Reducing Agriculture’s Carbon Footprint

With agri-food systems estimated to contribute 31% of all human-caused global greenhouse gas emissions, we look at 10 practical steps which reduce agriculture's carbon footprint.

June 6, 2023
7 mins

The climate is changing. The science is unequivocal that the world is warming, and it is the result of human activities. The decade from 2011 to 2020 was the warmest on record, with the global average temperature a full 1°C above pre-industrial levels. Scientists recognize that human activities, including burning fossil fuels, cutting down forests, and farming are the major causes of this warming. Indeed, when it comes to farming, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that the global agri-food system alone contributes 31% of all human-caused global greenhouse gas emissions.

The primary measure of greenhouse gas emissions is the carbon footprint. Carbon footprint indicates the scale of carbon dioxide emissions of a person, an organization, an action, or a product. The UN has set the goal of Net Zero by 2050, which would mean cutting greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible, with any remaining emissions re-absorbed from the atmosphere by the oceans and forests, for instance. This goal will affect us all, at work and at home. While the goal is to get to Net Zero by 2050, we can all start reducing our carbon footprints now. That includes agri-businesses.

The good news is that there are recognized sustainable practices that agriculture can employ today that will start to reduce its carbon footprint. It is all about being more sustainable. By understanding the environmental impact of their actions, growers can gain the knowledge necessary to reduce their environmental impact.


Working towards a Net Zero Future


Safeguarding the future health of our planet is a fundamental pillar of sustainability. A key aspect of this is sustainable farming, which is vital for maintaining the viability of agricultural land for future generations. As global food demand continues to rise to meet the needs of a growing population, it is more crucial than ever to optimize the productivity of available land now and ensure that farmland can sustainably nourish future generations.

So, with an understanding of the importance of making agriculture even more sustainable, we can now examine some of the best practices for reducing the carbon footprint of farming.

Crop rotations are an essential tool to ensure continued soil health. The diversity of plants and microorganisms in the soil influences soil health. Using crop rotations increases this diversity while reducing disease and pest pressure from years of repeated cropping. Rotating the types of crops and crop root depth will support good soil structure and allow different crops to use soil nutrients at different soil depths.

The 4Rs of nutrient management include right time, right rate, right source, and right place. The goal of the 4Rs is to keep nutrients where they are needed – on and in the field. Right time means matching the application of nutrients with crop demand. The right rate refers to aligning the amount of fertilizer with crop nutrient uptake. The right source considers the type of fertilizer chosen and whether it contains an improved efficiency technology such as inhibitors, slow, or controlled release. And right place is the precise fertilizer placement so crops can successfully access nutrients.

In many regions, especially semiarid areas, leaving land unplanted for an entire growing season is a common practice. However, this approach entails considerable environmental drawbacks and should be avoided. Bare fallow production has adverse side effects, including fossil fuel used while tilling the soil to control weeds, soil organic matter decomposition and depletion, and an increased risk of soil erosion.

While tillage may sometimes be necessary to reduce soil compaction, avoiding it will lower the agricultural carbon footprint. Tillage requires farm machinery, such as tractors, which burn fossil fuels. Tillage can also leave soils exposed and prone to erosion and may harm earthworms and other soil organisms that contribute to improving soil fertility and structure.

While soil can give visual clues of its condition, soil sampling is essential for a deeper understanding of soil health. Soil tests can report nutrient levels as well as physical and biological properties. Soil tests equip agronomists and growers with the information to make informed and educated decisions to support soil and crop health.

Cover crops are a powerful tool for sustainability. They improve soil organic matter, promote nutrient cycling, can fix N from the air, prevent fields from being fallow, and protect against soil erosion.

Remember the 4Rs? When dealing with manure, the application rate and timing are critical to minimizing runoff and greenhouse gas emissions while keeping crucial nutrients in the soil.

Nearly 6% of agriculture’s production emissions come from fuel consumption on the farm. Renewable energy can positively impact farm carbon footprint, and it can also save farmers money.

Fertilizers play a significant role in sustainability and carbon footprint in agriculture. Fertilizers can improve crop yields and crop quality while addressing soil nutrient depletion. Advances in fertilizer technology, such as controlled release fertilizers and fertigation fertilizers, allow for more precise and efficient use of fertilizers. Both fertilizer technologies allow for an even distribution of nutrients throughout the crop cycle. They also minimize crop damage from fertilizer burn and reduce nutrients lost to the environment.

10. Choose a low carbon footprint fertilizer

The carbon footprint of different fertilizers varies greatly. Choosing to use a fertilizer with a lower carbon footprint can reduce the overall footprint of the farm while still ensuring high-quality and abundant yields. ICL’s carbon footprint score found on our products makes it easy to select Low Carbon Footprint fertilizers that will reduce a crop’s carbon footprint with the reassurance of a high-quality and dependable crop nutrition product.

Using a data-driven support system to make critical crop protection and nutrient management decisions ensures growers use optimum rates and types of inputs on the farm. Data-driven support systems allow growers to compare multiple alternatives, better understand processes, and identify sources of unpredictability, leading to more sustainable use of resources.

In the face of this increasingly important goal of sustainability, farmers can turn to ICL for support. Our R&D teams have been working with our customers and agronomists to identify the areas where we can support our farmers by developing and providing tools to help improve farm sustainability to reduce farm carbon footprint.

Fertilizers, biostimulants, and AgTech solutions are some of the current and up-and-coming innovations from ICL that can help reduce farm carbon footprint.

For a crop to meet its full yield potential, it requires a balanced nutrient supply. ICL’s fertilizers are excellent plant nutrition products that deliver the nutrients plants need. Due to the improved nutrient use efficiency of our controlled release fertilizer (CRF) products, growers can achieve a higher, or equivalent, yield with a reduced application rate. Reducing the nutrient application rate delivers significant reductions in the carbon footprint of the crop.

Biostimulant products are varied and diverse, designed to support plants through their life cycle. Biostimulants may be for soil revitalization, seed treatment, or to help crops recover quickly from stresses such as heat or drought. They can also encourage better root growth and boos soil microbial activity.

AgTech solutions are all about smarter farming, such as the use of data, smart sensors, autonomous machines, and AI to support data-based decision-making, crop management, and precise crop nutrition solutions. AgTech has real potential to provide innovative, technology-based approaches to solving agriculture’s challenges, including carbon footprint reduction.

The potential for innovation in reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint is significant. Our RD&I Initiatives for next-generation fertilizers at ICL aim to deliver increased nutrient use efficiency products with better phosphorus and nitrogen uptake, reducing nutrient losses to address the European Green Deal. These fertilizers can also drive the focus on commodity fertilizers for acidic and alkaline soils, both in coated and embedded solutions.

Innovation is also crucial in the circular economy of recovered and recycled nutrients, specifically for phosphorus and nitrogen. ICL has already led the market with our eqo.x* coating technology, the first fully biodegradable coating for controlled-release fertilizers. And further development of cost-effective slow-release fertilizer granules, organoid-mineral fertilizers, and enhanced efficiency fertilizers can positively impact agriculture’s carbon footprint.

With the global agri-food system accounting for 31% of all human-caused global greenhouse gas emissions, the need for agriculture to engage with the net zero goal is clear. There is no single solution to achieving this. Reviewing management practices and considering sustainability and carbon footprint when making crop nutrition decisions reveals the great potential growers have to make a difference to their carbon footprint.

ICL’s agronomy and R&D teams are committed to sustainability. We continue to work to create innovative solutions to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint. With controlled release and fertigation fertilizers, biostimulants, AgTech solutions, and up-and-coming innovations, we believe ICL is paving the way for a better and more sustainable future.

*eqo.x is not yet for sale in North America. Ask your local expert for more information.