For decades organic farming was written off as an impractical, unrealistic flight of fancy dreamed up by 60’s-era hippies and those longing for a return to some pre-industrial, Eden with little or no grounding in what it actually takes to produce food for the masses. For a variety of reasons particular to North America, industrialized agriculture – large scale monoculture and irrigation helped by regular and liberal doses of synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and other soil “amendments,” all regularly plowed over by big, heavy fossil fueled equipment– has been, and largely remains, the model for American society’s food chain.
Organic, sustainable agriculture has turned out to be one of those ideas that just wouldn’t go away, however – and for a variety of good and increasingly vital reasons. Not only are growing numbers of farmers, ranchers and research scientists showing that sustainable, organic methods and practices can produce as high or higher yields in the short-term, but they’re showing that the long-term benefits of regenerating soils, which include reducing water usage, pollution and erosion as well as improving habitat for other forms of life, are not only equally as great, but go beyond any currently used means of calculating a “bottom line.”
It’s also been demonstrated that fostering greater use of organic methods and practices may be one of the best – least cost, most efficient and eminently practicable – means of mitigating climate change.
According to a summary of the results of a 30-year, side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional farming systems in the U.S. conducted by the Rodale Institute that organic agricultural practices could sequester an incredible 40% of present day global carbon emissions.
There are a number of reasons present-day standard agricultural practices aren’t sustainable, according to the Rodale Institute, the principal evidence being the rapid decrease in the carbon content of agricultural soils. Some Midwestern soils that in the 1950s had a carbon content of up to 20% are now down to 1-2%. This has a domino effect that has led to greater soil erosion, increasing vulnerability to drought and the loss of nutrient value.
Prevailing farming practices also break down soil carbon into carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere, a surprisingly big contributor to the increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” a 2006 research report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, found that raising and processing cattle, hogs, poultry and other animals alone produces some 18% of greenhouse gas emissions.
U.S. government research data shows that agriculture using chemical fertilizers and herbicides, contributes nearly 20% of US carbon dioxide emissions. Figures on a global scale from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that agricultural land use contributes 12% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Then there are modern industrialized farming’s effects on our water resources, which include nutrient overloads from the use of synthetic nitrogen, pollution and loss of energy reserves as a result of intensive use of petroleum-based chemicals, as well as another growing concern – the effects of such practices not only on livestock and crop health and nutrition, but on that of the people who eat them.
So what’s the bad news?
The good news is that there’s some good news out there, and some positive changes being made, not only by long-time advocates of organic and sustainable agriculture, but by growing numbers of formerly conventional farmers. The organic/sustainable farming rubric may be incomplete and imperfect – it calls for organic solutions to many of the problems that first led farmers to use fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides – but growing numbers believe that it is the only truly responsible way to cultivate the land and raise livestock.
“Even though climate and soil type affect sequestration capacities, these multiple research efforts verify that practical organic agriculture, if practiced on the planet’s 3.5 billion tillable acres, could sequester nearly 40 percent of current CO2 emissions,” according to the Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial – the longest-running and one of the oldest such trials to date.
Rodale claims that its FST was the first study “to prove that regenerative organic agricultural practices store or sequester carbon in the soil by removing it from the air, thereby significantly reversing the impact of global warming,” according to the Institute.
Even better, these methods are practical and applicable in the developing, as well as industrially, economically developed world. “Regenerative organic farming methods can transform agriculture from part of the global warming problem to a major part of the solution, by changing how we farm. Farmers can transition to new practices relatively quickly and inexpensively using low-cost tools.
“Agricultural carbon sequestration has the potential to substantially mitigate global warming impacts. When using biologically based regenerative practices, this dramatic benefit can be accomplished with no decrease in yields or farmer profits.”