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