Mariko Thorbecke – Let’s focus on making agriculture fossil fuel free

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Mariko Thorbecke, expert in Life Cycle Assessment, independent consultant bridging between corporate climate, net-zero commitments and regenerative agriculture, joins us to talk about the importance of fossil-free farming, the greenhouse gases presented into a single metric of CO2 equivalents and much more.

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If you care about the climate, you stop eating beef. For sure, you have seen these kinds of headlines and, as a listener and follower of this podcast, you know the reality is more nuanced and way more complex. Today we dive deep into the research side of regenerative agriculture. Most of the research, if not all you have seen, about the climate impact of agriculture is completely wrong.

For instance, did you know all life cycle assessments that are current standards to compare the environmental impact products to each other, never took into consideration the soil carbon sequestration potential of agriculture? So it only looked at the emission side, and that is extremely simplified. Or the amazing topic of CO2 equivalent, which tries to boil everything down to one number and doesn’t look at the differences between methane, CO2, fossil carbon, etc. You might have seen the titles of articles claiming that beef and other animal protein can be carbon positive (or carbon-negative depending on your point of view). Where did that research come from, and how was it done, and most importantly, what are the challenges, what are the pieces still missing in the life cycle assessment space, and how can we make this type of research much more robust?

MAKING AGRICULTURE FOSSIL FUEL FREE BY 2050 HAS A HIGHER CLIMATE CHANGE ROLE THAN FOCUSSING ON SOIL CARBON

A lot of the fossil fuels are in the synthetic fertilizer production in the farm, tractor fuel and energy, in transportation. In the US the carbon footprint of row crops is typically more than 50% from fossil fuels. Finding ways to invest in phasing out the fossil carbon of agriculture is going to have a much higher climate return on investment than storing carbon in the soil.

‘Anyone working in the space should really be cautious about carbon, as a topic, and in particular soil carbon sequestration. I think in many ways, what’s happening with soil carbon sequestration and the associated work to develop carbon models and accounting is really taking a reductionist view of something that is actually part of a much more complex carbon cycle’ – Mariko Thorbecke

‘I would invest in fossil-free farming, investing in ideas, and creative solutions that basically get the fossil fuels that are embedded in our conventional agricultural system, completely phased out, ideally, by 2050, at the latest, ideally sooner. But ultimately, for agriculture to be aligned with a 1.5. C future, we basically have to find ways to phase out all of the embedded fossil fuels.’ – Mariko Thorbecke

CO2 EQUIVALENT IS IRRELEVANT. WE NEED TO DIG DEEPER AND SEPARATE THE DIFFERENT EMISSIONS

The way that LCA is presented combines all of the different agricultural greenhouse gases into a single metric of CO2 equivalents. According to Mariko, we are moving towards a better understanding of the role that agriculture plays in both climate change, but also in the potential to help producers adapt and potentially mitigate climate change. The conversation is going to evolve as to how we want to prioritize our different land use, animal protein, what we grow for annual crops, etc.

‘When we start splitting it, that’s when we realize just how significant the fossil carbon portion of the emissions is to agriculture. Methane and nitrous oxide are biogenic emissions, they’re emissions that are an inherent part of our ecosystems. There’s the biogenic carbon cycle, there’s the fossil carbon cycle, and they need to be treated differently. There’s a danger to the oversimplification of LCAs in the agricultural space, using CO2 equivalent.’ – Mariko Thorbecke

‘If we’re optimizing for the most efficient CO2 equivalent animal protein, pork and chicken typically ended up being much more CO2 equivalent, efficient compared to beef because of the methane emissions. However, if you are trying to optimize for something like farming that’s free of fossil fuels, all of a sudden the ruminants are probably going to have the biggest potential to achieve that.’ – Mariko Thorbecke

LCAs ARE A GREAT TOOL TO SPOT HOTSPOTS OF EMISSIONS WITHIN THE FULL LIFE CYCLES, BUT NOT NECESSARILY ACCURATE

The original goal with LCAs was to understand the hotspots that were occurring across an entire lifecycle approach. There’s no specific data set that’s, for instance, on wheat grown using regenerative practices or using irrigation or things like that. We have been relying on estimates, and not a very accurate picture of what would actually be reflected on a specific farm, or a specific operation.

‘The challenge is that we’re now moving from a point in time, in which companies wanted to understand the hotspots in the areas of opportunity to companies wanting or needing to quantify their emissions in a much more accurate way. And that’s been a really difficult thing, because pretty much all of the databases that we rely on to do our LCA assessments, they’re based on generic data. And a lot of times it’s looking at data at the country level.’ – Mariko Thorbecke

‘I think what’s interesting here is that we’re at a stage where, because we’ve had so much LCA work done on different food and ag products in different countries, we were at a stage where we really know what drives farm level emissions. And from a soil health perspective, we’re learning new things every day. But we also have a general idea of what practices are going to lead to improved soil health’ – Mariko Thorbecke

THE NEED FOR 2,5 TIMES THE LAND FOR THIS KIND OF INTENSIVE EXTENSIVE PRODUCTION PROCESS IS MUCH MORE NUANCED

In the US 70% of cropland is pretty much growing just to crops, and a large majority of those two crops are not actually growing food for people, are basically going into livestock feed. Less than 1% is growing, fruits, vegetables, nuts, etc. With the use of synthetic fertilizer, yields of those crops have increased.

‘This type of system has the opportunity to use marginal land that would otherwise not be cropable. And if you’re not able to grow crops, on a certain piece of land, that land wouldn’t be able to support, growing animal feed, for example, for confined animals.’ – Mariko Thorbecke

‘Today we have incredibly efficient animal genetics, corn and soy farming, that basically combined, when you confined all the animals to a small space gives a very small land footprint. However, that small land footprint is not without consequences. For example, we have nitrate pollution, pretty much everywhere in the US and the groundwater. Part of that is from the fertilizer runoff for growing the seeds so intensively. Part of that is from, you know, manure runoff from the livestock, the confined livestock operations. There are air pollution concerns as well with confined animals.’ – Mariko Thorbecke

OTHER POINTS DISCUSSED

Koen and Mariko also talked about:

  • Chrono sequence approach;
  • The innumerable benefits to having multiple species;
  • What would Mariko change if she had a magic wand;
  • Agricultural pollution

To know more about Mariko Thorbecke download and listen to this episode. 

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Feedback, comments, suggestions? Reach me via Twitter @KoenvanSeijen, in the comments below or through Get in Touch on this website.

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The above references an opinion and is for information and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be investment advice. Seek a duly licensed professional for investment advice.

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