Greenhouse gas emissions have to be cut all over Europe. At the same time, we need to feed the world’s growing population. How will the demand for sustainability affect forestry and agriculture? Pasi Rikkonen, Principal Researcher at Luke, answers to eight claims on the subject.
1. Efficient ways to reduce emissions endanger agriculture as an industry.
“Reducing emissions it certainly is a difficult situation for the agriculture industry. We need to consider the relationship between societal aims and the industry’s requirements”, Rikkonen says.
The EU’s climate and energy packages encourage member nations to cut greenhouse gases by 20% by 2020, 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050. Agriculture and forestry are both linked closely to environmental issues. Agriculture emits plenty of greenhouse gases, and forest clearings contribute to carbon emissions and, if done unsustainably, destroy natural habitats.
The most powerful way to reduce emissions is to stop clearing land for fields. This creates a problem to farms aspiring to expand. Milk production, for example, demands for new organic soil from time to time because dairy farms need more space to spread the manure. Clearing is cheap and easy, and if it can’t be done, it will restrict the production.
“Preventing farms from expanding can stop agriculture’s economic growth”, Rikkonen says.
Luckily there are options for the ban. Firstly, new technologies help to process manure more efficiently. Secondly, farms can optimize the use of fields that have already been cleared. The third efficient way is to adopt more environmentally friendly organic field practices.
“Every time a field is cleared, it releases emissions. Perennial plants reduce the need for clearings and the plants absorb more carbon.”
2. Agriculture and forestry inevitably cause a lot of emissions.
There is no denying that EU’s climate and energy packages are challenging for agriculture and food production. Rikkonen emphasizes that emission cuts can’t be made at the expense of overall food production.
Nordic farms traditionally own the forests that grow beside their fields. Yet, in political sense, agriculture and forestry are treated as two separate industries.
Rikkonen has a wild idea. What if farms could compensate for their carbon emissions? Plants are so-called carbon sinks because they absorb carbon from the atmosphere.
“Farms could take their greenhouse gas emissions into account and then grow perennial plants or trees to the estate.”
3. The EU climate strategies force farmers to plant forest to their fields.
“In Finland alone, there are 250,000 acres of organic fields. But I don’t think there is need to forest the fields that are in active use. Fields that are cultivated at the moment can be made as environmentally friendly as possible”, Rikkonen says.
However, some fields might soon grow trees. And it wouldn’t be the first time.
“Historically, fields tend to move. Forests and organic soil are cleared in areas where agriculture is concentrated. Elsewhere fields can be forested.”
4. Farms have to produce their own energy in the future.
Many targets that are listed in the climate and energy packages urge to increase the use of renewable energy.
Quite recently, farms have started to search for new ways to produce energy. Options available are biogas, woodchip-based production of electricity and heating or hybrid systems such as solar electricity or geothermal heating. Renewable biomasses such as manure or crop waste are also potential alternative energy sources for farms.
“Self-supporting energy sources have a lot of potential, but they still need to improve a lot. If renewable energy systems become fully functional, farms could produce energy for the whole region.”
However, building an own energy system for a farm takes a lot of time and money.
“But after a suitable system is found, the energy costs decrease, because farmers don’t have to buy electricity or heating any more. In the future, farms might even be able to benefit financially from the energy structures by selling the energy they produce.”
5. Due to the climate change Nordic farms will have to produce more food for exports.
There is a global need to increase food production. Climate change will eventually move farming towards north, because the area close to the equator will get too dry.
“This means that in the long run, Nordic countries will have to increase their food exports. And more agriculture means more carbon emissions”, says Rikkonen.
“This development is not relevant in the next ten years, but eventually it will add up to the carbon emissions from Nordic agriculture.”
6. Emissions from producing and transporting food should be viewed as an entity in climate strategies.
The greenhouse gas emissions of agriculture and transportation are reported separately. Strategies to achieve package goals are different for both of these industries. Transportation, for example, tries to move towards low-carbon motor technology and bio fuels.
Actions towards sustainable transportation naturally reduce emissions in food logistics. Rikkonen believes that both industries might benefit from a bigger picture.
“If agriculture and transportation were viewed as an entity, the entire food industry could improve.”
7. Technological innovations alone will be enough to reduce emissions.
The EU encourages member nations to develop low-carbon technologies. Rikkonen mentions a few examples of new technological innovations, such as novel ways to process animal manure or dry crops. Technologies in manure processing allow farmers to separate and save phosphor, nitrogen and biogas. There are also new ideas on how to use renewable energy in old technologies.
“Technology already has all the answers and could solve environmental problems as long as they are put into practice. The lack of innovations and technologies is not the problem. The problem is how to harness these new solutions into action”, Rikkonen says.
8. Investing in new technologies is expensive.
Solar panels were expensive ten or fifteen years ago. Since then, technological development has made solar energy reliable and relatively low-maintenance.
“When a technology starts spreading, new producers come to market and the costs drop”, Rikkonen believes.
“Different technologies cost different amounts of money. But decisions to invest are not made in a void; governments can influence them with incentive schemes. People have to consider what is cost-worthy now and in the future.”