Is the organic movement missing a big opportunity on climate change?

July 13, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

Oh dear, not only has climate change turned me into a reluctant green, but now I’m having to rethink my attitudes to organic farming. This is all the fault of a conversation with Peter Melchett and Ken Hayes from the Soil Association, who are both fervent advocates of organic agriculture (which Peter puts into practice on his own farm).

What struck me in our discussions was the presence of two very different ‘narratives’ on organics. The first could be caricatured as a nostalgia/hair shirt world view – harking back to the ‘good old days’ when you bought local, grew local, knew your neighbours, ate only in-season food etc. The second is all about solutions – organics could be part of the response to a range of new and growing problems, above all climate change.

I am instinctively hostile to the nostalgia/hair shirt narrative (which when I was growing up felt more like bad old days of wilting lettuce at the local greengrocers, strawberries for only two weeks a year, not to mention the impact of ‘buy British’ localism on 1.5 million African agricultural labourers producing fruit and veg for export to Europe – see linked discussion on food miles) and think it deters a much wider potential audience.

But now (thanks to Ken) I have been reading up on organics-as-solution, and it looks much more interesting. The key question is how do we feed 9 billion people (the estimated global population in 2050) while cutting greenhouse gases by 80%? So (a) can organics feed the 9 billion and (b) how serious a dent can they make on GHG emissions?

A paper by Catherine Badgeley et al in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems (sorry, looks like you have to pay for this one – anyone know of a free online version?) pulls together the evidence on the first question and concludes: ‘For most food categories, the average yield ratio was slightly <1.0 for studies in the developed world and >1.0 for studies in the developing world’ i.e. going organic does indeed involve a loss in yields in some areas of intensive, rich world agriculture (eg potatoes, fruit and horticulture, especially from greenhouse production), but can actually increase yields in poor countries. Also, there is plenty of scope for increased production on organic farms, since 99% of agricultural research of the past 50 years has focused on conventional methods.

A recent paper by the FAO agrees on the relative neglect of research into organics, but remains concerned on the impact on world food supplies.: ‘a 100 percent conversion to organic agriculture could decrease global yields. According to various studies, this yield reduction could be 30 to 40 percent in intensively farmed regions under the best geo-climate conditions. In less favourable regions, yield losses tend to zero. In the context of subsistence agriculture and in regions with periodic disruptions of water supply brought on by droughts or floods, organic agriculture is competitive to conventional agriculture and often superior with respect to yields.’

What about the link to climate change? The FAO paper points out that each year, agriculture emits 10 to 12 percent of the total estimated GHG emissions and that sustainable agriculture, including organics, includes many techniques that drastically cut emissions, including
° recycling wastes as nutrient source,
° using nitrogen-fixing plants,
° improving cropping systems and landscapes,
° avoiding synthetic pesticides,
° integrating crops and animals into a single farm production sector and including grass clover leys (nitrogen fixing plants that act as alternatives to chemical fertilisers) for fodder production, while avoiding purchase of feed concentrates.

Organics and climate change

Organics and climate change

The FAO concludes (see graphs for minimum and maximum scenario on how organic farming could reduce global agricultural emissions by between 57-82%):

‘Sustainable and organic agriculture offer multiple opportunities to reduce GHGs and counteract global warming. For example, organic agriculture reduces energy requirements for production systems by 25 to 50 percent compared to conventional chemical-based agriculture. Reducing GHGs through their sequestration in soil has even greater potential to mitigate climate change. Carbon is sequestered through an increase of soil organic matter content.

Improving soil sequestration of carbon is desirable in both low- and high-yield crop and animal systems. However, soil improvement is particularly important for agriculture in developing countries where crop inputs such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides are not readily available, their costs are prohibitive, they require special equipment, and the knowledge needed for their proper application is not widespread.

In order to reduce trade-offs among food security, climate change and ecosystem degradation, productive and ecologically sustainable agriculture is crucial. In that context, organic agriculture represents a multi-targeted and multifunctional strategy. It offers a proven alternative concept that is being implemented quite successfully by a growing number of farms and food chains. Currently, 1.2 million farmers practise organic agriculture on 32.2 million ha of land.’

One issue this and other studies raise is that sequestration of carbon in soils is currently excluded from funding via the Clean Development Mechanism, thus reducing the potential contribution of sustainable/organic agriculture.

So please put away those hair shirts and let’s concentrate on showing that organics are a promising way to confront climate change.

July 13, 2009
Duncan Green