Some climate policies targeting agriculture and forests, if they concur to a reduction of food production, could lead to an increase in the price of food products. However, reducing deforestation and increasing carbon sequestration in agricultural soils can strongly reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, all while avoiding risks for food security. This is what a new study has found, according to the French National Institute for Agronomic Research (INRA).

As part of the Paris climate agreement, numerous countries are looking for ways to use the potential of their forests and their farms to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and to store carbon. The land sector, which includes agriculture and forestry as well as land use changes, is responsible for approximately 25% of human greenhouse gas emissions (primarily in the form of methane coming from animal production and paddies but also nitrous oxide coming from fertilization of soils). In parallel, forests, crops and prairies capture carbon dioxide in the atmosphere via photosynthesis and can store it in the form of organic carbon in biomass and soils.

Researchers examined the effects of policies designed to reduce the effect of climate change on food prices. They studied the potential effects of international initiatives, like a carbon tax, as well as regional and national policies.

Their study showed that if international coordination of climate mitigation strategies allows for better results than regional and national policies, it would nonetheless not be sufficient alone for avoiding negative effects on food security. Starting from this observation, two strategies that could strengthen food security while also stabilizing the climate were evaluated: reducing deforestation and increasing carbon sequestration in soils.

Certain agricultural practices, for example the use of cover crops, conservation agriculture, agro-ecology, agro-forestry and residue management, would increase carbon stored in organic matter over a defined period, generally estimated at several decades. When these policies are applied to soils that are initially degraded, these restoration practices also lead to higher crop yields, which increases agricultural production.

As part of policies fighting climate change, carbon stored in the organic matter of agricultural soils will be compensated, bringing additional revenue to agricultural workers and thus indirectly encouraging growth in food production. Storing carbon in organic matter will also support the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and in achieving the goal of keeping global temperature increase below 2°C (or even 1.5°C) without a major impact on calorie consumption per inhabitant in developing countries. By 2050, according to the estimates of the study, carbon sequestration in soils could compensate for as much as 3.5 billion tons of CO2 emissions (7% of global human emissions in 2010) and reduce by as much as 65% the negative effects of carbon on food security, compared to a scenario without this option.

This study shows the major role of carbon sequestration in organic soil matter for ensuring food security while stabilizing the climate. Agricultural soils could provide a key solution for mitigating and adapting to climate change as well as for food security, but considerable efforts will be necessary to organize the transition towards agricultural practices that increase organic carbon matter in soils. These efforts can be helped by multi-actor platforms like the international 4 per 1000 Initiative, initially launched by France in 2015.

These works demonstrate how the inclusion of an existing mitigating option that has largely been neglected in political planning, could considerably improve the performance of climate policies in terms of food security.