Open field and forest burning contributes to regional and global climate change by producing CO2, methane, and – of special interest near cryosphere regions – black carbon (BC), which deposits on nearby snow and ice, speeding melting. Open burning is the single largest source of black carbon globally, at 42% dwarfing all other sources (biomass burning for residential cooking and heating is 18%, diesel transport 14%).
In addition to depositing on nearby ice and snow, causing greater and earlier melting, set agricultural fires often burn out of control, spreading and causing forest and grassland wildfires that release additional BC as well as greenhouse gases — including methane, CO, and CO2; damage nearby sensitive ecosystems; and cause loss of human life and infrastructure. Smoke from open burning also negatively impacts human health, sometimes quite significantly, as occurred during the Russian fires of summer 2010.
At the same time, agricultural burning negatively impacts soil quality by compacting and destroying the humus and organic matter that make agricultural lands productive. This drastically decreases yields, at a time when agriculture already is under stress from climate change, leading to ever-greater dependence on fertilizers and greater run-off of nutrients from burned soils.
Nevertheless, good alternatives exist to burning, especially those that integrate low-till or no-till methods. Conservation agriculture methods, involving direct seeding, preservation of stubble to hold moisture, cover crops and crop rotation; as well as alternative uses for crop stubble such as bio-energy or livestock bedding and feed, all hold special promise as win-win alternatives to burning.
ICCI has been one of a handful of organizations working to address this issue since its founding in 2009, first in European Russia (where burning remains highly prevalent) and now with programs beginning in Ukraine, the Andes and the greater Himalayan region. ICCI has created a new separate website with partner organizations on addressing open burning near the Andean and Himalayan cryosphere, www.openburning.org. See this website for extensive information including burning maps and the results of recent regional conferences in Lima, Peru, and Kathmandu, Nepal.
ICCI has been working with partner organizations in Russia since 2009 to explore alternatives to agricultural burning, which releases black carbon, one of the short-lived climate forcers, into the atmosphere. Because of the prevailing winds, black carbon from European Russia falls on Arctic sea ice and glaciers, where it contributes to the excessive melting we have seen in recent years.
Watch this PowerPoint about black carbon’s impact on the Arctic:
Click on the link (“View, then Play Slide Show”) to see an excerpt that simulates the transport of fire emissions to the Arctic.
With the support of the Swedish Ministry of the Environment, ICCI worked with Bellona/ Russia in Saint Petersburg and the Agricultural Research Institute of Sweden to organize a conference on alternatives to agricultural burning in March of 2012. Read the conference report here. The second phase recruited interested farmers from Rostov and Leningrad oblasts for a study tour to Sweden in February, 2013. Participants included 3 farmers from each of the two oblasts, 2 scientists from Russian research institutes, the Swedish Agricultural Agency, as well as local Bellona/ICCI field and national staff and ICCI representatives. Read about the study tour and participants’ comments here. This second phase also included production of off-the-shelf study materials for farmers in Russian and English (link coming soon) and on the procurement process for needed alternative agricultural equipment. Read the procurement report here.
With additional support from the Swedish Ministry of the Environment and the Nordic Environment Finance Corporation (NEFCO) , the project has built pilot programs in three oblasts—Leningradskaya, Krasnodarskiy Krai and Rostovskaya– in northern/central European Russia that will develop and demonstrate viable and appropriate alternatives to agricultural burning. The project showcases up to three demonstration projects in each oblast, conduct local and national-level courses and materials on alternatives and will also work to develop micro-financing to aid farmers in the transition. A second study tour took place in November of 2013 and the first Field Day in Rostov with joint Russian-Swedish participation in May of 2014, followed by a Krasnodar Field Day in October. Tula oblast, which experienced a sharp uptick in open burning in spring 2014 due to the very dry previous winter, was added in 2014 and farmers from that oblast traveled on a third study tour in December 2014. A Tula Field Day was held in February, 2015.
If you want to learn more, here are some great articles about the project’s many aspects:
“Everything is Seen from Above—in the Kuban Satellites are Used to Fight Fires“ on satellite monitoring of open burning in Krasnodar (March 2014)
“Collateral Profit–How to Make Straw Work for You, Not Against the Harvest“ from Krestianin No. 22 about Rostov oblast (May 2014)
“The Main Thing is to Change Farmers’ Thinking About Innovation —to Break Stereotypes“ from a radio interview with Rostov farmers in Delovoi Mius (May 2014)
“Firesetters Who Destroy Protected Forests In Krasnodar Escape Responsibility“ about summer fires on or near protected lands on the Black Sea Coast (August 2014)
“Increased Agricultural Burning in Tula Oblast Spring 2014—Notes on Methodology and Causes”, –how satellite mapping is done and margins of error determined with specific reference to the marked increase in burning in Tula in 2014 from our experts at the Dokuchaev Soil Institute, Moscow (December 2014)
“Agricultural Fires Ruin Emissions Data” – about fire data in the Kuban (December 2014)
Although farmers in European Russia always burned crop waste to some extent, the problem as a widespread phenomenon is of recent origin. As the Russian economy opened up, livestock production declined by 50% during the 1990s and has collapsed further since—by some estimates by as much 90% from Soviet times. Stubble could no longer be used in animal husbandry and manure was no longer a free organic fertilizer. With no other viable options, farmers increasingly burned crop residues and turned to chemical fertilizers, both of which have impacted soil fertility over the decades.
Not all farmers burn however, and not under all conditions; and many are aware of the damaging consequences for the soil, health, the local environment and beyond. The tradition of burning continues in spite of federal-level (and some regional-level) prohibitions and sanctions. Read about the state of federal and oblast legislation here.
UPDATE: On November 10, 2015, a new federal law banning grassland burning on agricultural lands was put in place (http://government.ru/docs/20511/). This means that the 2016 agricultural season is particularly important to provide farmers with the alternatives and resources needed in order to avoid this practice.
While burning carries some near-term benefits, such as removing stubble for easier plowing or revitalizing grasslands, over time the practice results in a net loss of soil nutrients, necessitating greater use of expensive fertilizers. More seriously, over time it also results in poor quality, low humus soil structures that further lower crop yields, and these degraded soil structures are extremely difficult to improve. In addition to other economic factors, this poor quality soil may be driving an appreciable trend towards abandoning formerly productive farmlands throughout the region, making domestic food production in Russia more difficult to achieve.
The project also includes an information campaign among farmers as well as the public at large about the dangers of uncontrolled burning on the environment, health and safety.
Patterns of Burning
As part of the underlying data-collection process, Bellona Russia conducted a survey in 2011 of approximately 800 farmers in the Northwest, Central, Southern and Ural federal districts. 92 survey responses from farms of a range of sizes, most of which grow primarily grain or feed, were received and were supplemented by a few in-person interviews.
In general, burning is concentrated in the spring (peaking in April) and in the late summer/fall (July – September), the latter being much more extensive. The study concentrated on European Russia as distinct from other climate regions, i.e., Siberia. Agricultural burning is more prevalent in the most favorable agricultural regions – the Central and Southern districts — and on small-scale farms.
The survey also explored reasons for burning. Many farmers burn in spite of sanctions but would only acknowledge that reality over the course of the interview conversations. Financial problems and lack of modern equipment represent major challenges for farmers and burning of agricultural residue is primarily an adaptive response to these. Tradition, vandalism and carelessness about the environment by non-farmers, tourists and others were also factors.
Farmers are interested in learning about and potentially implementing alternative methods of agricultural waste management. Approximately half knew about the impact of burning on the Arctic climate and a third were aware of alternative waste recycling systems in operation in Europe and the USA. Respondents viewed information and advocacy work as potentially significant. The majority of farmers was interested in receiving information about modern methods of agricultural waste management and cleaning fields for planting.
Also check out the June 2014 IceBlog about burning in Russia