Organic Soil – Making a Difference

December 11th, 2009 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on Organic Soil – Making a Difference

simchThumbOrganic SoilThe United Nations Climate Change Conference began this past Monday, December 8th. This is the largest climate conference in history being hosted in Copenhagen, Denmark. The conference will go for nearly two weeks, ending December 18th. Around 15,000 delegates including representatives from the private sector, environmental organizations, research institutions and government officials, as well as 110 heads of state and government from 192 countries, will attend. The conference and the attention it is drawing has focused my attention on the larger role of the organic industry and it how impacts the world environment. There is certainly no denying that the production of organic food has a significant and positive impact on the environment. There have been many studies to demonstrate this point, but one that I recently stumbled upon that seems very powerful and very unique, was from a 2003 report by the Rodale Institute. Based on this report, after twenty-three years of ongoing research, The Rodale Institute Experimental Farm provided strong evidence that organic farming has helped combat global warming by capturing atmospheric carbon dioxide and incorporating it into the soil. The study found that with conventional farming the greenhouse effect is actually furthered by producing a net release of carbon into the atmosphere. This study really sheds light on an aspect of organic farming that is incredibly beneficial in affecting climate change and perhaps a little under-reported – the amazing impact of organic soil.

According to the study:

The key lies in the handling of organic matter (OM): because soil organic matter is primarily carbon, increases in soil OM levels will be directly correlated with carbon sequestration. While conventional farming typically depletes soil OM, organic farming builds it through the use of composted animal manures and cover crops. The data demonstrating that organic farming practices can reduce atmospheric carbon levels come from The Rodale Institute’s longest-running field study, the Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST). Launched in 1981, the FST is a 12-acre, side-by-side experiment comparing three agricultural management systems: one conventional, one legume-based organic, and one manure-based organic. In 23 years of continuous record keeping, the FST’s two organic systems have shown an increase in soil carbon of 15-28%, while the conventional system has shown no statistically significant increase. For the organic systems that translates into more than 1000 lbs. of captured Carbon (or about 3,670 lbs of CO2) per acre-foot per year—and that’s not even counting the reductions in CO2 emissions represented by the organic systems’ lower energetic requirements. A comparative analysis of FST energy inputs, conducted by Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University, found that organic farming systems use just 63% of the energy required by conventional farming systems, largely because of the massive amounts of energy required to synthesize nitrogen fertilizer.

Proposals to expand natural carbon sinks as a partial remedy for global warming initially focused on reforestation. Changes in land use, including the loss of forests to tillage and grazing, were known to be a major contributor to the greenhouse effect–as recently as the 1970’s, total accumulated Carbon emissions from land-use change exceeded total emissions from the burning of fossil fuels–and it was thought that escalating fossil fuel consumption could be balanced by vast forests breathing in all that CO2.

Data like those emerging from the Farming Systems Trial, however, are revising that image: It may be that the soil itself makes more of a difference than what’s growing in it. On a global scale, soils hold more than twice as much carbon (an estimated 1.74 trillion U.S. tons) as does terrestrial vegetation (672 billion U.S. tons), and practices like reduced tillage, the use of cover crops, and incorporation of crop residues can dramatically alter the Carbon storage of arable lands.

Organic farming for carbon capture is also compatible with other environmental and social goals such as reducing erosion, minimizing impact on native ecosystems, and improving farmer livelihoods. Compared to forests, moreover, agricultural soils may be a more secure sink for atmospheric carbon, since they are not vulnerable to logging and wildfire.

It’s always nice to be reminded about the larger view of what we do, and that we are a part of something very special and very important. This study does just that. Organic agriculture matters! What all of us who are involved in the organic industry do to further enhance the production, supply and distribution of organic food into our communities – it truly makes a difference! It’s nice to be reminded . . . and it’s nice to have data to support it! Many thanks to The Rodale Institute for this very important work.