Organic farming helps solve climate change

Over the past year, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has developed its draft 2022 Climate Change Framework, intended to pave the way to carbon neutrality for California by mid-century. After months of advocacy by the NRDC and its allies asking CARB to include incentives for organic farming as well as reduced pesticide use in the natural working land section, the agency released its proposed approach in May. In this project, the agency recommends converting 20% ​​of California’s farmland to organic farming by 2045 as a way to mitigate climate change. While this recommendation isn’t ambitious enough (California’s organic acreage grew 44% from 2014 to 2019 according to a state Department of Agriculture report), it’s still an important step. because it recognizes and affirms the essential role that organic farming systems can play in climate-smart agriculture.

Organic farming is an important lever to push the needle on climate change. Here’s why:

Organic farming reduces greenhouse gases

New and beginning farmers on the Land Based Agricultural Training Association’s (ALBA) 100-acre organic farm in Salinas, California

USDA photo by Lance Cheung

Because fossil fuel-based fertilizers and most synthetic pesticides are banned in organic farming, it has a significantly lower carbon footprint. The production of these agricultural chemicals is energy intensive. Studies show that eliminating synthetic nitrogen fertilizers alone, as required in organic systems, could reduce direct global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 20%. A forty-year study by the Rodale Institute also showed that organic farms use 45% less energy compared to conventional farms (while maintaining or even exceeding yields after a 5-year transition period.) Meanwhile, fumigant pesticides – commonly used on crops like strawberries and injected into the soil – emit nitrous oxide (N2O), the most potent greenhouse gas. Research indicates that a commonly used fumigant pesticide, chloropicrin, can increase N2O emissions by 700-800%. Two other fumigants (metam sodium and dazomet) are also known to significantly increase N2O production.

Organic farming improves carbon sequestration in the soil

Beth Hoinacki shows off one side of her crop rotation and cover crop plan on Goodfoot Certified Organic Farm, Philomath, OR.

United States Department of Agriculture

The soil-building practices that are the basis of organic farming also help sequester more carbon in the soil compared to non-organic systems. Multiple meta-analyses comparing thousands of farms nationwide have shown that organic farming leads to greater soil organic carbon stability and reduced nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions compared to farming conventional. A recent review of nearly 400 studies showed that pesticide use was associated with damage to soil invertebrates in more than 70% of studies. Soil invertebrates are essential for carbon sequestration, as they are responsible for the formation of soil components that are essential for the formation of soil organic carbon. In fact, estimates indicate that with the global adoption of best agroecological management practices like diversified organic farming, soils could actually absorb more carbon than the agricultural sector emits between 2020 and 2100.

Organic farming increases resilience

A welcome sign for Huerta del Valle (HdV), a 4-acre organic farm in a low-income urban community in Ontario, California, which is facing a severe drought. HDV grows over 100 different crops.

USDA photo by Lance Cheung

Organic farms are required to build healthy soils and crops that make them better able to adapt to a changing climate. First and foremost, organic farmers rely on composting, crop rotation, and natural rather than fossil inputs to maintain or improve soil health. As custodians of healthy soil, organic farmers and ranchers can be a major force in climate change mitigation (US Department of Agriculture Secretary Vilsack confirmed this when announcing USDA’s New Framework for Resilient Food and Agriculture Systems). Organic farming promotes resilience by increasing the soil’s ability to hold water and the natural nutrients found in healthy soils. By continuously increasing organic matter in the soil over time, organic farming improves water percolation by 15-20%, replenishes groundwater, and helps crops perform well in extreme weather conditions like drought. and floods. A decades-long organic farming trial found that organic yields can be up to 40% higher than non-organic farms during drought years. By forgoing most fossil fuel-based inputs, organic farmers are also more resilient and adaptable to not only stressors related to climate change, but other disruptive global stressors as well.

As farmers grapple with everything from extreme weather events to heat stress and wildfires, and as agriculture becomes even less predictable in the face of climate change, it is essential that governments help farmers transition to practices that increase resilience and significantly reduce reliance on fossil fuels. fuel chemicals. Setting ambitious targets – as the European Union has done with its 2020 Farm to Fork Strategy – is an essential first step. The California Air Resources Board has taken the right direction in recognizing that organic agriculture can play an important role in our state’s climate plan. However, CARB should expand its ambitions as it develops its final plan to maximize the climate potential of California’s organic agriculture sector.

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