Soil to Satellites: Farm Solutions for a changing climate

Thursday 19th July 2018

Carbon: star of agriculture and climate science

Consider the carbon atom: six protons and six neutrons, surrounded by six orbiting electrons.

Without it, life doesn’t exist. In fact, the term “carbon-based lifeform” is used to describe anything in the universe that approximates what it means to be “alive.” Together with hydrogen and oxygen, carbon is one of the literal building blocks of life on earth.

Carbon is especially important to agriculture, because of the role it plays in driving photosynthesis and maintaining the planet’s climate. For farmers and climate scientists, maintaining the right balance of carbon requires paying close attention—to the soil, the crops growing in that soil, and the atmosphere above.


Everything we talk about when we talk about climate—temperature, sunlight, rain, and wind—is important to agriculture. Anyone who has farmed knows how much agriculture depends on the climate. In recent decades, we’ve also learned a tremendous amount about how the tools and processes provided by modern agriculture can benefit the climate.

During that same period, we have also learned more about how carbon contributes to our changing climate. We now have a more complete understanding of the roles played by burning fossil fuels, cutting down forests, and plowing the soil.

In agriculture, plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and energy molecules called carbohydrates.  This process contributes to the air we breathe and the food we eat. In climate science, carbon affects global temperatures, soil salinity, ocean levels, weather patterns and more.

As our understanding of farming, carbon, and the climate has evolved, modern agriculture has evolved to help farmers reduce carbon emissions and adapt to climate change.


This new model has two components: reducing carbon emissions and capturing carbon by securing it in plants and the soil.

The emissions produced by farming come mainly from burning fossil fuels to run equipment and from tilling the soil. Every time a tractor travels across a field, emissions are released from burning fuel. For years now, modern agriculture has been providing tools and techniques—like no-till, GPS, and precision farming equipment—that help farmers reduce fuel consumption.

Agriculture can also capture carbon. Photosynthesis removes carbon from the atmosphere, storing it in plants, roots, and the soil. By growing crops that are more productive, using less tillage, leaving plant residues on the soil, and growing cover crops in between cash crops, farmers are helping to remove more and more carbon from the atmosphere.


In addition to traditional farming tools, today’s farmers have a new tool at their disposal: satellites. Today’s satellites can be equipped with a variety of imaging tools, from hi-res cameras to infrared sensors. Each of these can provide farmers with important information about their crops, ranging from stages of vegetative growth and the absorption potential of chloroplasts to soil moisture levels and pest pressures.

Each of these details has an impact on carbon, which in turn impacts the climate. By combining this level of observation and data gathering with on-farm practices like cover crops, no-till, and precision agriculture, the industry is helping farmers improve their operations while reducing their impact on the climate. Not only does this preserve our access to affordable food, but it helps farmers, and it helps protect our planet.