Working towards a more resilient and increasingly virtuous model for agriculture...
As climate change upsets natural balances and seriously impacts production, and therefore yields, there are insistent demands that agriculture should review its practices and contribute proactively to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. This overview looks at transitions and new agricultural practices already underway...
In their response to the climate emergency, France and the wider Europe have committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. Given that it is responsible for 20% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, agriculture will be one of the driving forces behind the push to achieve this target, because as VIVESCIA Group CSR Manager Jeanne-Marie Carré points out: “Agriculture in general, and field crops in particular, are sometimes singled out as being responsible for global warming, but they also offer a key solution for achieving the carbon neutrality target due to their ability to lock up carbon in agricultural land”. How? By transitioning to low-carbon practices. Work on nitrogen fertilisation, the future use of ‘green’ fertilisers and the introduction of cover crops are just three of the very significant levers available for taking action on the carbon balance.
New technologies to the rescue...
Clément Regnault, a VIVESCIA cooperativefarmer in the Marne region, is relying heavily on the technological developments around DSTs* to further reduce the carbon footprint of his farm, and he uses satellites, drones, on-board sensors and other technologies to assess land diversity, measure the nutritional needs of his crops, and adjust input use accordingly. Precision agriculture is effective, but expensive: “We must carry on doing whatever it takes to make these technologies affordable”, stresses Clément. Some are based on Soil Conservation Agriculture (SCA) techniques, such as limited tillage, crop diversification, the use of cover crops (legumes) to promote natural nitrogen production, boost microbial activity and facilitate the transformation of plants into humus, the planting of companion crops to control pests and the replanting of hedges.
Philippe Mongin, a cooperative farmer from Trampot in the Vosges mountains, acknowledges that: “At the beginning, I looked to SCA to find alternatives to chemical weed killers, which have become less and less effective as plants become more resistant to them”. He and his two partners then decided to switch the entire farm to SCA, with help from Club Agrosol, which was set up by VIVESCIA, and is led by agronomist Jean-Luc Forrler.
That was five years ago, and they are still gradually discovering previously unsuspected benefits: “Some of our intercrop plant covers are more successful than others as a result of the weather, they all breathe life into the soil and improve its structure through root development. The soil is visibly more alive and, most importantly, we’ve come to the realisation that we can be productive without tillage, which was completely unimaginable ten years ago”.
The process is a long haul; it takes atleast five years to make a successful transition: “Don’t expect quick results; if you do, you’ll quickly become discouraged”, warns Philippe Mongin.
Laurent Moreau, a young farmer in the Ardennes, has also embarked enthusiastically on the SCA adventure. He sees the climate crisis and today’s shortages as having shifted agriculture to the world that comes after: “SCA gives us the opportunity to develop a coherent system that allows us to push back effectively against dependency on fossil resources”.
Nevertheless, changes of model on this scale take a long time and demand substantial investment. The challenge is all about enabling an agroecological transition to a low-carbon agriculture that is not only economically sustainable, but also productive. Which in turn, creates the need to mitigate risks for farmers. By involving every link in the grain value chain, along with food industry stakeholders and local authorities, for example. And by working to raise awareness among consumers and encourage them to take direct action through the purchases they make.
Hugo Collard farms in the Marne region, uses very little tilling, and has already introduced sunflower and hemp into his crop rotation scheme, because they demand less fertiliser, and alfalfa, which fixes nitrogen. He also uses DSTs to optimise his use of fertiliser on the land. Hugo has used the carbon footprint of his farm as the basis for evaluating all possible decarbonisation projects. “Right now, none of them is economically viable”, he regrets, “except the installation of a biogas plant, but because ours was installed in 2018, it’s not treated as a carbon reduction development at the moment. What’s needed is state subsidies, because today’s carbon market is still in its infancy, and the price of carbon is just too low to fund projects, particularly those for reducing the use of chemical fertilisers. That said, our first priority is to keep our companies operating in what is a complicated business environment”.
There’s no doubt that this is a complex equation. “We’re all working empirically: everyone’s trying out their own solutions in isolation, but no one has a monopoly on what’s effective”, concludes Clément Regnault. “There’s no silver bullet; it’s up to each farm to find its own, while remaining open-minded about what others are doing elsewhere”, and as cooperative partner Alban Collard reminds us: “It’s something we can only succeed in by working together”.