The earth's atmosphere is polluted with 390 ppm of CO2, well past the dangerous tipping point of 350 ppm.
If the world's 12 billion acres of farms and rangelands were transitioned to organic, we could pull 50 ppm of that carbon down from the atmosphere and store it safely in the soil.
The Earth's living soils hold three times as much carbon as the atmosphere. Before industrial agriculture and deforestation, these same soils stored twice as much carbon organic matter - six times the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere today.
Using organic farming and ranching to put CO2 back where it belongs in the soil could mitigate greenhouse gas emissions at a rate of 6 billion tons of carbon per year.
Here's how it's done:
Compost, Not Chemicals
Synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides, produced through the use of fossil fuels, destroy soil life and leach organic matter from the soil, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In contrast, organic agriculture - it's called "organic" because it increases soil organic matter - uses natural fertilizers (compost, manure, cover crops, crop rotations, and intercropping) to improve soil health and clean greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
Forage, Not Factory Farms
When animals are packed into factory farms, their waste piles up and releases the potent, fast-acting greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide, but when animals are raised outdoors on enough pasture and rangeland to absorb their waste, they don't pollute. In fact, animals are essential to restoring and managing grasslands, which, with their deep-rooted perennials, are powerful carbon sinks. Animals that forage on pasture instead of standing in feedlots eating grain also produce safer, healthier and more nutritious food.
Zero Waste, Zero Emissions
Composting food, garden and paper waste reduces the amount of organic matter in landfills and cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 260 kg CO2-equivalent per ton of municipal solid waste. In addition to cutting emissions associated with rotting garbage, o climate change, but it is also a matter of survival for the world's small farmers. Organic methods are low-cost, low-tech, and rely on local, indigenous knowledge and skill sets, making organic farming and ranching the preferential option for the world's poor farmers and farm workers.
Organic farming and ranching are not only more cost-effective, they are more productive. Increasing soil organic matter to improve carbon sequestration simultaneously improves soil fertility and increases food production. It also helps farmers adapt to climate change. Soil that is rich with composted organic matter or anchored with the deep roots of perennials foraged by grazing animals is resilient. It isn't going to wash away as quickly in a flood and isn't going to dry up as fast in a drought. When soils are restored, so are streams, lakebeds, and groundwater.
The world's family farmers and farm workers who are on the front lines of climate change have also been leading the struggles for food security, land rights, and access to water, and against deforestation, genetically engineered crops, dangerous pesticides and expensive seeds and fertilizers. They can lead the effort to turn back climate change, too, but they need the multinational corporations and corrupt governments to stop extracting their natural resources and start paying them back for the damage done to their soil, water and ecosystems.
Organic advocates in the U.S. can get involved by learning from and acting in solidarity with the world's family farmers and farm workers. To that end, the Organic Consumers Association has been working with our Mexican sister organization, Via Organica, "the Organic Way" to organize farmers to share organic farming, ranching and permaculture techniques for conserving water, fuel and soil fertility. Via Organica helps create local and regional markets for farmers as alternatives to the export markets that tend to extract needed resources, including water and soil. Sharing organic methods and creating local markets should ultimately conserve human resources, as well. Via Organica hopes to help foster conditions that make it possible for young people to stay in, and contribute to, their communities rather than leaving rural areas and moving to cities or out of the country.
Organic advocates can act in solidarity with the world's farmers and farm workers to turn back climate change. Here's how:
- Become a small farmer yourself.
- Buy organic produce direct from local farmers.
- Increase the amount of food you can source locally by drying, canning and freezing seasonal produce.
- Restrict grocery store purchases to organic and fair trade certified products, and work to improve organic and fair trade standards.
- Help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and put carbon back in the soil where it belongs by composting all household organic waste, including food scraps and yard waste, and using composting toilets.
- Support laws that keep green waste out of landfills and toilet waste out of the sewer system.
- Avoid industrially produced food, especially animal products and processed foods that contain the intensively farmed commodities corn, soy, cotton, and canola.
- Support the struggles of family farmers and farm workers at home and abroad, including workers who are exploited because of their immigration status.
- Press local, state, federal and international policy makers to honor the contributions family farmers and farm workers make to food security and climate stabilization.
- Work for government policies that empower family farmers and farm workers to save the soil, including public land management rules that encourage the use of restorative grazing techniques and farm subsidies that reward farmers for carbon sequestration.
- Support efforts to inform and engage consumers in the food-climate connection by urging local, state and federal officials to enact truth-in-labeling laws that expose greenhouse gas polluting industrial agriculture practices, energy-intensive food transportation and storage, and the exploitation of farmers and farm workers.
The information in this article was gathered in part from a panel on food, agriculture and climate change held at the Espacio Mexicano de Diálogo Climático http://www.dialogoclimatico.org/ on December 5, 2010. Here is a list of speakers and their organizations:
Jim Harkness, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
Henry Saragih, Via Campesina,
Victor Suarez, Consejo Nacional de Organizaciones Campesinas (CONOC)
Ma. Estrella Penunia Banzuela, Association of Small Asian Farmers for Rural Sustainable Development
Tetet Nera-Lauron, Peoples Movement on Climate Change/IBON, Filipinas
Sinforiano Caceres, FENACOOP, Nicaragua
Sharmila Karki, Womens Organization for Peace, Nepal
Elisangela Dos Santos Araujo, FETRAF/GT Agricultura REBRIP, Brasil