The climate-conscious farmer

13.03.2018

In the future, the state plans to obligate farmers to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions – a necessary step, considering that more than ten percent of all man-made emissions are produced by agriculture. Yet measuring those emissions has always been a laborious undertaking, making it difficult to implement reduction plans – until now.

Uwe Schneider is an agricultural economist at Universität Hamburg’s Center for Earth System Research and Sustainability (CEN).

In agriculture, there are various sources of greenhouse gases: tractors emit carbon dioxide, while cattle produce methane. The nitrogen in their liquid and dry manure is an effective fertilizer, but can also transform into nitrous oxide, which is 300 times as harmful to the climate as carbon dioxide. Around the world, whenever someone clears a forest, turns grasslands into pastures, or reduces the amount of humus in their crop soil, they harm the climate. In addition, aspects that may seem trivial can have real consequences: how often farmers till the soil, which crops they plant in which order, and whether they fertilize their soil when it’s wet or dry.

Starting in 2030, the still-forming “grand coalition” of political parties heading Germany’s federal government plans to obligate the agricultural sector to reduce emissions – just like the industrial sector is already forced to do. But who’s going to measure the emissions? Every field, every stall and sty is different; every management decision counts, and not even the farmers themselves can keep track of all the consequences. They do, however, consider the issue to be an important one: this was confirmed in the first survey of German farmers, which we conducted in connection with our research into greenhouse gases in agriculture.

First survey of German farmers on greenhouse gases

The majority of the 254 farmers surveyed rated their own level of knowledge in this area as comparatively low and wanted to receive further information. What’s more: the majority claimed they were willing to do their part to reduce emissions. We were surprised to see just how willing: 70 percent of those surveyed claimed that societal recognition would motivate them to run their farms in an environmentally friendlier manner. 40 percent even considered an emissions tax to be a good thing, most likely because it would affect all farms equally and therefore seemed fair to them. In return, the farmers expected to receive compensation, such as subsidies or a label for climate-friendly products, which could be used to justify charging higher prices.

Yet a tool that could show farmers exactly where the greenhouse gases come from, and how their individual choices affect emissions production, would also be an important aspect. It would need to be straightforward, lightweight and deliver results fast. And that’s exactly where we come in. We’re currently working to modify software that farmers already use – and to calculate emissions by drawing on data that they already collect. For example, sensors on their farm machinery already measure plant growth and indicators of crops’ nutrient supply. Using this data, the management software monitoring the sensors automatically measures the amount of fertilizer distributed, down to a scale of one square meter. If a mathematical model were added, the software could also calculate the amount of greenhouse gases produced. We’re now exploring the feasibility of this option at selected farms. Our vision is that, in the future, every farmer will have access to this additional software feature: first in Germany, and later throughout Europe.

Once that happens, farmers will be able to decide for themselves how to run their farms, where they can reduce emissions, and whether potential crop losses can be compensated for by financial remuneration. In turn, it will also be possible to define, review and implement climate targets for farmers.

This content was first published as a guest article in the newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt on 12th March 2018.

Uwe Schneider is an agricultural economist at Universität Hamburg.