Increasing funding for organic agriculture in the 2018 Farm Bill would sow the seeds for a sustainable future.
When it comes to taking action on climate change, transitioning to renewable energy and moving away from our reliance on fossil fuels typically gets the most attention. But the food we eat and how we grow it are just as essential. Data shows that many farming practices, including organic farming, can have a significant impact in the fight to protect people and the planet. Changing our food system, both through individual purchasing choices and by pushing policy makers to create systemic change, will help us tackle the climate crisis, protect public health and safeguard the environment.
Political solutions in the United States require transforming the Farm Bill, a massive bill that is passed every five years. Currently, Congress faces the September 30 deadline to approve the 2018 Farm Bill. To pass a final bill, substantial differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill must be resolved. reconciled through a conference committee process in which members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees chart a way forward.
On most accounts, organic programs fare better in the Senate version of the bill, including level funding for the Conservation Management Program (CSP) and full funding of $11.5 million. US dollars a year for the national organic certification cost-sharing program, which the House bill eliminates. The Senate bill also includes a larger increase in funding for the National Organic Program, contains helpful language on seeds and breeds suited to the region, and funds the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative until to $50 million by 2022, while the House version caps it at $30 million. Both bills include US$5 million in funding for the Organic Data Initiative and important provisions to improve monitoring of organic imports. However, both bills also contain problematic provisions regarding the National Organic Standards Council, the heart of the transparent democratic system that governs the organic standard. For a detailed analysis of bill comparison, see the National Organic Coalition’s dashboard.
The science is clear that organic farming systems hold promise as a climate change mitigation strategy that can also help farmers increase their resilience to climate-related floods and droughts. To preserve the seeds of a future sustainable food system, we must push for provisions in the Farm Bill that support America’s organic farmers. Unfortunately, whatever level of funding conservation and organic agriculture receives in the final Farm Bill will be a drop in the bucket compared to the billions spent subsidizing high-intensity agriculture. chemical and energy intensity, which massively contribute to climate change and environmental pollution. Between 2009 and 2012, we spent an average of $11 billion a year through the Farm Bill to subsidize the chemical-intensive industrial production of grains, seeds and fibers that provide the raw materials for animal feed, biofuels and highly processed foods. Worldwide, agriculture contributes 19-29% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, making it worse for our planet than any other sector, even transportation.
Instead of investing billions of dollars in a model that does not feed communities or the environment, policymakers must redirect funds to encourage organic and conservation agriculture, a much more effective approach to improving food security, environmental sustainability and human health.
Additionally, at a time when so many farmers and rural communities across America are struggling, organic farming offers significant economic benefits. Data shows that organic farming is more profitable for farmers and provides greater economic stability and greater well-being. And organic farming systems can be an important solution to rural poverty. Research shows counties with high levels of organic agriculture and associated organic businesses are economic hotspots that increase household incomes by more than US$2,000 and reduce poverty rates by up to 1.35% , even more than the main anti-poverty programs.
Before we lay out the science on why organic farming is part of the solution to climate change, it’s important to note that the most critical change we need to make in the food and agriculture is the transition from factory-farmed meat and dairy to organic, regenerative and pastured animal products – and eating more plants and less meat and dairy overall. Meat and dairy produce significantly higher emissions than plant-based alternatives, and global adoption of vegetarian or vegan diets has the potential to reduce food-related GHG emissions by 63-70%, respectively.
Soil carbon sequestration
Agricultural soils can play an important role in mitigating climate change, as they have enormous potential for carbon sequestration, taking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it back where it belongs, in the soil. Many of the practices that have been shown to promote carbon sequestration, such as crop rotation, cover crops and composting, are central to organic farming. In fact, it is estimated that if all farmers used these carbon-building practices on the world’s agricultural soils, we could sequester two to three years’ worth of all anthropogenic GHG emissions.
Because of the proven benefits of these organic practices, even non-organic farmers are employing them to improve soil health, and the USDA, through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, is increasingly supporting them in this endeavor. And while it’s worth noting that not all of these strategies are universally employed by organic farmers, organic systems are still far superior to conventional systems on average. In a study of over 1,000 farms, organic soils had 13% more soil organic matter and 26% more humification, which roughly translates to the soil’s long-term carbon storage potential .
Organic systems also promote greater carbon sequestration by excluding toxic pesticides. Beneficial microbes and insects that live underground and create healthy soil are vulnerable to pesticide application. A teaspoon of compost-rich organic soil can harbor up to 1 billion beneficial bacteria from 15,000 species, compared to only 100 in conventional soil. These microorganisms are essential for bringing carbon into the soil and keeping it there, which means that synthetic pesticides don’t just kill beneficial microorganisms, they undermine the soil’s ability to store carbon.
Reduction of energy consumption
Another benefit of excluding harmful inputs like toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers is avoiding the energy needed to produce them. By banning these inputs and avoiding emissions from the application of synthetic fertilizers, it is estimated that converting all agricultural systems to organic could reduce direct agricultural GHG emissions by approximately 20%. Studies show that organic systems require an average of 15% less energy than conventional systems, with some organic systems using up to 70% less energy than their conventional counterparts.
Finally, organic soils are more resilient, helping farmers adapt to the challenges of climate change. Healthy organic soils have a greater water-holding capacity than conventional soils, so they can capture more water when it rains and retain it better during dry periods. This can make all the difference during droughts and floods. In one study, organic plots had 152% and 196% higher soybean yields than conventional plots during drought years.
A Farm Bill for a sustainable future
We need a Farm Bill that shifts subsidies from large-scale, chemical-intensive agriculture to much greater support for family farmers, organic systems, and regenerative and diverse farming practices. A regenerative organic food system can be part of the climate solution and can build a healthy and sustainable future for people and the planet.