Carbon farmers to the rescue

Posted: 1 February 2001

A recent report by the 16 Future Harvest research centres suggests that developing country farmers are helping to store vast amounts of atmospheric carbon by growing high-yielding food crops that save space for forests.

Over the past 30 years the cultivation of high-yielding crops has saved over 400 million hectares of land from conversion to agriculture. This has enabled nature to store atmospheric carbon equivalent to a third of the amount released each year by the United States.

According to researchers at the Nairobi-based International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF), an additional 700 million tonnes of carbon - a tenth of the amount that enters the atmosphere each year - could be trapped if just 10 per cent of farmers adopted four practices. Agroforestry - growing trees on farmland - can trap over three tonnes of carbon per hectare per year: the equivalent of driving three large cars for 10,000 miles a year. Reduced-impact forest harvesting techniques not only help conserve trees, but reduce carbon emissions, and the use of conservation tillage on existing cropland and the improved management of animal grazing areas could also make a significant difference to the carbon budget.

The 16 Future Harvest centres, all members of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), are currently undertaking a $20 million pilot programme for research associated with reducing global warming. A major priority will be to develop rice varieties and water management practices that will help reduce emissions of methane. Researchers will also investigate ways to improve the efficiency of nitrogen fertilisers, which are a major source of nitrous oxide emissions, another significant greenhouse gas.