The food system is in an interesting predicament—it's a significant contributor to one of its own biggest threats—climate change. But fortunately, just as poor land-management practices are contributors to climate change, use of good on-farm practices can actually lead to climate change mitigation, says Tracy Misiewicz, the associate director of science programs for The Organic Center.
Misiewicz leads The Organic Center’s creation of reports, compiling current science on critical issues affecting organic food and farming. In this Q&A, she explains some of the research behind the impacts of different agricultural practices, and organic's climate-friendly tenets.
In what ways is climate change manifesting itself in our food system?
Tracy Misiewicz: According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, food production accounts for almost 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. With the Earth’s population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, we can only anticipate that demands on food production will increase.
Agricultural activities responsible for greenhouse gas emissions include the use of nitrogen fertilizer, synthetic herbicides and insecticides, fossil fuel consumption associated with farm equipment, and the transportation of materials and products to and from the farm. The manufacture of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides also constitutes a major source of energy use in conventional agriculture. For instance, the manufacture and utilization of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers comprise as much as 10 percent of direct global agricultural emissions—that’s a 37 percent increase since 2001.
It is ironic that our food system is such a large contributor to climate change—the very thing that is threatening to destroy our food security. A couple of years back, a farmer showed me pictures of his farm that was devastated by a violent storm. These severe weather events—storms, droughts, and flooding rains—are only expected to increase as the climate continues to change. Fortunately, just as poor land-management practices in agriculture are contributors to climate change, implementation of good on-farm practices can actually lead to climate change mitigation, and organic agriculture is well positioned to be part of the solution.
How much science out there is related to organic farming as a solution for climate change?
TM: Short answer: Lots! Organic farmers do not rely on fossil-fuel intensive synthetic inputs to manage pests or increase soil fertility. Studies show that diverse crop rotation strategies and soil-building practices required by USDA’s National Organic Program reduce overall emissions per land area farmed, while simultaneously sequestering carbon in the soil. Every carbon molecule that is stored in the soil is one that is not contributing to climate change in our atmosphere.
Data collected and published by USDA scientists from long-term agricultural research stations in Iowa and Maryland found that organic cropping systems sequestered significantly more carbon in the soil than comparable conventional cropping systems. Another analysis published by European researchers examined data from over 70 different studies to determine how transitioning from conventional farming to organic farming affected soil organic carbon. They found that agricultural soils under organic management stored a lot more carbon compared to those under conventional management, confirming the potential of organic agriculture to contribute to climate change mitigation through carbon sequestration.
Additionally, studies that compare energy efficiency of organic farms to conventional farms continue to find that organic farms are more energy efficient.
Are there certain areas where more research is really needed?
TM: One of the top areas where I see a real research need is developing scientifically supported agronomic practices to improve the sustainability of our agricultural system while simultaneously providing benefit to farmers—hence creating incentive for the agricultural industry to implement environmentally friendly practices. For example, some research suggests that organic practices that build soil health also make crops more resilient to climate change by increasing the ability of soils to retain water in drought conditions and improving the structure of the soil to make it more resistant to erosion during heavy rains. I think that as the reality of climate change sets in, more farmers are going to start looking for new solutions. If science demonstrates that the best on-farm practices to protect crop yields during severe weather events are the same best practices that mitigate climate change and build soil health, everyone wins.
Another area needing more research is the development of crop varieties that are adapted to organic production systems and extreme weather such as heat or drought. Nearly all crop varieties planted in the U.S. are developed for high-input agricultural systems that maximize yield above all else. As a result, most organic growers only have access to crop varieties not developed for organic systems, let alone a changing climate. Increased research into climate-resilient varieties that are adapted to organic management systems is imperative for increasing and maintaining yields needed to meet the growing demand for organic products (let alone the food demands of a growing population).