Study: farmers could increase their production and contribute to reduce up to one gigaton of metric carbon emissions

by  | Dec 5, 2017

A new study presented at the Bonn Climate Summit, COP23 – produced by an international group of scientists led by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Center for Tropical Agricultural Research (CIAT), and published in Scientific Reports – has revealed how agricultural production could contribute significantly in the fight against climate change, a matter of utmost importance that will continue in discussions towards COP24.

Scientists have already established that agricultural production depletes carbon from soils as a result of over-tillage (digging or removing soil) and chemical fertilizers, which is estimated to cause between 50 and 70 percent of the loss of water reserves. carbon in agricultural soils worldwide (Lal, 2004). Taking into account that agricultural soils are capable of sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere when farmers use sustainable practices – such as increased use of manure, surface crops, vegetative cover, conservation tillage, fertilization management, as well as natural climate solutions, like agroforestry – the international group of scientists sought to establish in which regions of the world the highest carbon capture could be obtained through these activities.

Using a small increase of carbon in soils -experts consider that it is affordable in almost all arable soils- the scientists found that better management of soils for agriculture could contribute to an annual emission reduction of between 0.9 and 1.85 billion tons per year, equivalent to almost the total emissions of Brazil and Argentina, or the removal of between 215 and 400 million cars of circulation .

Justin Adams, TNC’s global executive director of Land, said that “natural climate solutions are essential to address climate change and investing in our soils is a strategy with enormous untapped potential-a potential that we could use if we began to think holistically about the type of actions and policies needed from the top down and from the ground up. If we want to satisfy the growing demand for food, maintaining global health and biodiversity, and abate climate change, then soils are our least valued ally. “

The study found that most of the carbon in the soil is stored in the northern hemisphere, with the countries of North America, Northern Europe, and Russia having the largest reserves of organic carbon in their arable land. In contrast, large tracts of arable land in India, the Sahel in Africa, Northern China, and Australia, are low in carbon.

Although the capacity to increase carbon in soils depends to a large extent on their typology and the environment, the main agricultural producing countries showed significant potential for carbon capture.

“Agricultural production in Latin America is fundamental for its economy. In fact, the region is considered as the food basket of the planet, since most of its production is exported to countries outside the region, “said Ginya Truitt Nakata, director of Land for Latin America of the TNC. “Then we have an enormous potential in terms of a significant contribution to the global mitigation of the effects of climate change through carbon sequestration since most of their countries are important agricultural producers with large tracts of land. cultivable “.

Additionally, 7 Latin American countries are among the 40 countries with the highest presence of carbon in their arable land: Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, and Guatemala.

The scientists also highlighted other important benefits of sustainable soil management, including higher yields for better soil fertility and better water retention capacity, which also help farmers adapt better to climate change. In this sense, it is estimated that the degradation of soils in Latin America reaches around 70 percent, according to the UN, which implies that improving agricultural practices can be a public policy incentive to maximize the additional benefits provided by healthy soils.

Table 1. Countries with the greatest potential for carbon capture by agricultural production compared to cars out of circulation (high scenario):

Table 2. Analysis of Organic Carbon Available in Cultivable Soils for Latin America and the Caribbean (most representative / high scenario):

“Soils are the basis of all food production. Healthier soils store more carbon and produce more food. Investing in better soil management will make our farming systems more productive and resilient to future impacts and stresses. “

Louis Verchot

Director of the Research Area in Soils and Landscapes for Sustainability (SoiLS) of CIAT. , International Center for Tropical Agriculture


The full study in English is available at .

To access the data and maps, visit:


Funding for this study was granted by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land, and Ecosystems (WLE), with additional support from The Nature Conservancy (TNC) , and the Center of Studies of Mountain Ecosystems (CMES), the Kunming Institute of Botany and the Key Program of Investigation of Border Sciences of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

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