Luke Gibbs from Syngenta looks at routes to achieving net-zero emissions in agriculture
All forms of farming – including organic farming – have an environmental impact. In terms of climate change impacts, agriculture globally accounts directly for 12% of greenhouse gas emissions. In the UK that figure is 10%, or around 45.6m t of CO2 equivalent. If we are to meet the UK government’s mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050, agriculture obviously has a challenge.
Image: Smart farming: drone based NDVI (Normalised Data Vegetation Index) imagery gives a digital measure of crop health
The proposed solutions are many and varied, from innovative food production systems like vertical farming, to the expansion of bioenergy crops. All will require careful consideration and planning. Even simple-sounding ideas, like taking a significant percentage of UK farmland out of production to reforest (or even ‘rewild’) are complex. This concept will backfire if we simply off-shore our food production-related emissions to other countries, or intensify production unsustainably on the remaining farmland, or leave our farmers unable to make a profit.
So how can we meet the net-zero challenge, and what role will agritechnology organisations like Syngenta play? For arable agriculture at least, we believe two key pillars of action will be essential:
- Widespread uptake of (and continued research into) Conservation Agriculture approaches to improve land management and soil health and fertility; and
- Sustainably boosting agricultural productivity by accelerating the introduction of more resilient seeds and precision agriculture technologies that can reduce farming’s environmental footprint
Conservation Agriculture (CA) aims to manage agricultural ecosystems to reduce the environmental impact of farming, whilst promoting higher, sustained crop productivity, improved farm profits and overall national food security. Syngenta has been involved in CA research projects over many years, as part of its long-term commitment to furthering sustainable agriculture. In terms of reducing carbon emissions, the key CA principles are simple: keep more soil in the field, and keep more carbon in the soil! In practical terms that means:
- Minimum soil disturbance, ie light or minimum tillage, rather than deep ploughing;
- Permanent soil cover, eg stubbles and cover crops;
- Diversified crop associations and rotations; and
- Management of field margins to prevent erosion and runoff.
Implementation of such practices delivers benefits beyond improved carbon sequestration, but requires significant on-farm investment in terms of capital, machinery, time and knowledge. CA implementation must be based on a value assessment model, considering a variety of factors including economical, ecological and social.
The CA principles themselves must be translated into practical cropping systems for farmers. Syngenta’s current collaborative CA project with NIAB (National Institute of Botany), ECAF (European Conservation Agriculture Federation) and the GWCT (Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust) aims to do just that, focusing on cereal rotation cropping systems and comparing conventional agriculture with conservation approaches. Results from the first two years clearly demonstrate the potential benefits of conservation tillage and multifunctional field margin adoption for improving soil health and structure, reducing erosion and run-off, increasing carbon sequestration, reducing carbon emissions and improving biodiversity.
Although conservation tillage is proving increasingly popular with UK farmers, the potential restriction of non-selective herbicide options, such as glyphosate, through regulatory processes could be a significant barrier to realising the benefits of CA – another example of the complex nature of the decisions that must be made as we strive for net-zero.
The focus must be on enabling the uptake of technologies with the potential to reduce and more precisely target farming inputs, such as fertiliser and crop protection chemistries, whilst maintaining or boosting crop productivity.
For Syngenta, such technologies include accelerated breeding strategies and genome edited seeds, precision targeting of synthetic crop protection chemistries, biocontrols, biostimulants and digitally enabled agronomy information and decision-making tools. Accelerating the introduction of sustainable innovations through research and development – an area where Syngenta excels – is essential.
The digital revolution that has overtaken our world in the last 20 years has not passed agriculture by. In the most modern farming systems, digitally enabled farm management systems and digital agronomy tools are already helping to optimise farm productivity and sustainability, helping farmers to more precisely and consistently time, target and track their inputs and farm operations for best effect. Digital agronomy apps and tools, allied to data generated from satellites, multi-spectral imaging, real-time sensor data and geo-referenced field walking observations, can help to significantly reduce the overall environmental footprint of farming, enabling a much more precise ‘right-time, right-place, right amount’ system of inputs.
Syngenta is very active in this space, with cutting-edge digital farm management platforms such as Cropio, Land.db and Strider that already cover many millions of hectares globally. Penetration of digital agronomy in the UK is still a long way behind countries like the US, but these smart farming platforms can make a massive contribution to reducing farming’s carbon footprint.
Accelerated plant breeding
Across our industry, advances in data-driven (computational science backed) crop breeding and plant lifecycle shortening technologies are already accelerating the development of more sustainable, resilient crops, with seeds that show improved pest and disease resistance, abiotic stress tolerance and quality factors.
Syngenta has already introduced hybrid barley, which shows increased vigour and greater yield consistency across a range of environments and stressors, and improved ability to outcompete key weeds such as blackgrass, reducing the need for chemical controls. The world’s biggest crop, wheat, is about to undergo a similar transformation, with recent breeding advances meaning that hybrid wheat is now also on the horizon.
Image: Hybrid wheat: new hybrid cereal crops are more resilient and show sustainability benefits
Syngenta plans to launch hybrid wheat in France in 2022 and in the UK by the middle of the decade. This offers the possibility of more sustainable and productive wheat crops, with the potential for reduced pesticide and nitrogen inputs if the benefits are realised.
Crop varieties with increased root mass and vigour for better drought tolerance and nutrient use may also help to directly increase soil carbon sequestration, particularly when combined with non-inversion tillage.
Image caption: Hybrid wheat: new hybrid cereal crops are more resilient and show sustainability benefits
There has been much discussion of the potential for GMO crops to contribute to input reductions, particularly insecticides, but genome editing is an even more powerful and precise technology in this respect.
- Improving performance for individual traits, eg disease resistances;
- Adapting existing genetics/varieties to specific market segments; and
- Shortening breeding cycles and reducing costs
With a supportive regulatory environment, genome editing technology could be used to greatly accelerate the introduction of more resilient and sustainable crop varieties. For example, Syngenta’s Artesian drought tolerant corn, a product of data-driven breeding, is already sold in parts of Europe subject to drought stress. In future, if regulation permitted, genome editing could be used to broaden and accelerate Artesian product development to help cope with climate change.
Precision application of inputs
The ultimate expression of precision application is the ability to target inputs to individual weeds, or even leaves, rather than targeting broad areas of the crop or field. In its ‘Hyperweeding’ project, Syngenta led a consortium of partners who demonstrated the potential to control weeds in vegetable crops with highly precise, ultra-low volume applications of non-selective herbicide, utilising advanced digital imaging and robotics tools.
Syngenta is committed to further developing precision application technologies and the advanced product formulations that will be needed to bring solutions to market for farmers and growers. A second-generation, precision application machine will be in full field testing in 2020.
Biocontrols & biostimulants
Two further classes of crop protection product have the capacity to contribute to reaching the UK’s net-zero target and making our farming systems more resilient in the face of climate change:
New biocontrol products: inspired by nature, with performance levels closer to conventional chemical crop protection chemistries and new modes of action to help tackle increased crop pest and disease pressures. Syngenta’s biocontrol research pipeline includes RNA-based biocontrols, an entirely new approach, which offers exquisite levels of pest selectivity, protecting beneficial insects in the crop and offering the potential for zero residues.
New biostimulants and crop enhancement chemistries: These products can help to mitigate the effects of climate change, such as drought or heat stress, boosting crop productivity. For example, Syngenta’s ISABION biostimulant helps young rice plants to better withstand the impacts of both heat and cold by enhancing plants’ nutrient uptake.
Looking to the future
As an R&D-led organisation, Syngenta is accustomed to anticipating how agricultural challenges will evolve over extended timeframes. We routinely look 10 to 15 years ahead when planning the development of products and we collaborate with academic institutes and industry partners around the world to accelerate and advance our science and innovation.
Image: Luke Gibbs
If the UK is to achieve net-zero, we will need a similarly strategic outlook and collaborative approach, involving stakeholders from across the food value chain. This extends beyond agritechnology companies and the farmers and growers that we directly support, to food retailers and food manufacturers, industry bodies, regulators and government policy departments. All are critical to deciding the technology solutions that are acceptable, available and supported for agriculture. And of course the public, by their choices as consumers, determine the kind of food systems we really need and want.
Irrespective of when and whether net-zero is achieved, the UK will need to address the resilience of its farming systems to cope with the already inevitable consequences of existing ‘baked-in’ climate changes. For our farmers, this will include increased drought and heat stress, more unpredictable rainfall patterns, increasing pest shifts and major market volatility for crop prices. The sustainable agri-technologies described above, and the many new and adjacent technologies that will emerge over the coming decades, will be essential in that effort.
Syngenta is one of the world’s leading agribusinesses, with over 28,000 employees, operating in over 90 countries to bring solutions to growers. Syngenta has committed to cutting the carbon footprint of its own operations by 50% by 2030.
Luke Gibbs is Head of Business Sustainability, Syngenta UK & Ireland and Nordics