There's a Homegrown Way to Address Climate Change

Seattle Tilth has a lot of things to celebrate this year. Thirty years of nurturing the region's communities and environment through organic gardening is certainly one. The organization can also celebrate its place in the ranks of climate change heroes.

Now, you might ask, what does Seattle Tilth's work promoting organic gardening and local foods have to do with global warming?

After all, when most of us think about food and farming, we tend not to think of climate change. Mention global warming and most conjure up images of industrial smokestacks or oil-thirsty planes, trains and automobiles.

Asked to name climate-change bad guys, most would tag Shell and ExxonMobile before Sara Lee or General Mills.

That the food industry has avoided the hot seat is no surprise when you consider the mainstream media's lack of coverage of the food system's role in the crisis. Even major environmental NGOs and films such as "An Inconvenient Truth" have mostly ignored the connection.

We've been missing a huge part of the story.

The global industrial food system -- from how we grow crops to the way we raise livestock and what we do with the waste -- accounts for at least 33 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, according to analysis of data from the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. The livestock sector alone is responsible for nearly one-fifth of the world's total emissions -- more than the entire transportation sector.

Industrial farming is particularly problematic because it is a key emitter of methane and nitrous oxide, which have, respectively, 23 and 296 times the global warming effect of carbon dioxide. In the United States, widespread use of nitrogen fertilizer, roughly half of which is wasted in leaching and runoff, contributes to approximately three-quarters of the country's nitrous oxide emissions. Globally, agriculture is responsible for nearly two-thirds of methane emissions.

With climate scientists warning we need an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to avert planetary catastrophe, it's clear we need bold action -- and that bold action must include re-thinking food.

Here's the good news: We already know how to build a climate-friendly food system. Indeed, organizations such as Seattle Tilth have been showing the way going on three decades. We now have long-term evidence of the wisdom of their work.

Research is showing that organic farms can decrease emissions by eliminating fossil-fuel based agricultural chemicals, for instance, and working with nature to foster soil fertility, promote animal health and handle pests and weeds. Organic farms can also be effective "carbon sinks," removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and fixing it in soil.

In addition, sustainability initiatives, such as composting, can lower emissions by decreasing food waste that ends up in landfills. Promoting local foods and edible gardens also lower emissions by decreasing the distance from field to plate.

Despite what we know about a sustainable food system's role in addressing climate change, nearly 100 percent of our nation's cropland is devoted to industrial agriculture. And while we know climate-friendly farming will require more farmers, we hemorrhage family farms every year. We now have more prisoners behind bars than farmers in the fields.

An organization such as Seattle Tilth may seem like a tiny drop in the climate-change bucket, but its impact should not be measured in isolation. Dozens of sister efforts are flourishing -- from Austin, Texas, to Ypsilanti, Mich. -- encouraging people to reconnect with their food and giving people the opportunity to get their hands in the dirt.