Organic vs. ‘Climate-Smart': Can The UN Fix Farming in Time?

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Civil Eats

Organic vs. ‘Climate-Smart': Can The UN Fix Farming in Time?

(Photo: Johan Larson / via Civil Eats)

From the United Nations Climate Summit to the People’s Climate March and the accompanying Flood Wall Street action, all eyes have been on the climate this week.

Amidst heated discussions of global policy change, greenhouse gases, and emissions caps, food and farming–and the impact they are having on our changing climate—were also in the spotlight. After all, agriculture is one of largest contributors of human-caused emissions.

Organic farming research and advocacy organization, The Rodale Institute, was at the head of the line, presenting research on what they call “regenerative organic agriculture” (ROA). According to the group’s white paper on the topic, “these practices work to maximize carbon fixation while minimizing the loss of that carbon once returned to the soil, reversing the greenhouse effect.

At a New York press conference on Monday, Rodale’s scientists advocated for the use of ROA in reversing the effects of climate change.

“While we strive over time to wean ourselves off of fossil fuel and decarbonize the world’s economy, let us immediately and confidently reverse climate change now through the available technology of regenerative organic agriculture,” offered Tom Newmark, co-founder and chair of The Carbon Underground, and a close collaborator with the Rodale Institute.

According to Rodale, the hope is to alter the course of climate change conversations–to convince global leaders to stop talking about reducing emissions and mitigating impact and to start talking about restoring the earth’s carbon balance to its preindustrial state—via healthy soil and organic farming.

Soil is the second largest carbon sink in our environment after the oceans. In contrast to oceans, which acidify as they absorb excess carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, soil can store carbon and nourish carbon-based plants. For years, Rodale–and a whole array of scientists other sustainably minded folks–have been proposing that farmers adopt growing methods that leverage the soil’s capacity to absorb carbon. By doing so, Rodale says that we could sequester over 100 percent of the human-produced CO2 emissions in the atmosphere.

Rodale defines ROA as agriculture that “improves the resources it uses, rather than destroying or depleting them,” using methods that include composting, cover crops, crop rotation, and conservation tillage. Regenerative agriculture stands in stark contrast to conventional practices, of which soil degradation and chemical runoff are just two of many negative environmental impacts.

To critics who say organic growing methods result in lower crop output, Rodale’s 30-year Farming Systems Trial proves otherwise. Their test crops prove equally as productive under regenerative organic practices as under conventional ones. And the regenerative system is more durable in the face of drought, flood, and other extreme weather events than the conventional system.

Rodale’s findings come at a time when experts are eager for climate solutions in agriculture. One ongoing project is the UN’s Global Alliance for “Climate-Smart Agriculture” (CSA). The alliance for CSA–made up of 16 countries and 37 organizations was launched to “enable 500 million farmers worldwide to practice climate-smart agriculture by 2030”–held its first meeting on Wednesday.

CSA is a set of growing methods that sound similar to Rodale’s on the surface; they include various soil and crop strategies to enhance carbon sequestration. However, CSA does not commit to agroecological growing methods or discourage use of genetically engineered (or GMO) seeds, synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

Although a full list of the member groups and companies isn’t currently available online, some critics point to the fact that the alliance includes corporate entities such as McDonald’s and Kellogg’s.

Many farmers and activists, including smallholder and peasant advocacy group La Via Campesina and scientist Vandana Shiva, are critical of CSA. In a recent press release, La Via Campesina wrote:

We denounce climate smart agriculture which is presented to us as a solution to climate change and as a mechanism for sustainable development. For us, it is clear that underneath its pretense of addressing the persistent poverty in the countryside and climate change, there is nothing new. Rather, this is a continuation of a project first begun with the Green Revolution in the early 1940’s and continued through the 70’s and 80’s by the World Bank’s Poverty Reduction projects and the corporate interests involved … The result of these projects, dictated by industrial capital’s need for expansion, was the coopting of traditional agricultural producers and production and their insertion into the present industrial agriculture and food regime.

The group worries that the program’s emphasis on increased agricultural production pressures farmers towards commodity crops and chemical-intensive growing practices.

In addition, Rodale’s research suggests that regenerative growing methods could result in around 40 percent carbon sequestration in crops and another 70 percent in pasture and rangeland, for an estimated total of 111 percent–or enough to regenerate, rather than simply mitigate the effects of climate change over time.

“We’re not just talking about 111 percent carbon reduction,” said Shiva. “We’re talking about sowing the seeds of freedom and democracy.” Shiva and others see ROA as a path towards greater farmer empowerment, both domestically and abroad.

In addition to delivering their message to the UN Climate Summit on Tuesday, Rodale and its partners were also thinking about how to distill and disseminate their findings to farmers worldwide. “All we need is knowledge, education, and training,” said Andre Leu, President of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. “For the cost of developing a new genetically-modified crop,” he added, “We could save the planet by teaching people to grow organic.”

Shiva echoed his confidence. “Of course this is the 100 percent solution to the climate problem, but it’s also the solution to the hunger problem, the poverty problem, and the malnutrition problem.”

Ultimately, Rodale is proposing an agricultural future that is as much based on environmental stewardship as it is productivity and profit. Whether or not their message will be heard by the policymakers at the UN, their message is still rooted in making change one person and one farmer at a time.

Dena Hoff, the North America coordinator for La Via Campesina summed it up succinctly: “If I try to spread the word on this issue, and you try, and we get everyone in the world that we know to try, that is how we will win.”

Leah Douglas

Leah Douglas is a New York-based writer, whose work has appeared in Serious Eats and on Smothsonian's Food and Think blog, among others.

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