Restoring soil health to lock-in carbon and limit climate change
To mark the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Paris Agreement, the outcome of world leaders uniting to develop a plan to address climate change, Tate & Lyle Sustainability Director Anna Pierce explains the role our sustainable agriculture programme plays in lowering greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and removing carbon from the atmosphere, including through regenerative agriculture practices.
When world leaders came together to commit to keeping a global temperature rise this century to well below 2 degrees Celsius, it focused minds, including in the food and beverage industry, which is reliant on natural resources, on finding solutions that can limit the worst effects of climate change. As time has moved on, the traditional silo-working, where companies work to lower GHG from within their own operations (Scope 1 and 2 emissions), has evolved to a far greater focus on partnership, where responsible businesses look to drive change in their wider value chain (Scope 3 emissions).
For Tate & Lyle, this has meant establishing a partnership with Truterra, the sustainability business of Land O’Lakes, one of the largest farmer-owned cooperatives in the US. Together, we’re helping farmers on 1.5 million acres of corn, equivalent to our annual global corn procurement, to operate in a way that is not only sustainable long-term but that is regenerative, introducing new thinking and practices that have demonstrated an ability to help improve soil health.
What’s soil got to do with climate change?
Soil is a complex living organism that takes nutrients from the organic matter in it and uses them to grow plants. As if feeding us weren’t enough, crucially, soil also absorbs carbon, the most common GHG in our atmosphere, holds it and feeds off it. Taking into account that more than a third of the world’s land is dedicated to agriculture, that is a lot of soil that farmers are responsible for.1 With land clearing and conventional farming responsible for around a third of all GHG, the sector has a huge role to play in driving emissions down by improving on-farm resource efficiency, land utilisation and management practices that increase carbon removal or ‘sequestration’.2
How is Tate & Lyle helping farmers to improve soil health?
Through our sustainable agriculture programme with Truterra, we’re helping farmers implement conservation practices recognised by the National Resources Convervation Service (NCRS) in the US to improve environmental outcomes of farming, several of which support soil health. Moreover, we’re providing technology that enables farmers to target and measure the impact on their land acre-by-acre, in a way that wasn’t possible in the past. As any keen gardener will tell you, soil varies from place-to-place – for farmers often field-to-field – which is why our programme helps them to tailor their conservation efforts on different parts of their land. This individualised effort designed for each farm’s unique environment is another characteristic of our approach to regenerative agriculture.
What other environmental impacts are you addressing?
Our holistic programme addresses wide-ranging environmental issues, which are intrinsically-linked. Working with farmers on improving their soil health can deliver additional benefits in the form of reduced soil erosion, reduced nutrient loss and improved water quality. Healthy soils also demonstrate better water management in the face of extreme weather events such as heavy rains or periodic droughts. Some of the practices aimed at improving soil health, such as cover crops, can have the benefit of protecting land from high temperatures and keeping water in the ground simply by providing shade.
What difference are you making?
The initial year-on-year results on acres enrolled in our programme the first two years (2018-19) are promising, showing a 10% reduction in GHG, in part delivered through practices that support soil health. The soil conditioning index, which measures organic matter in soil and indicated soil health, increased 4%. A 6% reduction in sheet and rill (water and wind) erosion shows practices are helping to keep topsoil on farm equivalent of 1,085 trucks’ worth, thus limiting runoff to the local watershed.
We’re proud to be doing more to care for our planet, while supporting our customers’ responsible sourcing goals and environmental reporting. Importantly, in line with our purpose - Improving Lives for Generations - we are helping our farmer partners to strengthen resilience in their businesses and safeguard their farms’ futures for generations to come.
What is regenerative agriculture?
While there is no one definition, a common theme is a whole-farm, systems-based, soil health and soil carbon focus, with an outcome that leaves the land better than before and ‘regenerates’ the quality, function, and biological properties of farm soils.
How are programme partners supporting soil health?
- Tailoring conservation efforts acre-by-acre using cutting edge technology
- Keeping the soil covered all year for constant soil enrichment and to limit erosion
- Limiting tillage (the turning over of topsoil), which disturbs soil structure and releases carbon
- Introducing diversified crop rotation to cultivate a range of nutrients