A new report from consultants PwC, shows that for the first time in a decade
global emissions are increasing faster than economic growth. This is astounding, and of course hugely depressing. For a quick read take a look at Damian Carrington’s Environmental Blog in today’s Guardian (UK). Carry on here for further discussion of the role organic agriculture plays in an age of climate change.
Why agriculture? According to the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) agriculture is currently the most cost-effective, market-ready way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
What are the expert’s sayings? The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) say that 10 – 12 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases (GHG) are attributed to agriculture. The IPCCs fourth assessment report recommends the use of practices which are already standard in organic agriculture for mitigating climate change. Further, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) regards organic agriculture as an effective strategy for mitigating climate change and building robust soils that are better adapted to extreme weather conditions associated with climate change. The Swiss development organisation Helvetas Intercooperation has explored the data available for both conventional and organic cotton production and compared the CO2e for each stage of cotton production. Results indicated that organic cotton production has a significantly lower impact; generating approximately 0.3 kg CO2 Eq. / kg lint compared to 5.3 kg CO2 Eq. / kg lint for conventionally grown cotton. Saving are a result of no agrichemical application, carbon sequestration by the soil (not so much the fiber), and less available nitrous oxide / urea.
How does organic agriculture help ‘mitigate’ climate change? Carbon mitigation and sequestration are terms used to describe measures for reducing concentrations of greenhouse gases, either by reducing their sources or by increasing the sinks which take them out of the atmosphere. Agronomists say that arable soils naturally have a major potential for sequestering carbon dioxide (CO2). However, the use of industrial fertilizers and chemical pesticides has led to a loss of vital soil organic matter over the years. According to the IFOAM, organic farming offers a number of solutions to climate protection. By promoting soil organic matter, atmospheric CO2 can be sequestered and thus organic farming can contribute to achieving climate objectives. Scientists at the Rodale Institute in the USA say that “Organic agriculture sequesters carbon dioxide quickly and affordably, while conventional agriculture produces greater emissions”.
How does soil carbon sequestration work? Organic farming strives to build humus in the soil in order to improve soil fertility. Humus formation increases soil stability and water retention capacity and thus reduces the soil’s susceptibility to erosion. Humus provides more favourable conditions for soil organisms and stimulates soil biota (living organisms). An increased humus content also leads to increased sequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the soil.
Adapting to climate change: Nowhere, is adaptation more important than in the marginal zones of developing countries, where much of the agriculture is dependent on rainfall: the right amount at the right time. These days, farmers are finding rainy seasons are changing, and extreme weather events such as droughts and floods are getting worse. The soil sequestration qualities of humus described above also increases the adaptability of agricultural systems to a changing climate. This is due to the more resilient nature of the soils, the diversity of crops in the system, and the ability of organic agriculture to better withstand extreme climatic fluctuations. Further, in terms of food security, the Rodale Institute found that after the initial three year transition period, the organic systems in their Farming Systems Trial achieved yields comparable to the conventional systems. Organic yields have been 28- 34% higher than conventional yields in especially dry and wet years. In developing countries, organic agricultural systems achieve equal or even higher yields, as compared to the current conventional practices, which translate into a potentially important option for food security and sustainable livelihoods for the rural poor in times of climate change. More work is required in progressing work on adaptation to climate change. Not necessarily in ‘proving’ the benefits of organic agriculture as an adaptation measure (particularly in developing countries) but more in assisting the knowledge exchange between farmers, extension providers, and policy makers, and implementing practical action.
Who’s doing what?
bioRe Association Climate Neutral Project: bioRe’s vision is to manufacture CO2-neutral and fashionable textiles from fair-trade organic cotton in a controlled and transparent chain of production. Target is to be CO2 neutral by 2013. The first step is to minimize CO2 emissions across the entire textile chain by optimizing the process and perhaps using alternative carriers of energy. The remaining CO2 emissions will be offset through the building of biogas plants and efficient cooking stoves for farming communities.
Chetna Organic: Integrated farming systems: To help insulate the fragile rain fed cotton based farming systems, and their thousands of farmers, from climate change, Chetna Organic has adopted a combination of best practices based on: diversification of seeds and cropping systems, and comprehensive management of natural resources based on the principles of watershed management. It's well accepted that organic agriculture, based on innovation, knowledge-intensity, and low-inputs, plays a lead role in sustainable agriculture. It's also likely that 'climate-proofing' will be added to that role, especially for rural communities in developing countries. In an age of climate change our role is to make our cotton choice organic.