Organic Farming Lowers Your Carbon Footprint. What About Your Methane Footprint?

Organic farming was never about global warming.

It’s about maintaining a natural, closed system in which natural processes take their course, soil and food are as they should be, and chemicals don’t replace nature as the source of nutrients for our food.

But what if going organic does fight global warming?

Organic farmers would have one more reason to be proud, and consumers one more reason to buy their products.  So, does it?

It’s not clear.  The Rodale Institute, a research group that’s long promoted organic farming, claims that it does.  Organic growing captures vast quantities of carbon dioxide and buries it in the soil.  It does this by using composted manure and cover crops, which add organic (carbon-based) matter to the soil, whereas conventional agriculture depletes it.  The difference is big enough that, Rodale claims, converting all U.S. agricultural land to organic production would reduce our carbon footprint as much as taking 158 million cars off the road.  And this reflects solely  the difference in carbon capture; organic farming generates even less carbon dioxide because the producing natural fertilizers burns far less fossil fuel than producing artificial fertilizers.  (And artificial fertilizers are themselves made from fossil fuel.)

So, it looks pretty clear that organic farming starkly reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide.  Great!

Rodale Organic Farming Carbon Footprint

Rodale Institute Provides Exceedingly Valuable Research on the Health and Environmental Effects of Organic Farming. Still, They Are Apt To Tell You Only One Side of the Story.

But carbon dioxide is not the only story when it comes to global warming.  Methane and nitrous oxide may be even worse.  And at least one scientist, Dr. Steve Savage, claims that organic farming actually releases far more methane and nitrous oxide into the environment than does conventional farming.

It’s hard to imagine that organic farming, which humans did for ten thousand years without adverse climate effects, contributes more to global warming than conventional farming, when the latter has coincided with a rise in global temperatures and increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide.  I’m not sure how to square these facts with Savage’s findings.

But Savage leaves some hints.  One, he stresses that “no-till” farming (i.e., not churning up the soil each year before planting), which is currently more commonly used in conventional agriculture, releases far less nitrous oxide and methane than “till” organic farming.  This could be a problem for organic farming, which often uses “cover crops” (crops used just to cover the soil during the non-growing season), which are typically tilled when it’s time to plant a new crop.  But I believe that there are “no-till” organic methods as well, and if we could do as much “no-till” organic farming as we do “no-till” conventional farming, we could help to close the nitrous-oxide and methane gap.

One other hint is that Savage’s findings appear to relate primarily to “monoculture” crops, which must be grown in a particular way.  “Monoculture” means rows upon rows of the same crop next to each other.  This is in contrast to “polyculture,” in which different crops are grown side by side.  Polyculture is more “natural” and typically better for plants, soil, and atmospheric gas levels, but it’s inefficient when used in industrial agriculture: It’s easier for a machines to plant and then harvest row after row of corn than to harvest corn, cabbage and carrots all on the same trip across the field.

Ironically, though organic farming purists fundamentally oppose monoculture, Savage’s findings compare monoculture conventional farming to monoculture organic farming (which ideally does not exist).  Polyculture organic farming would presumably emit less nitrous oxide and methane.

But despite these ironies, Savage may well have a point: If we insist on growing much of our food in monoculture, organic farming may not help us when it comes to methane and nitrous oxide emissions.

But it is clear that it helps with carbon dioxide.

Research is still only beginning to be conducted on the tie between organic farming and global warming.  Bear with me as this research develops, and I will keep you posted on the latest findings.

In the meantime, check out the Rodale Institute’s organic farming carbon footprint report.  Do you think organic farming is the cure-all Rodale believes it to be?

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5 Responses to Organic Farming Lowers Your Carbon Footprint. What About Your Methane Footprint?

  1. Kathryn says:

    What a great article. Thanks for this concise and easy-to-follow explanation of the benefits of organic farming and polycultures! Makes me feel extra wonderful about my CSA subscription :)

    • Doug says:

      Kathryn, Thanks so much for your kind words. I wish I could say I feel wonderful about my CSA subscription as well but shamefully do not yet have one. Enjoy yours (and your very ambitious blog!) and I hope to have one (as CSA, that is) when my wife and I start cooking more in the next couple years.

      Best,
      Doug

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