I’m a carbon farmer.
Have you ever heard of such a thing? Nobody has, and nobody really talks about me that way—but in an era of climate change, we need new terms so that we can think about agriculture in new ways.
I don’t grow carbon on my farm in Brazil, of course. Instead, I raise soybeans and corn. That means I’m usually described as a farmer of pulses or a farmer of grains. Months ago, it was soybeans, which were our first cash crop of the year. Today, it’s corn, which we’re just about done harvesting as our second cash crop of 2022.
Yet I also practice carbon agriculture because in addition to producing food, my crops also remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the ground, where it enriches the organic matter in the soil.
Last year, I invented a provocative name for this practice: carbon kidnapping.
In English, “carbon kidnapping” is an attention-grabbing metaphor that replaces “carbon sequestration,” a more abstract term that scientists tend to prefer. The idea for “carbon kidnapping” came to me because in my native Portuguese—the official language of Brazil—the verb for “kidnap” and “sequester” are the same.
When I mention “carbon kidnapping” in Brazil, listeners tend to think I’m about to launch into a boring lecture on sequestration. For audiences in the English-speaking world, however, this striking way of talking about what is happening on our farm makes people sit up straight. They want to hear what I have to say. It creates a rare opportunity to engage with open minds.
This is important because among close-minded people, farmers often are viewed as the creators of problems rather than the answers to them. This is especially true with respect to climate change where agriculture and farmers are very integral parts of the solution.
There’s no denying that as farmers produce the food, feed, and fiber that everybody needs, our farms are continually addressing the challenges of a changing climate and its impact on our environment.
It is important for consumers, public officials, and even our fellow farmers to see agriculture not as a threat to climate change but as a resource in the fight against it.
I became an aggressive carbon kidnapper when I adopted a no-till system of farming. We try to disturb the soil as little as possible, so that it retains moisture, preserves biodiversity, and guards against erosion.
An important part of our strategy involves the planting of cover crops. As we sow our corn, for example, we also sow a brachiaria, a special grass that stays in the ground even after we harvest the corn. It then becomes a powerhouse of carbon kidnapping, seizing carbon from the air and storing it in the soil, where it will help the next round of our cash crops flourish.
The grass is not our only cover crop. We also rely on oat, sorghum, and millet. We’re trying new combinations all the time to learn what works best with our mix of cash crops and in our region. We’ve even integrated livestock into our methods, which helps us control the cover crops and even provides a natural source of fertilizer. (To see how everything works, watch my short video.)
Another benefit of no-till is that as we rely more on natural processes, we rely less on mechanization. We’ll always need tractors and other large machines, but we are not running them as much as we once did. Because we’re burning less fuel, we’re saving more money—and especially right now when fuel prices are soaring. We’re also putting fewer greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
This is a win-win-win scenario. Farmers win because we’re producing more with less, helping our bottom line. Consumers win because abundant food keeps prices in check, especially during a period of inflation, rising global food costs and for some, food availability. And the environment wins because our techniques are becoming less disruptive to the soil and making it healthier.
Call it what you will: carbon kidnapping, carbon farming, or carbon sequestration. It’s all the same thing—and it’s the best way forward as farmers use innovation and technology to clean the world.