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Carbon farming: Climate fix or greenwashing?

Anna Gumbau
May 3, 2022

European agriculture produces millions of tons of CO2 every year. Could encouraging farmers to capture carbon on their land to sell credits to businesses help reduce emissions?

Bumblebee on a chicory flower
Plants such as chicory, alfalfa and  clover can help farmers sequester CO2 in the soilImage: Sergey Ivashutin/PantherMedia/IMAGO

"Now society expects much more from farmers," reflects Belgian dairy farmer Kris Heirbaut. "Not only that we produce food, but that we also help reduce climate change."

Heirbaut owns a farm in the Flemish town of Temse, 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the port city of Antwerp. Outside the farm, he has a small store selling dairy products, including ice cream, made from milk from his own cows. 

Two years ago, concerned with agriculture's damage to the environment, Heirbaut signed up to a "carbon farming" pilot project funded by the European Union that aims to improve agricultural soil health while tackling climate change. 

The project, concluded in summer 2021, enabled farmers in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Norway to sell carbon credits for carbon sequestered on their land. The EU gave the farmers scientific advice and administrative support to issue their first credits to local companies.

In December 2021, the EU presented its carbon farming initiative, with the intention to replicate the project across Europe. The EU initiative encourages farmers to make changes such as applying fertilizers rich in carbon, reducing tillage that disturbs the soil, and planting trees and crops that can absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Belgian farmer Kris Heirbaut pictured inside the cow stable in his farm.
Dairy continues to be the core of Kris Heirbaut's businessImage: Fabian Christopher

Changing farm practices

Soils are vital carbon stores, but industrial farming, rather than absorbing CO2, often releases it into the atmosphere — for example through plowing which, if done repeatedly, can result in the degradation of the soil. 

Since signing up for the initiative, Heirbaut has planted a field of narrow-leaf plantain — a perennial type of weed with high carbon sequestration potential — as well as crops that can rotate throughout the year. In total, he has about 14 hectares (34 acres) of land covered with grasses, clover, alfalfa, ribwort plantain and chicory, which can sequester CO2 all year long.

"Because we mow four times a year, but do not need tillage machinery to work in the soil, all the carbon that the roots of the plants will bring into the soil will stay there," he explains.

Heirbaut also has a field dedicated to agroforestry, in which trees or shrubs are grown around crops and pasture. These trees sequester carbon, and the shade of the trees allows cows to graze on grass in the summer, another practice that can help farmers absorb CO2.

A plough on a farming field
Plowing, if done repeatedly, can result in the degradation of the soilImage: John Randeris/Ritzau Scanpix/IMAGO

Improving soil health

The EU hopes that giving farmers a financial incentive will help them increasingly shift more agricultural land from emitting carbon to capturing it. The carbon farming initiative is part of the European Green Deal, the EU's road map to become climate neutral by 2050. An estimated more than 385 million tons of CO2 come from European farming, according to European Environmental Agency data — just over 10% of the bloc's total emissions.

"Carbon content of soil is a good proxy for soil health," says Celia Nyssens of the European Environmental Bureau, a network of environmental NGOs. Europe's intensive farming practices have damaged soils over recent decades. A 2020 European Commission study found that around 60-70% of EU soil is currently degraded, largely due to intensive farming, the use of pesticides or excessive irrigation.

No-till farming, such as that used by Heirbaut, is one way to improve soil health. Other techniques to help soils retain carbon include crop rotation, planting cover crops on fallow land to maintain the nitrogen in the soil and using compost instead of chemical fertilizers. These practices also protect other essential nutrients in the soil that plants need to grow, which in turn reduces the need for agrochemicals.

A field of alfalfa, with purple flowers
Heirbaut has about 14 hectares of land covered with plants such as alfalfaImage: Bernard Jaubert/imagebroker/IMAGO

Carbon scheme criticisms 

But carbon-offsetting schemes have long been criticized for allowing companies, individuals and states to simply buy their way to net-zero goals. In a letter to the US Congress last year, over 200 NGOs asked lawmakers to oppose a bill, currently under debate in the House of Representatives, that could see a carbon farming initiative set up in the US.

"Power plants, refineries and other polluters could purchase these carbon credits to offset their emissions, or even increase them, instead of actually reducing and eliminating them," the signatories argued.

Carbon farming has attracted several multinational corporations. Microsoft, for instance, has bought over $4 million (€3.6 million) in carbon credits generated from US farmers piloting carbon farming projects since 2021, to offset the tech giant's emissions.

But the companies using Heirbaut's greener farming practices to offset their pollution aren't multinationals. Earlier this year he sold his first carbon credits to Milcobel, a local dairy processor for roughly €50 per ton of CO2 saved. 

A laboratory producing microalgae on a Belgian farm
Heirbaut has also started a laboratory where he produces protein-rich microalgaeImage: Fabian Christopher

He hopes to collaborate with other small businesses in the Flanders region. "The advantages of buying carbon credits locally is that you can visit the farmers — people can sit and have a drink with us, visit the fields," he says. Although the pilot project has finished, Heirbaut intends to continue with carbon farming. 

Farmers can physically sequester up to around 3.6 metric tons of carbon per hectare each year, according to a study commissioned by Dutch bank Rabo Bank. But to do this, they must make significant investments in changing their farming practices — as well as hiring independent experts to undertake expensive soil analyses to evaluate its health.

Getting creative on the farm

Heirbaut says it's a cumbersome process that could put some farmers off the scheme. Some critics fear it could make the benefits of carbon farming inaccessible to smaller operations, and favor larger industrial agriculture operations.

Carbon offsets generated from biofuel or reforestation projects have contributed to land grabbing — massive acquisitions of land usually from major corporations — across the world.

Nyssens of the European Environmental Bureau believes that a poorly designed EU carbon farming system risks falling into the same trap. "If we create a system where there is even more value from having land, because you can also sell credits from carbon sequestration, you will worsen those problems," she says.

But on his small dairy farm, Heirbaut says carbon farming gives him the opportunity to improve the health of his land, while making a little extra income. And it isn't his only eco-friendly venture. In addition to carbon farming, he's also building a lab to create new food products based on microalgae — protein-rich cells increasingly used as a substitute to meat.

"In the past decades, farmers have specialized in one thing, and now we know if this one thing goes wrong it can be a big problem," Heirbaut says, as he welcomes guests to his store and treats them to its latest release: an ice cream made of hazelnut and his homegrown microalgae. 

Edited by: Ruby Russell and Holly Young

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