Fourteen years ago in 2004 the UK government’s then Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir David King said that “Climate change is the most severe problem we are facing today”. Since that time the message from the scientific community has become increasingly consistent, urgent and clear; the more we understand about climate change the bleaker the outlook appears.
Agriculture has a critical role to play in addressing climate change as it is directly and indirectly responsible for a significant proportion of global warming and it will also suffer from its effects.
There is a widely used aphorism among soil scientists “never treat soils like dirt”, which is in part a lament that for many, if not most people, soil is both a mystery and something of little or no value.
Soil is the ‘heart’ of the planet because it is the soil that is the interface for all the other cycles. Soil is the main environment for the land biosphere, i.e. as a rule of thumb, soil contains ten times more life, (measured by weight or diversity), than all of the life growing above it.
Soil is at the heart of planetary systems and its correct management is vital in combating climate change as well as a wide range of other ecological damage. The fundamental objective of organic agriculture is optimal soil management; for industrial agriculture soil is just another resource. It is conspicuously clear that it is ecological management that has the capability and praxis to maintain productive agriculture over an indefinite time scale. The alternative ‘consumes’ soil, eroding the very basis of its existence, meaning its time is limited; particularly in the face of global climate change.
Industrial Agriculture and Climate Change
Because it mimics industrial manufacturing systems, industrial agriculture is the technical name given to the dominant farming system in the developed world. This is also the fundamental fallacy of industrial agriculture in that agriculture is based almost entirely on natural systems (i.e. the pedosphere, hydrosphere etc.) which behave completely differently to the linear mechanical and physical processes underlying industrial manufacturing.
The “narrowly-focused ‘seed and fertilizer’ revolution” that proponents of industrial agriculture continue to push is not only the wrong answer, it is a key part of the problem.
Agriculture directly contributes 13.5% of the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming and climate change. However, this analysis excludes many of the up and down stream components of agriculture, e.g. the production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, and when these are taken into account using lifecycle assessment, agriculture contributes between 25-30% of all GHG emissions.
The prevailing industrial approach to agriculture manifestly contributes to climate change. Organic agriculture by contrast has a requirement that it must address climate change and most importantly has many aspects that actively address climate change, and make it a management system better adapted to performing in the face of global climate change.
The Haber-Bosch Process – Humankind’s Most Successful Folly?
Nitrogen fertilisers are the primary source of nitrous oxide from agriculture and are responsible for a little under half of direct agricultural GHG emissions on a CO2eq basis. The negative impact of nitrogenous fertiliser is extended and compounded by the actual fertiliser production process itself, which is also a major contributor to global warming.
All synthetic nitrogen fertilisers are manufactured by a technique called the Haber or the Haber-Bosch process.
Synthetic nitrogen fertilisers are therefore doubly bad for climate change as both their production and their use directly contribute a significant proportion of global warming impact. Furthermore, the range of other damaging environmental and social effects of synthetic nitrogen use are substantial, e.g. leaching/water pollution.
Biological fixation of nitrogen delivers a double climate dividend when compared to the negative ‘double whammy’ of synthetic nitrogen. It not only supplies nitrogen but it is also part of the natural process that pulls CO₂ out of the atmosphere and into the soil.
Soil ‘Carbon’/Organic Matter
After the elimination of synthetic nitrogen the second main climate mitigation factor an organic management approach offers is building ‘soil carbon’.
That organic farming achieves higher levels of organic matter than industrial agriculture is beyond doubt, with many examples, particularly those from long term trials being unequivocal.
If the 65 million hectares of corn and soybean grown in the United States were switched to organic farming, a quarter of a billion tons of carbon dioxide could be sequestered.
Higher soil organic matter has a wide range of other beneficial effects, many of which help address global warming.
Livestock and Manure
Through a focus on pastoral production systems, in particular for ruminants (i.e. cows, goats, sheep etc.) organic management delivers a valuable contribution to reducing the global warming impacts of livestock production.
Pastoral systems (stock grazing pasture) are far more energy efficient as the animals walk to the food and harvest it themselves. Furthermore, organic pastures contain clovers and other nitrogen fixing species so no synthetic nitrogen is required and well-designed pasture suffers from few pests and diseases compared with grain crops so biocides are not required. Pasture systems are also able to sequester carbon in the soil thus providing a vital means to offset emissions. A point acknowledged by the UN FAO.
“Good grassland management can potentially reverse historical soil carbon losses and sequester substantial amounts of carbon in soils” – UNFAO
With animals manuring the fields as they graze, the large quantities of slurry manure produced by feedlot systems simply do not exist. What is a problem (and a cost) for the feedlot system is a benefit for the organic one, i.e. the nutrients in the animals’ dung is recycled back to the soil, helping soil biological activity and building soil organic matter.
The Multifaceted Benefits of Ecological Agriculture
The list of advantages that organic agriculture has over industrial agriculture in terms of mitigating and adapting to climate change are many and growing as scientific frontiers expand.
Ecological agriculture offers many and diverse ways of mitigating and adapting to climate change; from the physics and chemistry of sequestering nitrogen and carbon from the sky to the soil, through holistic ecosystem management.
Ecological agriculture is not ‘business as usual’ and is the global farmland management system best designed to succeed in the face of the immense challenges, demands and opportunities of a climate change impacted world.
Ecological farmland management delivers superior climate change performance as measured by soil organic matter, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and materially reduced GHG emissions. These factors combine to create superior across the board environmental impact returns.