Emissions of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations from agriculture account for 10% of the GHGs globally. Carbon dioxide emissions in farming come mainly from ploughing, which causes soil carbon loss. Conservation Agriculture (CA) can play a significant role as a provider of carbon sinks to counteract emissions. Precision Agriculture (PA) can also help mitigate the negative impacts of climate change by determining the optimum use of fertilisation, inputs and work on specific areas. These sustainable agricultural techniques, however, remain uncommon in Spain due to farmers’ lack of awareness.
This project aimed to encourage the progressive establishment of sustainable agricultural techniques (CA and PA) – contributing to GHGs emission decreases and the adaptation of farming techniques – to new climatic conditions resulting from global warming. Also, the project aims to provide European and national authorities with the necessary knowledge and information of these techniques to encourage the adoption of environment policies in this area. Project actions would be carried out on three demonstration farms, to gather data to support the techniques and to act as demonstration sites. The research would assess CO2 emissions and energy consumption on farms based on: climatic characteristics, type of crops, and type of farming. In parallel, actions to promote and disseminate the CA and PA techniques would be carried out.
The Life+ Agricarbon project demonstrated the multiple environmental, climate and economic benefits of Precision and Conservation Agriculture. These techniques can effectilvey contribute to the mitigation of climate change and to the adaptation of rain-fed crops to the effects of global warming on agricultural ecosystems. The knowledge generated can help shape environmental policy relating to the agricultural sector and ensure that the sector is equipped to meet the challenge of climate change.
The project created a network of demonstration farms in the Guadalquivir Valley (Spain). Conservation Agriculture and Precision Agriculture were carried out on these farms through a rotation of rain-fed crops typical to the area, such as cereals, oil products and legumes. Subsequent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and increases in the carbon sink effect were tracked in order to ascertain their mitigation potential. Crop production, water content and compaction were studied to verify the adaptation potential of the practices. After five years of project implementation, the implementation of CA and PA in the demonstration plots has resulted in an average decrease in annual emissions of 111.5 kg of CO2 per hectare. This decrease is due to a reduction in energy consumption by stopping tillage and the optimisation of resource use by reducing overlaps and carrying out site-specific application. Furthermore, these plots have registered an average increase in carbon sequestration of an additional 7.2 tonnes of CO2 per hectare each year by using CA and PA rather than conventional tillage.
Overall, in comparison to areas which used conventional farming techniques, over four agricultural seasons on the three demonstration farms, the combined areas used for growing crops using CA and PA fixed 1.296 tonnes more CO2 and emitted 20 tonnes less CO2 into the atmosphere. This represents a 19% decrease in CO2 emissions and an average increase in atmospheric carbon fixation of 30% (highest was 56%). An online software tool for the calculation of sustainability indicators (environmental, economic and social) in agricultural holdings was also developed. One such indicator is greenhouse gas emissions resulting from crop management.
Furthermore, the project demonstrated that the techniques can be profitable for farmers, providing substantial savings in costs (9.5% for wheat, 21.6% for sunflowers, and 15.4% in leguminous crops) and reducing also the number of hours required to manage a crop throughout the growing season. As a result, farmers will have more time for other productive activities. Additionally, there has been no observable reduction in productivity in comparison to conventional agriculture, and neither has there been a reduction in product quality.
The project also carried out communication, training and dissemination actions aimed at agricultural sector representatives (farmers, researchers and technicians, public administrations, professional organisations, agricultural organisations, and companies related to the agricultural sector). Due to the success of the project and its relevance as a model for the mitigation of climate change in the agricultural sector, the Andalusian council at the annual Andalusian Environmental awards in 2012 awarded Life+ Agricarbon the best project combatting climate change.
During the project, different organisations and entities have launched a range of initiatives that support and give a clear commitment to the sustainable agricultural techniques used on the demonstration farms. CA as a tool for energy savings in the agricultural sector was included in the National Energy Efficiency and Savings Plan 2011-2020, which was promoted by the Institute for Energy Diversification and Saving (Instituto para la Diversificacion y Ahorro de la Energía – IDAE). The institute made a contribution of €17.6 million.
At the national level, the Spanish Office for Climate Change (OECC), which is part of the Ministry for Agriculture, Food and the Environment, included CA in its road map to reduce emissions in a range of sectors. Furthermore, the OECC, largely due to the project, has also consulted with experts from the AEAC SV to endorse the Spanish government’s position to the United Nations team responsible for reviewing the Air Pollutant Emissions Inventory and Projections. The project’s approach has allowed for the inclusion of around 400 000 hectares of Spanish farmland as areas mitigating climate change.
At a regional level, Conservation Agriculture techniques have been considered in the frame of Measure 10—Agri-Environment Climate Measure by most of the Programmes for Rural Development carried out in Spanish regions and published by the competent administration responsible for agriculture. In this particular case, no till has been explicitly included in “Sustainable system of rainfed arable crops” sub-measure in Andalusia and implicitly incorporated in “stubble maintenance” sub-measure in Aragon, as one of the commitment taken by farmers in order to receive the fixed incentive in each case. These sub-measures will suppose an important legislative baking for the future replicability and future sustainability of no till in these regions, once they have been transposed to their regional regulations.
The beneficiary has drafted a Sustainability Plan report in order to ensure the technologies will continue to be promoted. The adoption of the project’s results elsewhere in Europe must overcome attitudinal differences rather problems of adaptation. It is therefore important to encourage continued knowledge transfer, advisory services and demonstrations that promote their replication. More than a third of the grain produced in Europe is grown in areas with similar conditions to the project area. The greater roll out of CA and PA could thus make a huge contribution climate change adaptation efforts. These practices is particularly interesting in Mediterranean climates, where it is expected that the effects of climate change are more severe and, consequently, the benefits of AC and AP may have a greater impact.
Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Communication Plan (see "Read more" section).