How Carbon Farming Could Reverse Climate Change

Author: Vera Liang Chang 

As the climate crisis heats up, agriculture is in the hot seat, not only as a contributor to climate change, but also as a potential solution. Eric Toensmeier has spent the last several years tracking both. A lecturer at Yale University, a senior fellow with Project Drawdown, and the author of several books on permaculture, Toensmeier is also the author of the newly-released book, The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security.

Toensmeier argues that when combined with immense reduction in fossil fuel emissions and adaptation strategies, carbon farming has the potential to return the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere to the “magic number” of 350 parts per million, while feeding people, building more fertile soils, and contributing to ecosystem health.

We spoke with Toensmeier about his thoughts on agroforestry, what happened at the climate summit in Paris, and what strategies farmers, communities, and governments can take to launch carbon farming projects. This conversation has been edited for brevity.

When did you start working on carbon farming and why?

In 2009, I read the book Now or Never. Author Tim Flannery wrote that we need to mitigate climate change and a good way to do that is planting forests. But we can’t plant enough forests because we need land for agriculture. I thought to myself: there are trees that are agriculture; perhaps I have a contribution to make.

You note that agroforestry and perennial staple crops—strategies with immense potential to sequester carbon—have been given little attention to date. Why is that?

There are good reasons to focus on lower-sequestration strategies like no-till, organic annual cropping, and managed grazing. They don’t require farmers to make big changes to what they do, they don’t require people to change their diets, and they don’t require us to add unfamiliar foods to our food system. For example, an animal raised in a managed grazing system is raised differently than in a conventional system, but the cheese is still more or less the same. Moving into a fully perennial system would require fundamental transformation of our food system, from development to technologies. The notion that agriculture can incorporate trees—let alone the notion that agriculture be based on trees—is still new for most of us. Agroforestry produces only a tiny percentage of our food in the U.S.