Organic farming and climate change: still seeking silver bullets?

by Jeremy Cherfas on June 3, 2010

There’s a long piece over at the Freakonomics blog examining recent claims about organic agriculture and climate change. Two approaches are contrasted. First, the Rodale Institute’s 2008 report which claimed that organic agriculture could sequester 40% of global carbon emissions. Ah but, carbon dioxide is not the primary greenhouse gas associated with agriculture. Methane and nitrous oxide contribute far more. And organic ag releases far more of those, according to Steve Savage, a plant scientist and blogger, who concludes that “organic farming is not the best option from a climate change point of view”.

At which point everything could descend into the entrenched mud-slinging we’re used to, except that in the Freakonomics piece, it doesn’t. James McWilliams outlines the different ways in which “conventional” and “organic” make their different contributions to climate change, and even goes so far as to suggest that there could be ways in which organic practices could be modified to reduce their contributions (the reverse, not so much).

To me, though, there are a couple of things wrong with the whole approach. One is that the attempt to come up with global estimates of the “productivity” and “carbon footprint”1 of any single system is bound to run into problems regarding specific elements of the estimate. And then the debate gets bogged down in those elements rather than in trying to move forward. A clear example is that as far as I can tell neither McMillan nor Savage includes the carbon footprint of food transportation. And the model of organic agriculture seems to be one of intensive monoculture, but using manure and organic fertilizers rather than energy-intensive synthetic fertilizers. I’m not saying we need to become geophagous strict locavores, but maybe we do need to look more closely at integrated food and farming systems, on a smaller scale. Climate change may be a global problem, but local efforts can contribute to solutions. I like the idea of just cutting out a couple of meals of factory-farmed red-meat a week myself. Except that I already do. So what’s the next small change I could make?

Footnotes:
  1. And yes, I’m well aware that I’m not even getting into the discussion of those terms. []

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Ewan R June 3, 2010 at 4:36 pm

“So what’s the next small change I could make?”

Cut out a couple more!

Grow your own produce – without intensive fertilization, pretty easy and fun, although less so if you end up just fattening up the local rabbit population (unless you use them to replace some factory farmed red meat, that’ll learn ‘em).

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Anastasia June 3, 2010 at 5:07 pm

lol Ewan.
I do wonder what the rabbits think of all these lovely yard-warriors planting delicious vegetables for them.

Jeremy, why not use ALCA* (Agricultural Life Cycle Analysis) to help determine which farming methods work best for a given location/situation/crop/etc? It seems that in some cases, local small-scale diverse farms will be best. In others, rotational farming. In still others, greenhouses. And so on. But I don’t think we’ll ever know without some decent science-based numbers.

* I’m former military and thus find acronyms pleasing.

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Jeremy June 4, 2010 at 7:35 am

A great suggestion, and one that I pursued for many years and have been unable to for too many.

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Steve Savage June 7, 2010 at 3:49 am

I’d agree with the idea of gardening for many reasons. Lots of Americans could just reduce their meat portion sizes to a rational level to some substantial benefit for health and the environment. Some local things make sense. Some don’t. There are certain places that are so good for growing certain crops that it really makes a great deal of sense to do it that way. I agree with the author’s title – there is no “silver bullet.” These are complex questions.

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