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Organic Agriculture Can Help Stabilize Global Climate Change

>From the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements

International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements
The Role of Organic Agriculture in Mitigating Climate Change

There is dramatic evidence that various Greenhouse Gases are responsible for
Global Warming and climate change. It is also clear that the most important
solution to Global Warming is the dramatic reduction of fossil fuel use, and
that other strategies shall not be an excuse to continue with business as
usual. A study commissioned by IFOAM discusses the potential of Organic
Agriculture both to avoid and to sequester Greenhouse Gases (GHG), and makes
comparisons with conventional agriculture.1 The second part describes how
Organic Agriculture can be considered within the implementation mechanisms
of the Kyoto Protocol. The study shows that organic agriculture can play a
role both for reducing GHG emissions and to sequester carbon.

The role of agriculture in climate change

Agriculture is a major contributor to emissions of methane (CH4), nitrous
oxide (N2O), and carbon dioxide (CO2). On a global scale, agricultural land
use in the 1990s has been responsible for approximately 15% of all GHG

One third of all carbon dioxide emissions come from changes in land use
(forest clearing, shifting cultivation and intensification of agriculture).
Approximately two thirds of methane and most of nitrous oxide emissions
originate from agriculture.

At the same time, agriculture offers options to reduce GHG significantly.
One is to reduce emissions and, thereby, to minimise the production of
atmospheric CO2, CH4 and N2O. Agriculture shares this emission reduction
potential with industry and other sectors. The second option consists in
systematically sequestering carbon dioxide in soils and in plant biomass. It
is unique for all types of land use.

However, the potential contribution of the land use sector for climate
protection is limited. Although sinks in vegetation and soils have a high
potential to mitigate increases of CO2 in the atmosphere, they are not
sufficient to compensate for heavy inputs from fossil fuel burning.
1 Kotschi J & Müller-Sämann K (2004): The Role of Organic Agriculture in
Mitigating Climate Change. IFOAM. Bonn. 64 pp. downloadable from

The long-term solution lies in a reduction of the use of fossil fuel
(developing alternatives to fossil fuel, reduce energy consumption etc.).
Yet the contribution from the land use sector could buy time during which
alternatives to fossil fuel can take affect. But mainstream agriculture is
moving in an opposite direction; increasing releases of GHG from the green
sector have made agriculture a producer of global warming rather than a
mitigating factor.

The emission reduction potential of Organic Agriculture

Organic Agriculture can significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions. As a
viable alternative to shifting cultivation, it offers permanent cropping
systems with sustained productivity. For intensive agricultural systems, it
uses significantly less fossil fuel in comparison to conventional
agriculture. This is mainly due to the following factors,

! Soil fertility is maintained mainly through farm internal inputs (organic
manures, legume production, wide crop rotations etc.),
! Energy-demanding synthetic fertilizers and plant protection agents are
rejected, and,
! External animal feeds - often with thousands of transportation miles - are
limited to a low level.

As a consequence, the organic variants have in most cases a more favourable
energy balance. Nevertheless there are reasons for organic farmers to do
more to further reduce their dependency on fossil fuel and there are reasons
to pay attention to the energy use on the food distribution system.
In avoiding methane, Organic Agriculture has an important though not always
superior impact on reduction. Through the promotion of aerobic
microorganisms and high biological activity in soils, the oxidation of
methane can be increased. Secondly, changes in ruminant diet can reduce
methane production considerably. However, technology research on methane
reduction in paddy fields ­ an important source of methane production - is
still in its infancy.

Nitrous oxides are mainly due to overdoses and losses on nitrogen. These are
effectively minimized in Organic Agriculture because:

! No synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is used, which clearly limits the total
nitrogen amount and reduces emissions caused during the energy demanding
process of fertilizer synthesis.
! Agricultural production in tight nutrient cycles aims to minimize losses;
! Animal stocking rates are limited. These are linked to the available land
area and thus excessive production and application of animal manure is
! Dairy diets are lower in protein and higher in fibre, resulting in lower
emission values.

Using biomass as a substitute for fossil fuel represents another emission
reduction option. Organic Agriculture is well positioned in this sector. It
has the advantage that inorganic N-fertilizers are not applied, an input
which causes significant emissions of N2O and use a lot of energy and partly
offsets CO2 savings.

The sequestration potential of Organic Agriculture

Organic Agriculture has a particular sequestration potential as it follows
the key principle of tight nutrient and energy cycles through organic matter
management in soils. This is achieved through improved practices in cropland
management and in agroforestry.

Various long term trials provide evidence that the regular addition of
organic materials to the soil is the only way to maintain or even increase
soil organic carbon (SOC). The systematic development and application of
organic fertilization technologies has been the domain of Organic
Agriculture for many decades and outstanding results have been achieved so
far. Key issues of technology development have been:

! To optimise the quantity and application of organic manure. A close
integration of crop production and animal husbandry and the systematic
recycling of organic waste are basic elements.
! To improve organic waste processing techniques to obtain high quality
manure. Through composting of animal and plant residues losses in the
humification process are minimized and a higher proportion of the solid
humus fraction is achieved.

Long and diversified crop rotations and legume cropping are further
characteristics of Organic Agriculture that help to increase SOC.
In conventional agriculture, conservation tillage is largely promoted as a
measure to sequester carbon dioxide. This technology combines minimum
tillage with organic covers, herbicides and often herbicide resistant GMO
crops. Both of the last two are prohibited in Organic Agriculture. Latest
research results revealed that gains in soil organic carbon have been
overestimated and are partly or completely offset by increased N2O
emissions. Thus it can be concluded that minimum tillage combined with
mineral fertilizer application compares less well with Organic Agriculture
if the focus is on GHGs in general rather than considering carbon
sequestration alone. The task of Organic Agriculture will be to integrate
conservation tillage in a way that negative effects are avoided.
Agroforesty ­ a management system that integrates trees in the agricultural
landscape ­ is another technology which is systematically applied in Organic
Agriculture. It is a feasible method to succeed shifting cultivation systems
but also to improve and add value to low productive cropland. Agroforestry
holds the biggest potential of agricultural carbon sequestration in tropical

It is worth noting that the sequestration of carbon, i.e., an increase of
soil organic matter is also leading to more fertile soils, better water
retention capacity and reduced nutrient leakage.

Organic Agriculture - a strategy for climate protection
Several the measures mentioned above are often referred to as ³recommended
management practices². Any type of agriculture could use them, but Organic
Agriculture is unique in the sense that it offers a strategy that
systematically integrates most of them in a farming system. This strategy
comprises compulsory standards superior in their impact on climate
protection. It also comprises a well functioning mechanism of inspection and
certification that guarantees compliance of the organic principles and
standards. The strictness of the system has made Organic Agriculture
accountable and a generator for innovation.

As a conclusion, Organic Agriculture could contribute significantly to
reduce GHG releases and to sequester carbon in soils and biomass. Secondly,
there is sufficient evidence that Organic Agriculture is superior to
mainstream agriculture. This is even more important as the capacity of
Organic Agriculture to contribute to the mitigation of climate change can be
considered as an ancillary benefit to its primary goal of sustainable land
use. This primary goal is achieved by gains in soil productivity,
consecutive food security, biodiversity conservation and many other

Unlike conservation agriculture for instance, which offers one technology
only, Organic Agriculture follows a site-specific farming-systems approach
with a whole set of technological changes. Monitoring and impact assessment
with respect to carbon sequestration (or GHG avoidance) are therefore
comparatively complicated and costly. Organic Agriculture already has an
inspection and certification system in place, which could be instrumental in
this context.

Policymakers should recognise the potential of organic farming for GHG
reduction and develop appropriate programs for using this potential. Such
programs may look into the emission reduction potential, in the
sequestration potential, in the possibility for organically grown biomass,
or in combinations of all the aspects. This is as relevant in developed
countries as in developing countries.