practices and Sikkim has shown the way already. But there is tremendous potential.

Out of the 5.5 million hectares of cultivated land available in the North-East, organic farming barely covers 3 per cent of arable land.

An extensive and pioneering carbon farming Act — with a robust transition plan can effectively demonstrate the idea of creating a carbon sink on working land and farm our way out of climate crisis, improve nutrition, reduce the punishing inequalities within farming communities, alter the land use pattern and provide the much-needed solution to fix our broken food systems.

Sangma is Cabinet Minister, Forest, Environment & Power, Meghalaya, and Mirza is Advisor to the government on Impact Programming