Organic vs. 'Climate-Smart': Can the UN Fix Farming in Time? | Civil Eats

Organic vs. ‘Climate-Smart’: Can the UN Fix Farming in Time?

From the United Nations Climate Summit to the People’s Climate March and the accompanying Flood Wall Street action, all eyes have been on the climate this week.

Amidst heated discussions of global policy change, greenhouse gases, and emissions caps, food and farming–and the impact they are having on our changing climate—were also in the spotlight. After all, agriculture is one of largest contributors of human-caused emissions.

Organic farming research and advocacy organization, The Rodale Institute, was at the head of the line, presenting research on what they call “regenerative organic agriculture” (ROA). According to the group’s white paper on the topic, “these practices work to maximize carbon fixation while minimizing the loss of that carbon once returned to the soil, reversing the greenhouse effect.

At a New York press conference on Tuesday, Rodale’s scientists advocated for the use of ROA in reversing the effects of climate change.

“While we strive over time to wean ourselves off of fossil fuel and decarbonize the world’s economy, let us immediately and confidently reverse climate change now through the available technology of regenerative organic agriculture,” offered Tom Newmark, co-founder and chair of The Carbon Underground, and a close collaborator with the Rodale Institute.

According to Rodale, the hope is to alter the course of climate change conversations–-to convince global leaders to stop talking about reducing emissions and mitigating impact and to start talking about restoring the earth’s carbon balance to its preindustrial state—via healthy soil and organic farming.

Soil is the second largest carbon sink in our environment after the oceans. In contrast to oceans, which acidify as they absorb excess carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, soil can store carbon and nourish carbon-based plants. For years, Rodale–and a whole array of scientists other sustainably minded folks–have been proposing that farmers adopt growing methods that leverage the soil’s capacity to absorb carbon. By doing so, Rodale says that we could sequester over 100 percent of the human-produced CO2 emissions in the atmosphere.

Rodale defines ROA as agriculture that “improves the resources it uses, rather than destroying or depleting them,” using methods that include composting, cover crops, crop rotation, and conservation tillage. Regenerative agriculture stands in stark contrast to conventional practices, of which soil degradation and chemical runoff are just two of many negative environmental impacts.

To critics who say organic growing methods result in lower crop output, Rodale’s 30-year Farming Systems Trial proves otherwise. Their test crops prove equally as productive under regenerative organic practices as under conventional ones. And the regenerative system is more durable in the face of drought, flood, and other extreme weather events than the conventional system.

Rodale’s findings come at a time when experts are eager for climate solutions in agriculture. One ongoing project is the UN’s Global Alliance for “Climate-Smart Agriculture” (CSA). The alliance for CSA–made up of 16 countries and 37 organizations was launched to “enable 500 million farmers worldwide to practice climate-smart agriculture by 2030”–held its first meeting on Wednesday.

CSA is a set of growing methods that sound similar to Rodale’s on the surface; they include various soil and crop strategies to enhance carbon sequestration. However, CSA does not commit to agroecological growing methods or discourage use of genetically engineered (or GMO) seeds, synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

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Although a full list of the member groups and companies isn’t currently available online, some critics point to the fact that the alliance includes corporate entities such as McDonald’s and Kellogg’s.

Many farmers and activists, including smallholder and peasant advocacy group La Via Campesina and scientist Vandana Shiva, are critical of CSA. In a recent press release, La Via Campesina wrote:

We denounce climate smart agriculture which is presented to us as a solution to climate change and as a mechanism for sustainable development. For us, it is clear that underneath its pretense of addressing the persistent poverty in the countryside and climate change, there is nothing new. Rather, this is a continuation of a project first begun with the Green Revolution in the early 1940’s and continued through the 70’s and 80’s by the World Bank’s Poverty Reduction projects and the corporate interests involved … The result of these projects, dictated by industrial capital’s need for expansion, was the coopting of traditional agricultural producers and production and their insertion into the present industrial agriculture and food regime.

The group worries that the program’s emphasis on increased agricultural production pressures farmers towards commodity crops and chemical-intensive growing practices.

In addition, Rodale’s research suggests that regenerative growing methods could result in around 40 percent carbon sequestration in crops and another 70 percent in pasture and rangeland, for an estimated total of 111 percent–or enough to regenerate, rather than simply mitigate the effects of climate change over time.

“We’re not just talking about 111 percent carbon reduction,” said Shiva. “We’re talking about sowing the seeds of freedom and democracy.” Shiva and others see ROA as a path towards greater farmer empowerment, both domestically and abroad.

In addition to delivering their message to the UN Climate Summit on Tuesday, Rodale and its partners were also thinking about how to distill and disseminate their findings to farmers worldwide. “All we need is knowledge, education, and training,” said Andre Leu, President of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. “For the cost of developing a new genetically-modified crop,” he added, “We could save the planet by teaching people to grow organic.”

Shiva echoed his confidence. “Of course this is the 100 percent solution to the climate problem, but it’s also the solution to the hunger problem, the poverty problem, and the malnutrition problem.”

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Ultimately, Rodale is proposing an agricultural future that is as much based on environmental stewardship as it is productivity and profit. Whether or not their message will be heard by the policymakers at the UN, their message is still rooted in making change one person and one farmer at a time.

Dena Hoff, the North America coordinator for La Via Campesina summed it up succinctly: “If I try to spread the word on this issue, and you try, and we get everyone in the world that we know to try, that is how we will win.”


Leah Douglas is a reporter who covers corporate consolidation and the political economy of food. She writes and publishes Food & Power, a first-of-its-kind resource on consolidation in the food system. Her writing has appeared in The Nation, the Journal of Food Law and Policy, the Washington Monthly, CNN, Time, Fortune, Slate, and numerous food publications. Read more >

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  1. Dennis
    I have to agree with the opposition here....when major corporations and governments get involved with anything, the "change" is usually from the hands of the public to corporations. So their apprehension is well grounded.
    However, i totally agree with the work Rodale is doing and the change theyre trying to invoke. I believe we all need to be that change...on the individual level. This isnt some obscure issue in the world that politicians will eventually figure out but that there really isnt anything for us to do. This is a matter of human survival, everyone is affected, its everyone's responsibility. There also needs to legislation that reflects the changes we need, and not for the profit or power of the corporations. I'd support that
  2. I have been fascinated by this idea since I first heard about it 5 years; even reading Allan Savory's enormous book.

    We have spent an enormous amount of time and money researching, preparing for, and debating climate change. But, we're living in a fantasy world if we expect elected officials to "take action on climate". Why? because it involves raising the cost of energy or essentially raising the cost of every single product that requires electricity/shipping, etc.

    Changing agriculture is our ONLY hope. You won't hear that from climate people. It's not on their radar and likely never to be: their high salaries come from specialized research with expensive computers, high tech expensive solutions, that we cannot afford. It must be ag.
  3. Leu of IFOAM says “For the cost of developing a new genetically-modified crop,” he added, “We could save the planet by teaching people to grow organic.”

    Organics has had this kind of money. As Leu knows IFOAM and its joined-at-the-hip partner FiBL received around $1 billion in funding over the last 40 years around the mission of “we are advancing-developing-growing the organic sector” organics. However the result of their best efforts is getting a 0,87% share of global agriculture and taking organics to the brink of its demise. With past performance (i.e. 0,87%) a predictor of future performance don’t hold your breath that IFOAM can deliver the future organic needs. Clearly trust placed in IFOAM to deliver is misplaced and wasted.
  4. JB
    “All we need is knowledge, education, and training,”

    There is nothing more to it. If farmers sell their land to big international corporations, we have a problem. If farmers still use precarious methods in farming, we are neither doing well. We need more education and information spread towards farmers, especially in poor countries. I just returned from Nicaragua where I was visiting some of the poorest farmers in the region of Leon. I learned that it is not material poverty, they suffer, but educational poverty. We can continue to improve our first world with many green gadgets, but if we don't help those people to learn to be efficient, we do not
  5. JB
    Help them at all. We need to give them proper education and teach them how to protect their crops in order to be able to compete on the market. I have met many people who work toward this end, but it is slow and not very cost effective. Drought, famine, natural disasters, illnesses and lack of infrastructure work against them.

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