Summary: In addition to cutting fossil fuel use and decreasing climate-destabilizing greenhouse gases, a shift to organic farming and ranching dramatically increases the amount of carbon sequestered in the soil, enabling organic farms and ranches to maintain high production even during periods of drought or heavy rain.
IPCC projections and models used to discuss climate change in the future tense: something we could head off. No more. As we’ve noticed, climate change discussions have switched tenses — glaciers will melt has become glaciers are melting. Agriculture will be stressed has become agriculture is stressed.
There’s a corollary. Talk of climate change prevention has become talk of mitigation and adaptation.
For cities, that means flood walls. For farms, it means a transition to agro-ecological farming methods, ways of farming that harmonize with natural processes rather than relying on external, artificial-or-chemical inputs, or genetic engineering, to increase yields.
That transition will have many benefits.
The first is that it will actually prevent climate change. Organic farming — one way of carrying out agro-ecological farming — has been shown to increase carbon sequestration in soil relative to non-organic methods. Furthermore, extensive research, most recently by agronomist David Pimentel of Cornell, has shown that transitioning to organic and local farming could cut energy inputs into the U.S. food system by 50 percent.
"United States agriculture is driven almost entirely by these non-renewable energy sources. Each person in the country on a per capita consumption basis requires approximately 2,000 liters per year in oil equivalents to supply his/her total food, which accounts for about 19 percent of the total national energy use," Pimentel said.
In addition to cutting fossil fuel use and decreasing carbon emissions, a shift to organic farming and the resultant increases in carbon sequestration will make agriculture more resilient and more resistant to onrushing anthropogenic climate change.
Resistance and resilience are technical terms: as ecologist Alison Power observes, resistance is a system’s ability to not be affected by a “perturbation,” such as a sudden drought or hurricane. Resilience is the measure of the agricultural system’s ability to respond to a “perturbation” that does affect it—in other words, how quickly it returns to its former level of functioning, or how close to its former level of functioning it can get to.
There is strong evidence that organic-farming systems, which are usually a mix of diverse-plant communities—the furthest thing from the plains of monocultures that are the mainstay of American agriculture—are both more resistant and more resilient than other types of planting systems.
For example, a study carried out in Central America after Hurricane Mitch hit in 1998 showed that hillside farms, where many poor farmers are forced to work the land, that used practices such as agro-forestry, inter-cropping, or the planting of cover crops like the “velvet bean,” were far less damaged than those that did not.
The study covered over 300 communities and 24 regions in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala, and showed that well-diversified plots had less soil erosion, more topsoil, greater moisture levels in the soil, and lower economic losses, by percentages of 20 to 40 percent, than their conventionally-farming neighbors.
Similarly, a survey of organic-agricultural programs in East Africa showed that organic agricultural systems reduced soil erosion, increased soil-moisture retention, and enabled better flood-control, lengthening the growing season and increasing resilience to natural fluctuations in the temperature—fluctuations that will increase in magnitude as climate change accelerates.
More generally, agro-ecology’s reliance on diverse crops, liberally inter-mixed with one another, prevents pest and pathogen infestations from reaching critically destructive masses—pest infestations and pathogen outbreaks are projected to worsen with climate-change, and such occurrences are more intense in monoculture plots.
Drought is also less likely to desiccate a farm with increased soil quality and increased moisture retention, relative to a conventional farm. Such droughts are another “event” likely to increase in frequency and severity as climate change worsens.
There’s another benefit to switching to agro-ecology, but the benefit is more systemic: under pretty conservative assumptions, switching from conventional agriculture to organic agriculture in developing countries boosts productivity massively. That doesn’t help a lone farmer whose crop is destroyed by a localized disaster, but it does enable his country to provide him with the resources needed to re-build and re-plant his farm, and feed himself while doing so.
This brings up the last point. As Holt-Gimenez and development expert Raj Patel observe in Food Rebellions:
"It is important to realize that the vulnerability of people to climate disasters is socially produced: that is, pushing the world’s farmers to precarious farming conditions is the result of decisions taken in the market, in government, and in the global institutions. … We can decide to build resilience, equity, and sustainability into our agricultural systems."
That is, resilience and resistance are “socially produced” too: If the market pushes farmers to precarious farming locations, and climate change from human activity makes their existence yet more precarious, human political institutions can help them transition to agro-ecological farming, through loans, capital grants, or technical assistance.
If farmers from the under-developed world can do it, why not here?