Organics’ Relationship to Climate Change

April 30th, 2019

by Marie Burcham, JD
Director of Domestic Policy at The Cornucopia Institute

Introduction

Discussing soil health at Vilicus Farms in MT
Source: USDA, Flickr

People choose organic food over conventional food for many reasons. Organic products are nutrient-dense and have fewer pesticide and other toxic chemical residues than conventional food. Organic farming offers benefits to family farms who focus on holistic practices. Now, more consumers are choosing organic and local food for additional reasons.

The foundational principles of organic farming – such as fostering healthy soil, supporting on-farm biodiversity, and the recycling and healthy use of livestock waste – all combat the biggest challenge of our time: climate change.

A Climate Consensus

Scientists and experts studying climate agree that climate change is a serious problem for current and future populations.

In August 2017, climate scientists leaked a draft report of a climate science breakdown to the New York Times. The authors of the report noted the thousands of studies documenting climate changes on land and in the air. Among the more significant of the study’s findings is that it is possible to attribute some extreme weather directly to climate change.

Climate change is not – and should never have been – a political issue. That being said, we recognize that it has been commonly framed as a political issue. It is a human issue on a global scale, just like the good food movement. We are hopeful the global nature of these issues can bring people of all political leanings together.

Current and Predicted Climate Impacts

Weather patterns are changing, sea levels are rising, and weather events are becoming more extreme. All of these climatic changes will have profound effects on global food systems, including organic agriculture.

In late 2018, the United States federal government released the National Climate Assessment, a report on the effects of climate change.

The report concludes that the preponderance of evidence shows human actions are the primary contributor to climate change and that, unless we change our practices and policies, there will be “substantial damages to the US economy, environment, and human health and well-being over the coming decades.” Our approach to agriculture is a vital piece of this puzzle.

In its October 2018 summary to policy makers, the UN IPCC makes a point that allowing 1.5°C of global warming compared to allowing temperatures to increase 2°C will lead to significant differences in terms of impacts to biodiversity, ecosystem services, and local and global economies. This means that what consumers choose to eat and support in the marketplace can make a difference on a global scale.

As it stands, climate change will have the greatest effect on the most vulnerable people. That includes family farmers and their businesses, as they are especially at risk from changing weather patterns.

Agriculture’s Relationship with Climate Change

Climate change is disrupting agriculture on a global scale. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) calculates the cost of climate and weather disasters. From droughts to floods and from hurricanes to wildfires, 2017 was one of the costliest years on record. The increase of weather disasters, along with changing weather patterns, has a significant effect on our ability to produce food and other agricultural products.

In fact, the agriculture industry itself contributes to climate change.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture economic sector accounted for approximately 9% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2016. Much of this contribution arises from livestock production, which has only grown since 2016. However, the EPA statistics fail to account for emissions from the transportation of food and products, the manufacture of fertilizers, and food processing. This means that the 9% figure is grossly inadequate when accounting for how agriculture contributes to climate change in the U.S.

On the global scale, approximately one-third of harmful emissions can be attributed to agriculture. Researchers from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) found that how each country contributes to this emissions burden depends on their income level and agricultural focuses. For example, the United Kingdom sees a large proportion of their emission contributions from storage and transport, whereas in China fertilizer manufacture has the greatest impact.

Agriculture also contributes to climate change through its core activities: tilling releases carbon dioxide stored in the soil and some types of crop cultivation and livestock emit large quantities of methane. Farming equipment typically burn fossil fuels, and large conventional farms demand huge quantities of industrially produced fertilizers. Current farming methods often involve changes in land-use, such as deforestation or the destruction of fragile grasslands. These practices alter the Earth’s ability to absorb or reflect heat, remove carbon sinks, and destroy a major method to filter carbon out of the atmosphere.

Despite these impacts, agriculture holds great promise in providing solutions to climate change. This is where ethical and sustainable agriculture – those farming practices that speak to the heart of organic principles – is vital to our future.

Organic Food as One Solution to Climate Change and its Effects

Changing how we understand and support our agricultural systems has a huge impact on climate change effects.

The primary benefit of organic crop and livestock production, compared to conventional agriculture, is that it is focused on soil-based production with underlying principles of maintaining or improving soil quality.

Generally, improving soil quality counteracts climate change by pulling carbon out of the atmosphere. This is similar to how native ecosystems, including prairies and forests, act as carbon sinks in nature. Regenerative agriculture improves soil. Where organic farmers take tired, poorly used land and improve it with restorative practices, they are doing the public a service.

In late 2018 there was some press that organic food is worse for the climate than conventional food. These arguments against organic agriculture state that it is not sustainable based on land-use claims because food yields are not as high as conventional agriculture on a per-acre basis. However, this argument ignores the big picture and shows a serious lack of understanding about organic agriculture’s scientifically-based benefits for the environment and human health.

The Organic Center responded cogently to this land-use argument and pointed out that the organic community has worked to address land-use issues. Cornucopia and The Wild Farm Alliance encouraged stakeholders to submit comments regarding land-use to the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) in 2018. The NOSB ultimately passed a proposal to eliminate the unintended incentive to convert native ecosystems (including forests) into organic production.

The argument that organic is worse for the environment because it takes more land to produce the same quantity of food is also faulty because:

  • Real organic food is more nutritionally dense, providing higher quality and safer food in a smaller amount of produce;
  • The study positing that organic food is worse for the environment did not take into account factors like climate resiliency; the harm mono-cropping, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides cause in their manufacture and use; excessive tilling and irrigation; and how much conventional livestock contribute to global emissions. In fact, these nuances seem to have been ignored in favor of broad-stroke land-use arguments;
  • These land-use arguments are premised on a rapidly expanding human population, but it does not make sense to approach the problem of overpopulation by using exploitative conventional land-use techniques;
  • Conventional agriculture may produce more food per acre in the short term, but because these practices strip the soil (which also degrades the land’s ability to store carbon), they do more harm in the long term;
  • Real organic agriculture supports native ecosystems and biodiversity on-farm, which not only supports ecosystem services but adds to ecosystem resiliency in a rapidly changing climate.

It is true, as noted in the Nature piece on the topic, that “land-use changes are critical for climate policy because native vegetation and soils store abundant carbon…” However, real organic agriculture has more built-in policies and protections that support carbon sequestration in the soil. In fact, fostering healthy soil through regenerative agriculture is one of the foundational organic principles.

A recent white paper by the Rodale Institute proved that regenerative organic agriculture can sequester carbon from the atmosphere and reverse climate change.

Ultimately, organic and sustainable practices have many benefits over conventional agriculture that make them a good choice for climate-conscious consumers.

Ethical Organic Farming Supports Climate Resiliency

Apart from emissions, agriculture has one of the greatest impacts on climate resiliency.

Actions that boost climate resilience concern anticipating, preparing for, and responding to threatening events, patterns, or disturbances related to climate. When a resilient system is created, there is an assumption that it can absorb and mitigate the stresses caused by climate change while still being adaptable and able to respond to new information as it arises.

Organic food is produced on the basis of several foundational principles that effect climate resiliency. These include:

  • Incentives to preserve native and wild ecosystems. Deforestation, which often goes hand-in-hand with agriculture, is specifically discouraged under the organic requirements. Preserving native lands like grasslands or forests helps improve climate change resiliency.
  • Ethical organic farming increases food security because organic and family farmers are more likely to produce a variety of crops and livestock, rather than pursuing a disaster- susceptible monoculture. This variety allows farmers to adapt their business to the prevailing weather patterns in their area.
  • Organic farming helps other species survive a changing climate by providing habitat to pollinators and beneficial on-farm species. This wildlife is missing in the ecological deserts that make up many conventional operations.

Industrial-scale agriculture is a primary cause of ecosystem degradation and species loss. Due to economies of scale and the attendant externalization of costs, industrial-scale food production also jeopardizes sustainable family-scale farms and ranches who internalize costs like pollution control, soil health, and supporting on-farm biodiversity.

In a perverse twist, climate change will result in a greater need for pesticides and synthetic fertilizer as dramatic weather patterns stress our food systems. On a macro scale, the synthesis of fertilizers and pesticides is energy intensive and a huge source of climate pollution that is rarely acknowledged by conventional agriculture proponents. These chemicals also affect the carbon-carrying capacity of the soil, compounding existing problems (not to mention their effect on human health). Mono-cropping and the use of chemicals to fight pests and disease does not create the resilient food system we need.

Small, diverse farms tend to be less reliant on fossil fuels due to a focus on local sales and hand labor. Preserving habitats on-farm and the responsible use of grazing livestock on healthy pastures serve as carbon sinks and habitat for stressed wildlife.

Counteracting the Decline in Nutritious Food

Unfortunately, another side effect of climate change is a decline in the nutrient contents of food. For example, a study in 2018 showed that rice grown in higher levels of carbon dioxide had lower amounts of several important nutrients. This impacts food security – another way the most vulnerable populations will be hurt by climate change.

A recent article about the effect of climate change on nutrition stated:

A growing body of research is showing that, beyond the extreme weather events we already expect from climate change, we’re also in for a change in the nutrient content of the food crops we rely on every day. This drop in nutrients has dire consequences. In parts of the world where people are already struggling to eat enough micro and macronutrients, the depleted nutritional value of cheap, easily accessible dietary staples makes matters worse.

Apart from nutrition, issues of air, water, and soil pollution speak directly to global health. If someone eats high-quality organic food, they are helping their neighbors and people on the other side of the world. This is a strong argument to support Cornucopia’s idea of ethical organics.

Climate Change Encouraging Brands to Support Organic

Extreme weather events are becoming more common across the United States due to climate change. Despite these catastrophic events, a new report from Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy finds that only 18 states across the country have climate adaptation plans that mention agriculture.

Because organic agriculture helps climate resiliency, it is being used to push larger brands into organic production. However, family-scale farmers raising livestock on well-managed pasture or producers who work within regenerative organic principles – often focusing on growing plants that do well in their local conditions – have always supported principles of climate resiliency.

In short, while all organic and regenerative food production is better for the environment than industrialized conventional production, small farms are more productive per acre and provide more environmental benefits than large farms. Cornucopia encourages consumers to support family-scale, local, organic farmers whenever possible. They offer the freshest food, require little transportation, hold important knowledge about sustainable and regenerative farming, and are an important part of local economies.

Conclusion

Some farmers already recognize the impacts that changing climate is having on their farms, such as shifting growing seasons and more frequent droughts. Unfortunately, reacting to climate impacts, instead of trying to mitigate them before they occur, puts an even greater burden on farm stability.

There are many tools farmers can use to become more climate-friendly. The site Climate Smart Farming from Cornell University is one example. The site is meant to help manage farmers’ climate-related risks and increase resiliency and sustainability on-farm.

There is a crisis right now in the organic label. Industrial agribusiness has shoved its way into the organic marketplace, seeking the economic benefits of selling in this niche while often providing a watered-down version of “organic.” Factory dairies and egg operations are stretching the bounds of the organic regulations. Recently, the USDA refused to ban hydroponic production from qualification as “organic,” despite organic production’s basic principle of fostering healthy soil.

As consumers flock to cheap, industrial-organic brands, authentic organic brands are displaced from grocery shelves. Family farmers are losing their livelihoods and consumers are losing access to truly organic, nutrient-dense food.

All this doesn’t mean there is no value in the organic label; it just means that consumers need to do a little more homework when selecting their food.

It is critical that we reflect on how our food is being produced. Our choices as a society affect the health of our food system, our water, our air, and ultimately the global climate. Cornucopia offers research and scorecards that help people make conscious eating choices, including supporting real organic farms that build and maintain a resilient environment.

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