Organic farming and climate change
We would like to bring your attention to a publication by the International Trade Centre UNCTAD/WTO and the Research Institute of Organic Farming (FIBL), entitled ‘Organic farming and climate change’.
Agriculture is both affected by climate change but also contributes to it. As a sector, agriculture must therefore both adapt to changes and offer options for mitigation, i.e., reducing greenhouse gas emissions and storing carbon.
Based on a comprehensive review of peer reviewed scientific literature, the report provides a detailed assessment of the benefits of organic farming regarding climate change. The study concludes that organic agriculture has much to offer in both mitigation of climate change through its emphasis on closed nutrients cycles. It is also a particularly resilient and productive system for adaptation strategies.
In particular: “Within agriculture, organic agriculture holds an especially favourable position, since it realizes mitigation and sequestration of carbon dioxide in an efficient way… Organic production has great mitigation and adaptation potential, particularly with regard to soil organic matter fixation, soil fertility and water-holding capacity, increasing yields in areas with medium to low-input agriculture and in agro-forestry, and by enhancing farmers’ adaptive capacity. Paying farmers for carbon sequestration may be considered a win-win-win situation as (a) carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere (mitigation); (b) higher organic matter levels in soil enhance their resilience (adaptation), and (c) improved soil organic matter levels lead to better crop yield (production).”
We reproduce below the conclusions of the study. The full report can be downloaded at: http://www.intracen.org/Organics/documents/Organic_Farming_and_Climate_Change.pdf
Benefits of organic farming
The benefits of organic farming regarding climate change can be summarized as follows:
• Organic agriculture has considerable potential for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.
• Organic agriculture in general requires less fossil fuel per hectare and kg of produce due to the avoidance of synthetic fertilizers. Organic agriculture aims at improving soil fertility and nitrogen supply by using leguminous crops, crop residues and cover crops.
• The enhanced soil fertility leads to a stabilization of soil organic matter and in many cases to a sequestration of carbon dioxide into the soils.
• This in turn increases the soil’s water retention capacity, thus contributing to better adaptation of organic agriculture under unpredictable climatic conditions with higher temperatures and uncertain precipitation levels. Organic production methods emphasizing soil carbon retention are most likely to withstand climatic challenges particularly in those countries most vulnerable to increased climate change. Soil erosion, an important source of CO2 losses, is effectively reduced by organic agriculture.
• Organic agriculture can contribute substantially to agro forestry production systems.
• Organic systems are highly adaptive to climate change due to the application of traditional skills and farmers’ knowledge, soil fertility-building techniques and a high degree of diversity.
Weaknesses of organic farming and research requirements
This paper recognizes that organic agriculture also has weaknesses, mainly related to productivity and yield losses in some crops and production areas. Such issues highlight the need for research. Total European research funding for organic agriculture currently represents less than 1% of the total food and agriculture research budget. In order to improve organic agriculture’s performance and to allow more assistance to be provided to organic agriculture projects in low-input or developing countries, where CO2 mitigation would be most beneficial, more research is needed in the following areas:
• Soil fertility management, crop growth and health.
• Better exploitation of leguminous plants in improved crop sequences.
• Habitat management with improved manipulation and exploitation of diversity at all levels.
• Crop breeding programmes focusing on the adaptability of plants to low-input situations in soils, on weed competition, and on pest and disease tolerance.
• Improved plant protection techniques and compounds from natural sources.
• Breeding strategies and programmes for adaptability to management and environmental stress situations in organic livestock production.
• Reduced tillage organic systems.
In spite of these weaknesses, organic agriculture is so far the most promising approach for mitigation and adaptation to climate change. Organic agriculture represents a positive example of how farmers can help mitigate climate change and adapt to its predictable and unpredictable impacts. It can serve as a benchmark for allocating development resources to climate change adaptation, or to measure progress in implementing climate-related multilateral environmental agreements.