CREDIT: Maja Petric.
The rhetoric around climate change from global industry, policymakers, and the media has consistently used words like mitigate, reduce, and adapt to describe the best case scenario for actions on climate. As a result, we have resigned ourselves to believing that climate change is insurmountable and the best we can do is to minimize the repercussions. However, it is rapidly becoming apparent that waiting for industry to stop pumping out greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide just does not work. Likewise, if we look to industry for technological solutions, we are served up concepts that sound like science fiction and require technology which does not yet exist, such as injecting carbon into deep sea beds or creating a sun-shade by shooting sulfur out of man-made volcanoes.
But slowing down emissions or waiting for fixes is simply not enough. There is another way. How Can Regenerative Organic Farming Reverse Climate Change?
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, we had about 280 parts per million (PPM) of carbon and other GHGs in the atmosphere. We are currently at 400 PPM. Today we have imbalance: a vast excess of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere causing the greenhouse effect, which changes our environment in the form of extreme weather, rising sea levels, and desertification. Even if we reduce our emissions to zero, this excess amount of carbon will continue to loom in the atmosphere over us, and the greenhouse effect and climate change will continue. It is not enough to reduce, mitigate, adapt—whichever term you choose. The excess carbon in the atmosphere must be sequestered through regenerative agriculture in order to bring GHG levels down to 350 PPM in the near-term, and hopefully even lower with time.
I’ll get right to the point. A global shift to regenerative organic agriculture can reverse climate change. In fact, regenerative organic agriculture is the only viable option available to us and is readily achievable.
A bit of fourth grade science can easily illustrate how regenerative organic agriculture can achieve climate change reversal. We are all familiar with the hydrological cycle which moves water through our environment as clouds, precipitation, ground water, and the aquifers. Many people may be less familiar with the carbon cycle, which has some resemblance to the water cycle. A great starting point for understanding the carbon cycle is photosynthesis.
As children, we learn that naturally occurring CO2 in the atmosphere is used by plants during photosynthesis, a process which knocks the oxygen off of the CO2 molecules to provide the fresh air we breathe. But the photosynthesis story doesn’t stop at fresh air.
Green plants carry out photosynthesis precisely because they need that carbon. The plant changes the carbon from a gas into a liquid sugar, C6H12O6. These sugars are pushed out of the plant’s roots into the soil to feed the billions of microbes that live in healthy soils surrounding the plant’s roots. Because the roots exude these sugars (as well as proteins and water), they are called "root exudates." The root exudates are a rich food source for the billions (yes, billions) of soil microorganisms. When soil microorganisms eat the sugars, they capture the carbon. In return for the rich food source, soil microorganisms provide the plant with the nutrients it needs to thrive. The plant and the soil feed each other in symbiosis.
Regenerative organic farming focuses on life in the soil, building the symbiotic relationship between the life of the plant and the life in the soil. A single teaspoon of biologically healthy soil contains more microorganisms than there are humans on the earth today. And every single one of them is carbon-based. To promote soil carbon sequestration, regenerative organic agriculture uses four central tenets: compost, crop rotations, cover crops, and no till. Read more about the four tenets in this report.
This means that we can put the carbon back to work while making food to nourish our growing population. Although excess carbon in the atmosphere is toxic to life, we are, after all, carbon-based life forms, and returning stable carbon to the soil can help us grow more food faster. There is no downside.
Here are the facts:
Based on the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emission numbers for the year 2012, if all the agricultural lands on earth were managed according to regenerative organic agriculture methods, we would have sequestered 40 percent of those emissions through crop lands and 71 percent of those emissions through pasture and grazing lands. It’s very simple math: 40 percent + 71 percent = 111 percent.
We would have sequestered all—that’s 100 percent—of our emissions for the year 2012, and the extra 11 percent would have pushed the greenhouse effect into reverse, beginning to chip away at the vast excesses of carbon and other GHGs in the atmosphere. Efforts to reduce emissions are imperative, but that is not enough to ensure human survival—much less a thriving ecosystem boasting robust biodiversity. The greenhouse effect must be reversed by sequestering the excess carbon in the atmosphere. The only way to do that is through soil carbon sequestration.
New Approaches to Policy
The U.S. agricultural system is dominated by large monocultures and factory farms. During World War I, government subsidies for farmers were created to ensure that our land could feed the Allies as well as the United States. In the 1970s, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) secretary Earl Butz famously repeated, "Get big or get out." He was talking to the small farmers of America, and unfortunately, many listened to him. Smaller farms disappeared, swallowed up by larger operations that depended on the crutch of chemicals and super-industrialized methods.
Today, organic farmers are seeing increasing support from the U.S. government in the form of the National Organic Program, which is responsible for developing national standards for organically produced agricultural products. However, we are still light years away from an even playing field.
The World Health Organization recently announced that glyphosate—an herbicide used to kill weeds—is "probably carcinogenic." While glyphosate is widely used and heavily subsidized in the United States, despite its harmful effects, the organic farmer who protects the environment is the one burdened with the extra costs and red tape of certifying that she is not using genetically modified (GMOs). In short, while we subsidize our own destruction and the destruction of our environment using the people’s tax dollars, we present roadblocks and barriers to those who work toward planetary health, including the reversal of climate change.
In the near term, the U.S. government should stop subsidizing chemical agriculture and invest those funds into the widespread deployment of regenerative organic agriculture. We must also change subsidies meant for climate change solutions to include and focus on regenerative organic agriculture. These near term adjustments would put the United States on a much better course and in a position of leadership among the world’s nations. The transition to an Organic Planet will not only grow plants and soil, it will grow our economies by creating new jobs, requiring new tools and spurring innovation through new business models.
The United States must also prioritize encouraging the new generation of young organic farmers and remove the multitude of barriers to entry. For starters, student loan forgiveness for organic farmers could offset some of the financial risks involved in the commitment to a career in organic farming. Another barrier for these new farmers is the difficulty in accessing land near large customer bases, the very same places where their contributions would contribute to the re-localization and reparation of regional food systems.
Outside of the United States, small-holder farmers around the globe actually provide the majority of the world’s food, as illustrated by Alnoor Ladha, co-founder of anti-poverty group The Rules:
"Industrial agriculture uses 75 percent of the world’s resources to yield only 25 percent of the world’s food, versus organic farming which provides 75 percent of the world’s food while using only 25 percent of the world’s resources."
In the longer term, our policies in the United States and globally must shift to a new paradigm which acknowledges that the reversal of climate change is achievable. We will certainly not achieve a reversal of climate change if we continue to leave reversal out of the global discussion. Leaders in both government and business must set their own courses for an Organic Planet and create their own vehicles to achieve the vision.
At the Rodale Institute, our hope is that you will walk with us toward an Organic Planet. Read our 2014 white paper "Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A Down-to-Earth Solution" to learn more.