Sowing Sustainability: Strategies for a Low-Carbon Seed Industry

The harsh realities of climate change have spurred the world to take inevitable measures toward a low-carbon future.  “Cutting emissions” is no longer just a talk; it’s a tangible, urgent goal. The climate goals of 2025 and 2030, once far off, now stand before us like visible peaks on the horizon. What is straightforward is that without cutting the emissions from the agriculture sector, it is impossible to achieve the target of warming goals at 1.5°C as agricultural sector contributes a significant one-third of anthropogenic emissions. What is less straightforward is that adopting the most ambitious measures to reduce agricultural emissions can challenge food security and the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. Here, we discuss agriculture emissions in farmgate, pre- and post-production operations and the measures to reduce the emissions.

Carbon journey across agri-value chain

The carbon journey begins even before planting. Raw material sourcing and related transportation emissions are part of the carbon journey, which is often ignored. Land preparation exacerbates the carbon imbalance by releasing stored soil carbon and adding emissions from agricultural machinery. The production and application of synthetic fertilizers, especially nitrogen-based fertilizers with nearly 300 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, and pesticides also contribute to GHG emissions, in addition to contaminating the delicate ecosystems. Furthermore, the indirect emissions add up in the post-processing phase which involves the processing, drying, and storing of seeds which rely heavily on electricity generated from fossil fuels. Emissions from transportation also play a critical role as seeds travel long distances before reaching their final planting destination.

Figure1. Overview of GHG Protocol scopes and emissions across the value chain 4

The truth is that a company’s scope 3 emissions is attributed to another company’s scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions within its value chain. For example, in the seed industry, the scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions generated by a seed manufacturing company will become the scope 3 emissions of another seed company. This emphasizes how the value chain is interconnected and how every step of this adds up to the total GHG emissions for agricultural sector.

Table1. GHG emissions (mt CO2 eq.) by agricultural value chain system

Net forest conversionLand use change4,3923,058-30%
Livestock manureFarmgate1,1011,31519%
Waste disposalPre- and post-production9841,27830%
On-farm energy useFarmgate7571,02135%
Drained organic soilsPre- and post-production73683313%
Rice cultivationFarmgate6216749%
Synthetic fertilizersFarmgate42260142%
TransportationPre- and post-production32758679%
ProcessingPre- and post-production42151021%
Fertilizer manufacturingPre- and post-production152408168%
PackagingPre- and post-production16631087%
Crop residuesFarmgate16122640%

Source: Adapted from FAOSTAT (FAO, 2021).

Low carbon strategies for seed companies

Raw material purchasing & sourcing: Local sourcing and supplier partnerships prioritizing sustainability practices make transparent and traceable supply chains to identify and address environmental or social risks. In addition, assessing suppliers’ practices through regular sustainability audits or integrating sustainability clauses into supplier contracts can also ensure responsible environmental and social practices.

Seed selection & development: Developing zero-tillage or reduced-tillage seed varieties along with next generation breeding strategies for climate-ready with the traits of nitrogen use efficiency and water use efficiency crops and fast tracking them with technologies of marker assisted breeding (MAB) has an enormous impact on the agriculture by reducing the greenhouse gas emissions from the unchecked application of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. These initiatives will lead to various transformational changes, including less soil contamination, reduced harmful buildup (biomagnification) in the food chain, and lower levels of greenhouse gases and the residual time effect in the atmosphere for N2O, CO2, and CH4.

Practising conservation agriculture practices: These practices in a holistic manner can create a synergistic effect translating to a more resilient and sustainable agricultural system with a reduced environmental footprint as emissions can be cut by 25 to 50%.

Minimum mechanical soil disturbance: Direct-seeding and/or fertilizer placement limits soil disturbance, in addition to no- or low-till farming as reduced mechanical soil disturbance prevents soil erosion and preserves carbon sequestered in soils.

Permanent organic cover of soils: Cover cropping, bio-mulching or leaving crop residues over soils preserves soil moisture while reducing use of weedicides, and its emissions, decrease soil compaction, and the effects of extreme weather on soils, such as insufficient or excess rainfall that in turn reduce the application of fertilisers.

Strategic crop rotation: Diversified rotations integrating legumes & other nitrogen fixers (beans, peas), intercropping will contribute towards emission reduction by reduced usage of pesticides by breaking the pest and disease cycles. Diverse cropping systems can lower the carbon footprint by 32 to 315%.

Climate-resilient agroforestry: Alley cropping, hedgerows, dispersed intercropping, multistrata agroforests (perennial tree crops planted along with shade trees), parklands (planting multipurpose trees), windbreaks, boundary planting, planted fallows/improved fallows offers multifaceted benefits in carbon sequestration, microclimate improvement and biodiversity enhancement.

Biochar application: Biochar amendments increases soil carbon storage and sequestration. Additionally, it improves cation exchange capacity, retaining nutrients and improve soil water holding capacity, reducing water consumption, in turn, reducing carbon footprint.

Using precision agriculture technologies in farm operations: The application of fertilizer can be reduced by 10% of the average N rate using nitrogen sensors. Additionally, it lessens the amount of nitrogen leaching in grains by up to 4 kg/ha, as opposed to the typical 153 kg/ha in conventional farming. The customised leaf coloured chart (LCC) helps in improving the nitrogen efficiency. Other technologies including drip irrigation, sprinkler fertigation helps in carbon sequestration by leaving soil loose. Furthermore, adoption of GPS guidance systems can save up to 15-20% of energy consumption.

Transportation & storage: Improved logistics planning, with combining multiple deliveries into one trip or using intermodal transportation, such as combining rail and truck transportation, using more fuel-efficient vehicles for seed transportation. Storage emissions can be reduced by cold storage infrastructure with renewable energy utilization.

Waste management: Trial Designs can be optimized by utilizing smaller plot sizes, containerized growing systems, staggered planting/harvesting schedules to minimize the amount of produce generated.

Sustainability commitments: One of the long-term sustainability practices within the seed industry is through the data-driven approach informed by ESG reporting which allows a continuous improvement and transparency by developing and publicly disclosing their sustainability commitments.

Transition to a Greener Future

Seed companies stand at a crossroads but also, they hold the key for driving transformational change. Quantifying emissions is the first step to reducing the carbon footprint across the value chain that will allow them to understand where and how to intervene, with an eye to environmental, social responsibility, in addition to efficiency of time and money. Once it is clear where to act, they can adapt the sustainability practices across the value chain. Suitable communication strategies also will enhance the awareness among stakeholders leading to reduction in GHG emissions by adopting sustainable technologies and practices.

Proactive collaboration with public and private research institutions in accelerating the commercialization of climate-resilient hybrids/varieties. To bring about a real transformation, it is necessary to establish emission reduction targets based on scientific evidence.

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  2. Tubiello, F.N. et al. (2022) ‘Pre- and post-production processes increasingly dominate greenhouse gas emissions from  Agri-Food Systems’, Earth System Science Data, 14(4), pp. 1795–1809. doi:10.5194/essd-14-1795-2022.
  3. Alromaizan, M. et al. (2023) ‘Developing a carbon accounting tool for smes in the Agri-Food Sector’, Procedia CIRP, 116, pp. 492–497. doi:10.1016/j.procir.2023.02.083.
  4. Greenhouse Gas Protocol: Corporate Value Chain (scope 3) accounting and reporting standard (2011). Washington, DC: World Resources Institute.
  5. World Food and Agriculture – Statistical Yearbook (2023). FAO.


Prevena V P

Prevena V P

Associate Consultant, Life Science Advisory Group
Connect with Author at: E-mail

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