In 2008, global food demand is testing the capacity of petroleum-dependent, export-focused commodity agriculture. This system has not served developed nations as food prices soar—inflamed by biofuel demand and fuel prices—and has especially hurt developing nations already struggling with food security issues. The modern-farming paradigm has also resulted in nutrient overload in our waterways from the use of synthetic nitrogen, degradation of our soils and animal health and welfare concerns. Most disturbing is modern agriculture's contribution to global warming.
New data from U.S. government research shows that with agriculture using chemical fertilizers and herbicides, the U.S. food system contributes nearly 20 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions. On a global scale, figures from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) say that agricultural land use contributes 12 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.Organically managed soils can convert carbon from a greenhouse gas into a food-producing asset. Results from a 10-year study at the Rodale Institute (pdf file) showed organic systems have the ability to capture up to 2,000 pounds of carbon per acre per year meaning more than 7,000 pounds of carbon dioxide are taken from the air and trapped in that field soil.
In 2006, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion were estimated at nearly 6.5 billion tons. If the 7,000 pounds of CO2 per acre per year sequestration rate had been achieved on all 434 million acres of cropland in the United States, nearly 1.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide would be sequestered per year, mitigating close to one quarter of the country’s total fossil fuel emissions. This is the emissions-cutting equivalent of taking one car off the road for every two acres under organic management (assuming the U.S. EPA standards for vehicle mileage).
In addition, soils rich in carbon conserve water and support healthier plants that are more resistant to drought stress, pests, and diseases. Our studies of organic systems have shown an increase of almost 30 percent in soil carbon over 27 years. The petroleum-based system showed no significant increases in soil carbon in the same time period and studies have shown that they in fact may lose carbon.
The current environmental emergency requires a major paradigm shift in the way we farm and the way we eat. Wide-scale implementation of established, scientifically researched and practical farming methods can change agriculture from a global warming contributor to a global warming inhibitor, from a problem to a solution. Consumers may be ahead of the market in this case. Demand for organic, no-pesticide, and hormone-free products in the United States has increased 20 percent or more each year for the past 14 years. Yet there has only been a 3 percent increase in acres dedicated to organic practices.
Compared to expensive, experimental, high-tech projects, global transition to biologically based farming can be achieved without new technology or expensive investment. With a problem so dire, a need so urgent, and a solution so available, the path to responsible terrestrial stewardship is clear. And because regenerative organic agricultural practices are scalable globally, it’s a solution that can be adapted all over the world.
Image credit::excerpt from photo of organic plot, Organic Farming at Longhaul Farm