Having recently returned from a meeting of the Roundtable on Organic Agriculture and Climate Change (RTOACC) led by Andreas Gattinger (FiBL) and then discovering that the New Scientist has just released a special report on the definite effects of climate change it is clear that we know a whole lot more about both. Organic agriculture has a significant role to play in an ‘age of climate change’.
Too often we present organic cotton as cotton grown without the use of synthetic fertilisers or pesticides. Whilst, this is indeed true, it provides us with very little insight into how organic agriculture actually works. I thought I would start this first blog with a reminder about what organic agriculture adds; rather than what it takes away.
Organic agriculture has been around a long time. However the term ‘organic’ was first used in the 1940s and refers not to the type of inputs used (or not used) but to the concept of the farm as an organism (or system) in which all the component parts – the soil minerals, organic matter, microorganisms, insects, plants, animals and humans – interact to create a coherent and stable whole. Central to this concept is the closing of nutrient cycles and the preference for local resources.
Padel and Lampkin of the Organic Research Centre in Berkshire, UK, point out that over the years significant environmental ‘events’ associated with conventional agriculture; such as soil conservation and the dustbowls in the 1930s (Howard 1940, Balfour, 1944), to pesticides following Silent Spring (Carson, 1962), and energy following the 1773 oil crisis (Lockeretz, 1977) have resulted in a deeper understanding of the impacts of unsustainable agricultural practices.
The overuse or miss-use of pesticides, fossil fuels, and soil degradation are still major agricultural concerns the world over, but these days we have added climate change, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, food insecurity, and animal welfare to the list.
Of course, it’s not just the agricultural sector that needs to address climate change or the myriad of ‘sustainability’ issues facing food and fibre agriculture. Nor is it solely a farmer’s responsibility, far from it. But the way we produce our food and fibre, and how the corporate sector along with civil society plays a critical role in supporting sound agricultural practices, which are farmer-centric, is a good starting place.
Take Climate Change for instance. When, James Lovelock described the earth as ‘Gaia’: a living organism, he helped us understand the interconnectedness of life on Earth, and how this interaction regulated the planet making life possible. We now see this balance disrupted by the increase in anthropogenic CO2 levels resulting in climate change. Yet, it’s not simply the rise in temperatures we have to worry about, it’s the ‘positive feedback loop’ created by one component of the system being out of balance and causing a range of changes such as rising sea levels, melting glaciers, changing weather patterns, and so on. It is also apparent, if you read the latest New Scientist article, that there will be impacts we still do not fully understand.
According to the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) agriculture currently accounts for 10-12 percent of global greenhouse emissions (with soil emissions accounting for 38 percent of all direct agricultural GHG emissions) and this figure is expected to rise further. The Food and Agricultural 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.
Over the next few weeks, the Farm Blog will be providing a brief snapshot of the latest views and research on the role organic agriculture, particularly organic cotton agricultural systems, has to play in addressing modern day sustainability concerns. More than ever before, it’s important to think about what organic agriculture offers in terms of a systemic approach to producing food and fibre, which sustains life within the boundaries of nature, and not simply as a way of farming without the use of pesticides.
Next week: How does organic agriculture deal with carbon, and just as importantly provide techniques to help farmers’ adapt to a changing climate.
The above blog has been inspired by and information drawn from:
• Introduction to the Concepts and Principles of Organic Farming. Organic Food and Farming: A system approach to meet the sustainability challenge. 2010. IFOAM EU Group. See: Padel, S. and Nicolas, H, 2010. Introduction to the Concepts and Principles of Organic Farming. Pgs: 6-7.
• The Contribution of Organic Agriculture to Climate Change Mitigation, 2009. IFOAM EU Group
• New Scientist, 22 October 2011. Special Report: Climate change. What we know... and what we don’t.
To find out more about the Round Table on Organic Agriculture and Climate Change go to: http://www.organicandclimate.org/