A look at the life cycles and relationship of carbon and corn
Sunrises and sunsets, phases of the moon, seasons changing. So many aspects of nature are cyclical, as life itself goes through sequences of change and growth. The lifecycle of a single ear of corn follows this pattern of renewability in a predictable manner which contributes to a cleaner environment.
It will not come as a shock to farmers to hear that more organic soil matter and higher carbon levels in soil grows better crops. For the rest of us, that might be a different story. A logical follow-up question that could be posed by the less informed could be, “If carbon is bad for the atmosphere and good for the soil, how do we move it from one to the other?”
In this, farmers are one step ahead of the rest of us, and the answer is simpler than you might think: grow corn.
Through photosynthesis — the process by which plants use sunlight, water and atmospheric carbon dioxide to create oxygen and energy in the form of carbohydrates (sugar) — corn not only produces a tremendous amount of grain protein and energy, it also adds an astounding amount of carbon-rich root and plant residue to the soil.
According to the University of Minnesota Extension Office, more organic carbon compounds are added to soil each year than are lost due to soil organic carbon decomposition. Carbon balance is regulated by tilling, and this “positive” crop/soil carbon balance means that growing corn results in atmospheric carbon dioxide removal and its addition into the soil — commonly called soil carbon sequestration — and is enhanced if the intensity of tillage is minimal.
Ron Alverson, a retired farmer and an expert in precision farming, bioethanol and corn production works to educate environmental agencies, legislators and farmers about the benefits of corn, conservation practices and precision farming.
“When soil organic matter increases in fields, it locks carbon into soil as long as you continue to manage crop production in the same way and yields are maintained. For farmers implementing reduced till and producing high corn yields, their soil organic matter just continues to build. It takes carbon out of the atmosphere and sequesters it into the soil, which is really good for our atmosphere, but also for our fields and crops. Soils high in organic matter hold more water and nutrients and thus are more productive.”
This is the basis of precision farming. Scientists and farmers working together to find effective and efficient ways to increase both crop yields and protect and improve the environment.
“Precision farming is precision application of nutrients,” said Alverson. “We put them where they’re needed, when they’re needed and at the proper rates. It helps reduce farming’s carbon footprint if we don’t waste tools like fertilizers and have them work to the best of their capabilities for our benefit and the benefit of the planet.”
However, the road to a lower carbon intensity (CI) score for farmers has not always been a smooth, easy one. Right now, the U.S. Midwest receives one, average CI score. This current system makes it impossible for farmers implementing precision, low-carbon crop production management practices to receive incentives to continue and enhance their efforts.
Currently, the California and Oregon Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) programs use versions of the U. S. Department of Energy GREET (greenhouse gases, regulated emissions and energy use in technologies) model to determine biofuel CI scores. As helpful and accurate as this model is, if scientists don’t take into consideration all that farmers are currently doing, some CI scores could potentially appear higher than their true value.
Education is the first step toward change. For Alverson, who began researching low-carbon solutions in farming before there were any financial incentives to implement the changes necessary, showing the disadvantages of a “Midwest average” CI score was incredibly important.
“I became interested in precision agriculture long before the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard first started. But the LCFS could provide even more opportunity and incentives to implement precision farming technology. We realized the Midwest average CI score was inaccurate and to take such a vast area as a whole penalizes those who are trying to be more environmentally conscious.”
For example, in biofuel feedstock production and transportation, many models assume farmers do not use biofuels in their trucks and vehicles. Since many do utilize biofuels as an economical and low-carbon way to power their equipment, this is a simple, straightforward solution to lowering carbon emissions and their CI score. Another solution is precision nitrogen fertilizer usage; when done correctly, precision placement, timing and rate of fertilizer significantly lowers nitrous oxide emissions.
Often, when the CI score for farming is calculated, models assume corn growth and tillage practices have no beneficial environmental impact on soil carbon stocks. Corn producers are not penalized, but they are also not credited with carbon sequestration solutions.
“Properly structured low-carbon fuel programs can reward all participants in the biofuel production cycle,” said Alverson. “Many bioethanol producers put forth a lot of effort to reduce their CI score. If legislators were to incentivize corn producers for climate-smart agriculture, we can make a dent in carbon, and we can make a difference for the environment.
While farmers are working towards lowering their CI scores, they are looking for consumers who are also interested in conservation. Recently POET, Farmers Business Network and Argonne National Laboratory partnered to run a test pilot program called Gradable. Gradable is a voluntary, farmer-led platform that matches farmers who use environmentally friendly practices with buyers who pay a premium for low-carbon corn. Gradable focuses on using proven science to measure the benefits of conservation practices used by farmers on their land.
This past year, POET tested the Gradable platform at their facility in Chancellor, S.D. More than 60 farms participated, covering around 126,000 acres. Farmers were able to use the data to see how it could improve their profitability. Farmers produced the same yield as normal, but had lower carbon emission — 84% of the farms performed better than the national average farm CI scores. The analysis showed that all farms had the potential to lower their CI scores and that Gradable provides the opportunity for farmers to realize additional financial value from sales of low-carbon grain in the future.
Precision agriculture and carbon sequestration are a few of the ways that farmers are combating climate change, while at the same time improving yields and adding to rural economies. By implementing carbon reducing strategies to their farm and selling to consumers who are interested in low-carbon corn, farmers are doing their part to fight the climate crisis the world is facing.
The moment a corn seed enters the ground a cycle begins. A cycle of life and of giving back to the Earth that provided the nutrients and protection needed to grow. Farmers and scientists working and innovating together have enhanced a cycle created by nature in order to create a sequence that not only provides fuel, fiber and feed, but one that actually takes carbon out of the atmosphere and returns it into the ground. One of the most significant solutions to climate change comes from the humble beginnings of a corn seed and a farmer in a field.