INSIDE ORGANIC: Organic Farming and Global Climate Change: Organic Farming’s Contribution to Mitigating the Impact of Global Warming, Although Fully Documented, Gets Little Public Notice and Is Not Rewarded (July 07)

by Roger Blobaum · Inside Organics · July 2007

Almost everyone seems to have heard about the growing threat of global warming, but almost no one seems to have heard about the important contribution organic farmers are making to help mitigate the damage.

Organic farming’s mitigation contribution and future potential, although well documented here and elsewhere, is receiving little notice from either policymakers or those putting together carbon credit mechanisms that could provide a new source of organic farming income. Attempts to have organic farmers included in these new carbon credit mechanisms have failed to make any headway so far. A much more public, focused, and convincing effort is needed so organic producers will be rewarded in some way for all the credits they are piling up.

Global warming mitigation approaches have gained significant attention in many countries, especially in Europe where governments acknowledge and reward organic farmers for the many other public benefits they provide. But even there, for now at least, organic farmers are still on the outside looking in as carbon credit mechanisms are demonstrated. Potential carbon trade developers getting organized in developing countries may be more inclusive. It is reported, for example, that one potential carbon credit project involves an organic produce initiative in South Africa.

Nearly all countries, unlike our own, are implementing the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement among industrialized nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This has given them a head start in developing mechanisms for selling “carbon credits” on world trading markets. Buyers of the credits are industrial entities that need to offset excess gas emissions to avoid government penalties.

Although the European carbon trading system was started in 2005, it has had little success involving agriculture and even less success involving organic farming. A climate exchange established in Chicago in 2003 provides a mechanism for buying and selling carbon credit contracts in this country. Both the Iowa Farm Bureau and the North Dakota Farmers Union have pooled conventional acres enrolled in these contracts. The credits are worth roughly $2 an acre for no-till land and $3 for pasture. If these contracts become well enough established to be traded internationally, it is assumed the amount paid for credits would increase.

Rodale Trials Document Organic Benefits

The most significant documentation of the public benefits of organic here in the U.S. are the long-term field trials conducted by the Rodale Institute. The results of these trials, first announced in 2003, show that organic systems use one-third less fossil fuel energy than conventional systems, with much of the savings coming from avoiding synthesized nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides made from natural gas and other fossil fuel inputs. Similar results came in the mid-1970s from a Washington University energy research project involving farms in five Midwest states.

The Rodale Institute trials also show that organic systems, which use cover crops and compost and legume-based rotations to build up organic matter levels in the soil, help mitigate global warming by sequestering 15-28 percent more carbon than land farmed with conventional methods. The trials, started in 1981, involve side-by-side 12-acre experiments comparing conventional, legume based organic and manure based organic systems.

Research conducted in Europe and elsewhere shows organic systems also help mitigate the adverse impacts of global warming by reducing carbon dioxide emissions by half or more. “Converting the 160 million acres of corn and soybeans in the U.S. to organic production would sequester enough carbon to satisfy 73 percent of the Kyoto targets for CO2 reduction and more than wipe out U.S. agriculture’s massive emission problem,” the Rodale Institute’s announcement said.

Organic farming’s potential contribution to global warming mitigation has received little notice here from policymakers or, surprisingly, from the organic sector itself. It is seldom mentioned in testimony and other efforts to increase support for organic farming in the farm bill. An exception is the Organic Center, an organization that focuses on documenting health and nutrition advantages of organic food and the many environmental and other benefits organic farmers provide to the public.

In discussing the positive impact of growing the organic sector to 10 percent by 2010, the Organic Center states this increase would fight climate change by capturing an additional 6.5 billion pounds of carbon in soil on organic farms. This, the center concluded, is equivalent to taking 2 million cars, each averaging 12,000 miles a year, off the road. This increase, it added, also would save 2.9 billion barrels of imported oil annually.

Organic Farming Potential Cited in Global Meetings

The potential of organic farming for global warming mitigation was a leading topic at the International Conference on Organic Agriculture and Food Security sponsored by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization in May. A series of reports showed how organic farming offers significant climate change mitigation benefits through reduced consumption of fossil fuels for energy, reduced emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, considerably reduced vulnerability of soils to erosion and the sequestration of carbon under organic management.

Although organic farming performance could be enhanced by more research on problems related to lower yields in some cases, and to soil erosion related to tillage, a report by researchers from a Swiss research institute and the World Wildlife Fund concludes that “organic agriculture is so far the most promising approach for mitigation and adaptation to climate change.”

Not everyone likes the idea of allowing the worst industrial polluters to buy their way out of trouble with regulators by participating in cap and trade schemes. But carbon credit mechanisms don’t necessarily have to involve power plants and other major polluters. These mechanisms also can provide ways for ordinary citizens to buy credits for “carbon free” travel, for example, or other carbon neutral purposes.

‘Carbon Free’ Travel Offered Online

Current examples include carbon credit mechanisms offered to travelers who book airline, hotel, rental car and other travel with online travel agencies. Travelocity, for example, makes this online offer: “Offset your trip’s carbon emissions. Effectively offset the negative environmental impact of your entire trip here. Go without guilt. Go zero!” Offset prices, ranging from $10 to $40, are added to the cost of the trip.

“While air travel is considered a contributor to the carbon dioxide emissions that lead to global warming, now there’s something you can do to offset the negative environmental impact of your travel: by contributing to the Conservation Fund’s Go Zero Program,” the message continues. “Go Zero Travel is the first program of its kind in the nation.”

So what happens to that $10 or more added to the cost of travel purchased online through Travelocity? “Each donation facilitates the planting of native trees, which absorb and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” the agency notes. “New forests planted with the help of donations like yours will be planted in permanently protected lands across the U.S. and managed by the nation’s leading public agencies.”

This is a positive consumer-friendly way to offset travel carbon with tree planting. But why not allow travelers to direct some of this mitigation money to organic farms as well? The Conservation Fund does make a passing reference to conventional no-till as another possible carbon offset possibility but does not mention organic farms.

Much more needs to be done to educate the Conservation Fund, general farm organizations, and carbon credit plan innovators about the significant carbon sequestration and energy saving practices of organic farms. It should be possible for zero carbon consumers, who already support organic farmers by buying organic food, to participate in mechanisms that would pass funds through to organic farmers or those in transition.

These mechanisms require an organization like the Farm Bureau or the Farmers Union to assemble land for contracts and a financial agent like the Conservation Fund or the climate exchange to handle the process of verifying emissions reductions and the carbon sequestration realized, and then collecting and dispensing funds. The potential for putting together a group of organic farmers and providing verification should be explored. Organic farm plans, annual inspection, and certification would appear to make it easier for organic farms to meet verification requirements.

The global warming benefits also should be stressed in public statements and testimony requesting more funding for organic research and education from state and federal sources. Global warming benefits were stressed by organic farmer Atina Diffley of Gardens of Eagan last February in urging the Minnesota House Agriculture Appropriations Committee to support University of Minnesota organic research and education funding, organic certification cost sharing, and alternative livestock research and outreach funding.

“While conventional farming typically depletes soil organic matter, organic farming builds it through the use of compost and cover crops . . .more than 1,000 pounds of captured carbon per acre-foot per year,” she testified. “Or one 320-acre organic farm taking the carbon from 117 cars out of the air. And that’s not even counting the reductions in CO2 emissions represented by the organic system’s lower energy requirements.”

Organic farmer Steve Gilman of Ruckytucks Farm in New York State also wants more public attention given to global warming mitigation benefits of organic farming. He suggests the time has come for the larger organic community to get behind proposals to reward organic farmers financially for what they do to mitigate the impact of global warming.

“Connecting organic farming to carbon credits through sequestering carbon and saving energy and reducing emissions would provide a steady unsubsidized income stream that would directly benefit organic producers, helping them grow their operations and their numbers to meet the growing unfilled demand of the organic industry,” he suggested in discussing his vision of the future. “This sea change in the agricultural system will be even more profound when conventional farmers have to buy carbon credits to offset their own unsustainable practices.”

by Roger Blobaum

This article was first printed in the July 2007 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service