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Can Organic Farming Counteract Carbon Emissions?

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Environment and Climate Resource Center page and our Organic Transitions page.

Organic practices could counteract the world's yearly carbon dioxide output while producing the same amount of food as conventional farming, a new study suggests.

The white paper by the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for the use of organic practices, says that using "regenerative organic agriculture," such as low or no-tillage, cover crops and crop rotation, will keep photosynthesized carbon dioxide in the soil instead of returning it to the atmosphere.

Citing 75 studies from peer-reviewed journals, including its own 33-year Farm Systems Trial, Rodale Institute concluded that if all cropland were converted to the regenerative model it would sequester 40% of annual CO2 emissions; changing global pastures to that model would add another 71%, effectively overcompensating for the world's yearly carbon dioxide emissions.

Michel Cavigelli, a research soil scientist at the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, which has a slightly different 19-year side-by side study, says his research also shows that organic soil has higher carbon content than conventional but warns that the devil is in the details. For example, the USDA study tills the organic plot and that might cause the manure's carbon to stay deeper in the soil.

But the question organic farming always comes back to is whether farming without synthetic  pesticides and genetically modified organisms is really a viable way to feed the planet. Rodale Institute believes it can do that and better.