“Organic farming approaches…not only use an average of 30% less fossil energy but also conserve more water in the soil, induce less erosion, maintain soil quality and conserve more biological resources than conventional farming does.” - David Pimentel, Ph.D., Professor of Ecology and Agriculture, Cornell University, and author of Food, Energy and Society.
Growing food requires a lot of fossil fuel energy, which generates greenhouse gases (GHGs). With nearly 7 billion people on the planet, agriculture and livestock production also are responsible for widespread clearing of forests, grasslands and prairies. These are major contributors to global warming. However, researchers point to organic farming as a way to reduce energy inputs, help minimize agriculture’s impact on global warming, and also help farmers adapt to rising global temperatures.
Conventional Agriculture Adds Heat
The global food system is estimated to account for one-third of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, says Anna Lappe, author of Diet for a Hot Planet. Much of the fossil fuel used in commercial agriculture comes not only from running tractors and machinery, but also because petroleum is a primary ingredient in synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, which are widely used in conventional agriculture. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is known to release large amounts of nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, a potent GHG and a primary threat to earth’s ozone layer. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer also is responsible for the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, an oxygen-depleted area the size of New Jersey in which no fish can survive.
Organic Farming A Cool Solution
Simply stated, organic farming has the potential to help reduce agriculture’s impact on global warming. According to Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University, author of Food, Energy and Society, organic agriculture has been shown to reduce energy inputs by 30%. Organic farming also conserves more water in the soil and reduces erosion. Also, healthy organic soils tie up carbon in the soil, helping to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere.
Changes in temperature caused by global warming could have dramatic effects on agriculture. Extreme weather, rising temperatures, drought and flood caused by global warming all could have an adverse impact on yield, disease and insect pests. Organic farmers may be better able to adapt to climate change in that healthy organic soils retain moisture better during drought, making it more available to plant roots. Also, organic soils percolate water better during floods, helping to decrease runoff and soil erosion. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition recently reported, “Sustainable and organic agricultural systems offer the most resilience for agricultural production in the face of the extreme precipitation, prolonged droughts and increasingly uncertain regional climate regimes expected with rapid global warming.”
- Environmental, Energetic and Economic Comparisons of Organic and Conventional Farming Systems, Pimentel, D., et. al., Bioscience (Vol. 55:7), July 2005.
- Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of your Fork and What You Can Do About It, Anna Lappé, Bloomsbury USA, April 2010.
- Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food, Bryan Walsh, Time Magazine, Aug. 31, 2009.
- Climate Change in Africa: The Threat to Agriculture, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Oct. 15, 2006.
- Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 2006.
- A Harvest of Heat: Agribusiness and Climate Change, Agribusiness Action Initiatives North America’s Working Group on Climate Change, 2010; www.agribusinessaction.org.
- Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Thirteen Years, Benbrook, C., et. al., The Organic Center, November 2009.
- Reducing Energy Inputs in the U. S. Food System, Pimentel, D., Human Ecology, 2008.
- Nitrous Oxide (N2O): The Dominant Ozone-Depleting Substance Emitted in the 21st Century, A. R. Ravishankara, et. al., National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Science, August 28, 2009.
- Rodale Institute, 30-year Ongoing Field Trials, Emmaus, PA, www.rodaleinstitute.org.
- Organic Agriculture and Climate Change in Developing Countries - Research conducted by Costa Rican Corporation for Training and Development, Garibay, S., et. al., presented at BioFach Congress, Nuremberg, Germany, 2008.
- Organic Agriculture and the Global Food Supply, Ivette Perfecto, et. al., University of Michigan, Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, July 2007.
- Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and United Nations Environment Programme, Capacity Building Task Force on Trade, Environment and Development, October 2008.
- Agriculture & Climate Change: Impacts and Opportunities at the Farm Level, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition Policy Position Paper, July 16, 2009.