Culture

Published on November 10th, 2009 | by Steve Savage

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Organic Farming Would Be Better In Terms of Climate Change Impact. Right?

The composition of the US cropland acres[social_buttons]

I’m probably going to irritate some people with this post.  I apologize in advance because that is not at all my intention.  For those readers that don’t think climate change is a real problem, I respect the fact that there is uncertainty in that science, but if the majority position of climate scientists is true, the stakes in terms of human suffering among the poor are too high not to act.  For those who think Organic farming is the answer, I’m not trying to argue the whole issue here – I just want to talk about the science associated with climate change and farming.  I have spent months reading the scientific literature on this topic.  That science points to some very specific changes in how we need to farm.  If those changes were compatible with Organic I’d be a big promoter.  The short answer is “Organic farming is not the best option from a climate change point of view.”

I know this sounds like heresy in the “Green Blogosphere,” but before you react, please read on.  I agree in advance that the Organic/non-Organic discussion is much broader than climate change.  In fairness, climate change was never something that “Organic” was designed to address either during its origins in the early 20th century or during the development of the USDA Organic rules between 1990 and 2000.  I have no desire to get in the way of Organic growers making a living (including my good friends who grow Organic of the old school category) or get in the way of Organic customers getting what they want.    I simply believe that it is critical that we, the declining subset of people who take climate change seriously, be accurately informed about this issue.  If we believe we “have the answer” for farming when that answer is wrong, that keeps us from continuing to find the real answer.

Focusing on the Major Crops

Because it would be far too complex to discuss this question for all crops,  I’ll only be talking about the “carbon footprint” of the major row crops (see the pie chart above) – the wheat, corn, hay, barley, oats, corn, soybeans, hay, oats, dry beans, lentils… that make up the bulk of our calorie intake, our vegetable protein intake, and our animal feeds for meat and dairy.  Those crops also make up the vast majority of farmed land, so they are what matters for climate change.  Fruit and vegetable crops are extremely important for health and food enjoyment, but not much for climate change.  Organic today is heavily weighted to the fruit and vegetable segment and beyond that, it is extremely small. Actually, all of Organic only represents 2.6MM acres ( ~0.7%  of US cropland), so it has almost no effect on climate either way. This is only a discussion about the widely held opinion that Organic would help in a climate change sense.

Agriculture’s Unique Carbon Footprint

The Rodale Institute is a leading group that has been dedicated to the Organic cause since the 1950s.  They released a white paper titled, Regenerative organic farming: a solution to global warming.” In it they argued that organic methods are low in carbon emissions.  They also argued that Organic farmers could sequester carbon in the soil to help reduce atmospheric CO2 to a significant degree.  That all sounds great, but the problem is that in the entire 9 page report, they never mentioned the words “methane” or “nitrous oxide.”  That was a major omission because the real story for Ag is all about these two particular greenhouse gasses.

The carbon footprint of agriculture is unique.  Farms only represent ~2% of US CO2 emissions but around a third of the anthropogenic methane (a gas which is 21-24 times as potent as a greenhouse gas) and nearly 80% of the anthropogenic nitrous oxide (295-310 times as potent as CO2).  I’ll explain why these two gasses, which are huge challenges for agriculture as a whole, are particularly problematic for Organic farming.

Biological Nitrogen Fixation

In defense of Organic farming, it does produce an admirable share of its own nitrogen supply with biologically fixed nitrogen using legume crops and legume cover crops. (“conventional agriculture” also grows millions of acres of those crops).  When it comes to a legume crop like soybeans, Organic and conventional farms have a similar, and relatively small “carbon footprint;” however the “conventional” footprint can still be lower.  If the soybeans are “no-till” farmed (which is common for soy – at least 33% of US soy acres – then the No-till farmer will use less diesel fuel because of the several tillage passes that are avoided.  Also, when a legume cover crop, is tilled-under for planting, there is a significant burst of nitrous oxide emissions.  That does not happen in a non-organic field that is “no-till” managed.  I’m not saying this is true today on all “conventional” farms, but it is for far more acres than Organic.

The Climate Downside of Manures or Composted Manures Used in Organic Farming

For the non-legume crops we need (corn, wheat, barley…) an Organic grower will definitely need to supplement the contributions of the legumes in the rotation with manure or composted manure.  If it is manure, that manure will have been saved for some period of time (animals make it every day, farmers only need it at certain times).  The IPCC estimates that even with good storage practices, 1-2% of the carbon in that manure is emitted as methane.  When you combine that with the amount of manure needed to fertilize a crop, you end up with a “carbon footprint” that is 3-8 times as large as if you delivered the same amount nitrogen with synthetic fertilizers like urea.  If the Organic crop is destined for direct human consumption, the manure needs to be composted to kill human pathogens.  In that process it has been documented that 2.7% of the carbon is released as methane.  Combining that with how much compost it takes to fertilize a crop (on the order of ~4-6 tons/acre), and the “carbon footprint” of this Organic fertilizer is on the order of 14 times as high as for a conventional alternative.

Last June I posted a  technical paper about this on SCRBD and requested feedback. I also sent it directly for review to a dozen scientists who work in this area.  The paper has now been viewed by more than 850 people.  I’ve gotten quite a bit of feedback, but none pointing out flaws with the basic logic or math.  One Organic farmer told me that he didn’t use use compost for the nitrogen, but the rate he described (5 tons/acre) was delivering >180 lbs of N/acre when 120 lbs/acre is the average for a high nitrogen demand crop like corn.  Some folks have accurately pointed out that compost emissions vary by the way the composting is done, but the study I used was based on a better than average practice.  Even dropping the emissions by a factor of 2 or 4 would not address the problem. Some would like to assign that footprint to the animal producer. My answer is that the emissions occur because of the storage or composting that is required for the crop use.  The very best option for manures (or any biological waste-stream) is to anaerobically digest or char the manure to turn it into a significant source of clean energy  (“animal waste is a terrible thing to waste”,  If you think I’m attacking composting in general, I’m not.  Composting is far better than land-filling other waste streams, but it is not always the best option, and it certainly isn’t a good way to make fertilizer).  To be fair I must point out that manure is used on conventional farms – about 5% of the total US cropland.  I’d like to see virtually all of that practice shifted to an energy use of the manure.

So it turns out that a major climate change advantage almost universally claimed for Organic (no fossil energy to produce the N), actually represents a carbon footprint that is enormous.  Then, once the manure or compost is added to the field, it continues to release methane , and to release nitrous oxide, even at sub-zero soil temperatures.  As someone with strong carnivorous tendencies it pains me to admit that animal protein has a higher carbon footprint than something like lentils or tofu, bread wheat or quinoa.  I’m actually trying to shift my diet more that way (something much more feasible to ask than vegetarianism. My daughter taught me a killer recipe for fried tofu!).  Organic, at least for row crops, is pretty tightly tied to animal agriculture.

Nitrous Oxide – the Biggest Climate Change Challenge to All of Agriculture

For the major row crops, the largest two elements of the carbon footprint are the “embedded carbon” in the fertilizer and the nitrous oxide emissions that occur as a little bit (usually 1-2%) of the applied nitrogen is converted to nitrous oxide during periods of low oxygen availability (e.g when the soil is wet, where the soil is compressed).  The Organic field has the additional issue of methane emissions from the soil.  Nitrous oxide release is usually one of the largest single elements in the farm footprint because of that ~300x multiplier.  A conventional grower has several tools to reduce those emission (which would ideally someday be rewarded with carbon offset income). That farmer can use “precision application” to put the fertilizer in just the right place so the plant gets more of it before it can become nitrous oxide.  He/She can also use “split applications,” or “variable rate” application to give each part of a field just enough so there isn’t extra available to be converted  into nitrous oxide and the overall rate reduction reduces the “embedded energy” footprint as well.  The farmer can also use “Auto-steer” technology (GPS enabled) to make sure that no wheel ever rolls over most of the soil in the field.  That limits compaction and thus nitrous oxide emissions.  Finally, a conventional grower can use a “nitrification inhibitor” to reduce the amount of nitrous oxide produced.  There are efficiency drivers that are already getting more and more growers to adopt these practices, even in the absence of greenhouse gas-related payments. Many of these nitrous oxide reduction options are impractical or are not even allowed for the Organic grower.

Carbon Sequestration

The big climate change positive that the Rodale paper claimed for Organic was net carbon sequestration because so much organic matter was added to the soil in the form of compost or manure.  Building soil carbon has always been a fantastic goal of Organic farming.  I’ve been on that page since hearing my Grandfather talk about it as I helped him tend his Organic garden in the early 1960s.  Still, as I described, that gain in soil carbon on an Organic farm comes at the substantial carbon cost of methane and nitrous oxide emissions before and after application.  There is a different way to build soil organic matter.  It requires no-till cropping. There is controversy about whether no-till farming by itself can really lead to net carbon sequestration, but in combination with cover cropping, this is definitely possible.  What about the synthetic chemicals used by the conventional farmers in that system?  The use-rates of modern agricultural chemicals are low enough that they end up contributing very little to the carbon footprint of these row crops, and in a no-till setting they don’t move into streams or lakes because erosion is so well controlled.  They break down on-site.

The Better Answer

So, if Organic is not the viable, large-scale answer to Climate Friendly Farming, what is?  I believe the answer is broader adoption of the most progressive methods I’ve been describing (continuous no-till, cover crops, controlled wheel traffic, precision fertilization…).  Today, employment of these practices in part or as a whole varies by geography. South America and Australia are the most advanced here.  These practices are almost non-existent in Europe.  I don’t have good information on China and India, but rates are small.  The US adoption is significant, but not nearly as high as it needs to be for a lot of complex economic, social and technical reasons.  Strong carbon markets looked like a great way to drive these optimal farming practices, but my hopes for that are fading in this political environment.  Other ways will probably have to be found and I believe that is possible.   As Norm Borlaug said, “pessimism has no place in action.”

You are welcome to comment on this post or you can email me at feedback.sdsavage@gmail.com.



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About the Author

Born in Denver, now living near San Diego. Agricultural scientist for 30+ years with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Have worked for Colorado State University, DuPont and Mycogen and for the last 13 years consulting for all sorts or companies, universities and grower groups. Experience in biological control, natural products, synthetic chemicals, genetics, GMOs and agronomic practices. Have given multiple invited talks on the interaction between agriculture and climate change (both ways)



  • planb247

    I’ll tell you what I think. I think this is a crock. First of all, organic farming and a move away from corporate agriculture is not just about addressing climate change. It’s also about saving our oceans by decreasing hypoxia which comes mainly from chemical and organic fertilizers. More importantly than that, it’s about creating a safe food system — which the current system is anything but. To reduce everything to carbon footprints is useless. Let’s kill all the humans, that would reduce our carbon footprints alot wouldn’t it? But it doesn’t solve any of our larger issues. Don’t get so myopic on climate change that you don’t see the broader picture.

  • http://www.jamesandthegiantcorn.com James

    Great post Steve. The data on the methane emission of manure (that could be avoided if it were instead used to generate renewable energy instead) is completely new to me.

    Decreasing meat consumption is a very effective way of reducing individual demands on the agricultural production. I’d make a miserable vegetarian, but as you say, cutting back is a lot easier, something I’ve been experimenting with just in the past month.

    There are also things we can do to increase the effectiveness of agricultural carbon sequestration in system like no-till farming. I know some people at Iowa State are working on developing breeds of crops that decay more slowly, increasing soil organic matter (which is good for agriculture in its own right) and locking up the carbon crop plants fix in the soil for longer.

  • http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com Steve Savage

    James,
    I agree that we can probably breed for higher sequestration. I think that could be particularly true for improved cover crops since there isn’t any conflict with yield. Also there is a grass that makes its own nitrification inhibitors that would be a great trait to include in crops or cover crops.

  • http://www.jamesandthegiantcorn.com James

    Breeding for increased carbon fixation would probably compete with yield, but if you’re instead selecting for plants that have, say higher lignin to cellulose ratios (the opposite of what breeders are trying to do for biofuel crops since lignin is so much harder to degrade), it would seem increased sequestration wouldn’t necessarily have negative effects on yield.

    Hadn’t heard about the nitrification inhibiting grass, sounds intriguing, I’ll have to read up on it.

  • http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com Steve Savage

    Planb247,
    Going to more Organic would actually be much worse for the dead zone. Tillage and extended release nitrogen are features of Organic farming that put lots of nitrate into surface water – Organic has no advantage and even fewer ways to manage it. As for “industrial farming” the vast majority of our row crop farms are still family farms. You can look that up in the USDA census of agriculture.

  • Janet

    I will admit that some of what you talk about is over my head, however I live in a farming community (mostly wine grapes) and I increasingly hear grape growers talk about “sustainable” farming as opposed to “organic” farming. It seems that farming organically may automatically rule out using some methods that would help to achieve the ultimate goal of controlling carbon/nitrogen/methane emissions.

  • http://www.biodiversivist.com Russ Finley

    Nice post, Steve

    “…the stakes in terms of human suffering among the poor are too high not to act.”

    Beware of subconscious rationalization.

    Most of us relieve our anxiety about climate change by assuming the poor in third world countries will be the only ones seriously impacted, not our loved ones. I admit, this is what I tell my daughter when she worries about it.

    We will, as usual stand by and watch the horror unfold from our couches, concerned but assured it won’t happen to us.

    What I don’t tell her is that this is how it will unfold at first, until we hit a tipping point, which will be inevitable. It will be way too late to stop it by then. The non-linear tipping points are what should be keeping all of us parents awake at night.

    I agree, pessimism has no place in action, but the line between pessimism and reality can be very hard to distinguish at times.

    The odds are not good but certainly, we have to stop fooling ourselves with ideas that lead to dead ends.

    As human beings, we are all masters of self-deception. That is why the scientific method was developed, to show us the truth. But even when it sits right in front of us, well, you can lead a horse to water …

    Organic has it’s advantages. It is not the end of the world for organic farmers if fighting climate change is not one of them. Not everything that needs to be done needs to be done in the name of climate change.

  • http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com Steve Savage

    Janet,
    Indeed, the grape growers have been real leaders in sustainability and have worked out a very detailed system to rate their progress. Actually there is a big national program to define metrics of sustainability for row crops called the Keystone Field to Market initiative which is that same sort of effort. It has very broad stakeholder involvement and seems to be making real progress.

  • http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com Steve Savage

    Russ,
    Thanks. I agree, it is about all of us (or at least our kids) if the worst scenarios unfold. It could be that things will get to a point where action is absolutely needed and then human innovation power might help, but not before some people are in trouble. Organic is just fine as a niche to satisfy a market in rich countries, but it really can’t get big no matter what. Its just that most people have heard “Organic is the fastest growing segment in the food supply” and believe it. Its just that Organic advocates regularly make the climate change claim as in the case of the Rodale paper I cited.

  • http://iipalbanjary.net/ iip albanjary

    Right.
    I highlight the scale of operation of organic farming –that organic farming will contribute significantly in reducing emission if it applied in large scale firms. Thus, if size does matter,another GHG emitted form big-land agriculture must be handled, again, the firm must do something like adopt sequestration method by planting more trees, or buy CER.

  • http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com Steve Savage

    iip,
    Planting more trees (agroforestry) is a good thing, but my main point was that making Organic large-scale would significantly increase emissions of greenhouse gases.

  • http://www.greenlightdhaba.org Hari Batti

    I’m not following the science of all this, but I admit it worries me greatly. In India, people like Vandana Shiva are arguing that we need to take a U turn from the “Green Revolution” and go organic–basically to get back to something like the farming we did for years and years. That raises questions, but worse still if it won’t work at all!

    Once energy prices rise, we are going to be in trouble; we just can’t afford enough fertilizer as it is for conventional farming, and fertilizer prices are energy sensitive, no?

    One thing we are looking at is a shift away from wheat and rice and toward crops like millet which have gone out of favour hear due to government policies, but which were once used widely. They take less inputs and are more drought resistant.

    Like I said, I can’t evaluate the science, but I appreciate the seriousness of this post. Food is the number one thing we need to figure out, or a lot of people are going to end up very, very hungry. Considering that to be poor in India basically means you are getting less than two meals a day–and that we already have something over 400,000,000 poor people, the margins are too thin already.

    Hari

  • http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com Steve Savage

    Hari,
    I agree with your concerns. The solutions for small holder agriculture and developing world agriculture are not exactly the same as in a country like the US. Government policy often does not help, but to abandon the Green Revolution for Organic would be the wrong way to go. Drought tolerant, nitrogen use-efficient crops are definitely needed and some of that can be done by switching crops. Some of that can also be done by genetic engineering – the kind that is offered for free to poor farmers through groups like the Gates Foundation or the Danforth Center. High nitrogen fertilizer cost is definitely a looming issue if energy prices go back up. I wish someone would invent a reasonably efficient way to use the methane that can be generated from municipal waste to make synthetic nitrogen.

  • http://www.nitrogennews.com Brendan McLaughlin

    Wow, is that true about organic being worse for dead zone hypoxia than conventional farming? Does that apply across the board, or are you speaking specifically about the Gulf of Mexico? It seems hard to believe that the amount of nitrogen lost from organic production could rival the amount of nitrogen-rich fertilizer currently running off the corn fields of the midwest.

    Fascinating observations here, Steve. Anyone with kids knows how critical it is to find genuine solutions to the pressing demands of climate change and food security. this post shows there is no simple answer.

  • http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com Steve Savage

    Brendan,
    There are many studies documenting high nitrate movement from manure fertilized fields than from fields properly fertilized with synthetic nitrogen. No matter what form a fertilizer starts (including organic sources), it is sooner or later turned into the nitrate ion which is mobile in water. Organic sources are “slow release” but that isn’t as good as it sounds. To have enough nitrate available for the period of peak crop demand, an Organic grower has to apply more total nitrogen and then when the plant isn’t taking it up anymore, the organic source is continuing to convert into nitrate that is now available to move into water. Cover crops can help with this issue, but don’t completely solve it.
    The solution to the “dead zone” is a combination of no-till, controlled wheel traffic, precision fertilization and cover crops. It probably also requires some management of the outflows of drain tile systems in fields. These are all things that are possible today and I wish we had ecosystem services markets in place to help farmers afford to convert.

  • http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com Steve Savage

    Brendan, I’m mainly talking about the Gulf, but the basic principal is the same for any watershed

  • SBG

    Not convinced.

    This is not an objective comparison of the two farming systems.

    There are huge issues with scale and crop type and a lack of consideration for many indirect impacts.

    A comprehensive lifecycle analysis will be needed.

  • http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com Steve Savage

    SBG,
    I agree about the need for a comprehensive LCA and if you do that, Organic row crop farming is going to come out very badly vs a progressive or even semi-progressive conventional system. This isn’t really the forum for that. The organic will also come out badly in an analysis of fertilizer movement into aqueous environments. Basically it comes down to the fact that animal manures are highly problematic fertilizers and would serve society much better as fuels. You really can’t get around that.

  • Tony Saiz

    Excellent and informative post.
    I have been recently researching some of the opportunities to monetize carbon N2O sequestration or reductions and find that it is definately not an “user-friendly” enviroment. Its a shame as I think that many companies would be willing to consider changes in ag practices that are safer and better for the enviroment, but can’t justify the investment required based on the projected investment cash flows.

  • http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com Steve Savage

    Thanks Tony,
    I know, it would be great to get this stuff monetized. Here is a link to a group that is working on the nitrous oxide front.

    http://www.infoag.org/presentation.php?id=29

  • http://personalpermaculture.blogspot.com/ Ro Elgas

    Does you mother pack you lunch, or do you walk to school? Pure gibberish!
    We can not trade organic sustainable farm practices for further ecological genocide generated by conventional farming in order to counter our out of control emissions. It’s the very definition of shortsighted. And the shameless pitch for “ modern agricultural no till chemicals” with your assurance that “they don’t move into streams or lakes, … and break down on site.” Who paid for this post?

    Organics are a verified, eco-friendly form of food production which can no more be taken out of the whole system, than mankind can live without clean water, air and soil and planetary bio-diversity, which by the way we forego with conventional agriculture.

    Crops are already being devastated by rolling climate extremes, but on a scale those at the top of the food chain have yet to feel first hand. There is evidence to support that organic production has more resilience to stresses from variant climate events, and that means a more stable food supply in changing times. The biological habitats and living soil preserved through organic practices far out serve the questioned future of humanity, we can find meaningful emission saving elsewhere.

  • http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com Steve Savage

    Ro Elgas,

    Thanks for your response. I like to get some vigorous push-back from people who see things differently.

    I’m not sure what the thing about my mother packing my lunch means.

    I assure you that no one “paid for this post.” In fact I’ve been seriously compromising my consulting-based income over the last few months by spending time doing these posts.

    Organics are actually not a “verified, eco-friendly form of food production” if you delve into the scientific literature as opposed to the self-serving web information from Organic marketers and NGO’s that need to raise funds.

    I’m not actually a defender of “conventional agriculture” as a whole, but I’m a promoter of actually good practices which are often not allowed under the organic rules.

    I agree with you that crops are already seeing the effects of climate change. To the extent that Organic builds soil carbon it does indeed insulate it from the effects of climate change (mainly drought issues). My post just points out that this insulation comes at a high cost from a greenhouse gas point of view and there are other ways to do that.

    I know that we seem to be at two extremes on this discussion. Actually, you and I actually have most of the same goals from an environmental point of view. I’m just trying to let the science tell me how to get there.

  • planb247

    the better question is who pays Steve Savage’s bills? is it Monsanto or Cargill? or perhaps a chemical fertilizer company. I’ve never seen so much hooey. you have some facts right, but leap off in directions that are unwarranted. by that I mean that organic does not require tilling nor manure, yet you act like those are essential to organic methods. you seem to be bought and sold by some corporate interests to me… otherwise this just doesn’t make any sense.

  • Pingback: Why “Organic” Fertilizers are Not the Solution to the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico : Sustainablog

  • http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com Steve Savage

    planb247,
    In fact no one pays me to do this blog and I actually lose money because I’m not working on paid projects. Organic does not absolutely require tillage or manure, but that is the way it is normally done for row crops. Vegetables and fruit could be all hand weeded but you couldn’t do that say for bread wheat in ND or soybeans in Iowa. I know that Rodale is working of a no-till system for Organic, but it isn’t very practical, at least at this stage.

    The only “sense” about why I write this is that I have been frustrated by the disinformation that abounds about agriculture. It matters how we farm and I’ve spent more than 30 years working on improvements. I’d like to see some big changes in the future. I work with all sorts of different entities that share those goals, but very few people in the general public know anything about farming and how far it has come in the past decades.

    I have not done project work for Monsanto for many years, but I’d be happy to work with them in the future because they are doing some very positive things for the environment and for humanity. I do work for large and small companies, for biocontrol and chemical companies, for Universities and for grower groups, but this blog isn’t for any of them.

  • http://lise.traduction.over-blog.com/ Lise

    Interesting post. But the manure is there anyway. And it has to go somewhere. I understand that the best solution is to use it to create energy, but the facilities for that are not developed enough yet. So, for the moment, isn’t it better to use manure in the fields than to take it to landfill? Not using manure in agriculture is not gonna make it disapear.

  • http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com Steve Savage

    Lise,
    You are right. Most farmers with animals don’t have any viable options but to spread the manure. I think it would be fantastic if someone invented small scale digesters or pyrolysis systems, but I don’t know how feasible that really is.
    Thanks for the comment.

  • M.S. Patterson

    I have a few comments on your article:

    Firstly, you initially seem to be assuming that the composted manure being applied to fields instead of chemical fertilizer is not otherwise being produced/rotted, and therefore not producing methane.
    This is clearly not the case. No new sources of manure are going to appear to meet this need, were a sudden shift in farming practices to occur (though we might begin using municipal solid waste streams for this purpose, provided they are sufficiently clean).

    So, while it is true that some (possibly substantial) amount of methane will be produced, we will still have a net-reduction, as no energy and carbon intensive chemical fertilizers will be being manufactured, AND it is likely that the manure already being produced will be more carefully composted and undergo less methanogenesis than is currently the case (and generally speaking, the methane produced is carbon neutral, in the sense that it came from biomass, not from ancient sources, and represents no net gain in carbon to the current carbon cycle, which is why it’s also attractive as an energy source).

    It’s true that your proposal to convert all of this biomass into char (which can substantially improve soil fertility, and acts as a method of sequestration), syn-gas and so forth would eliminate methane production entirely, but we are equally far from that solution to the agricultural waste problem as we are from converting it all into compost for field use.

    Second, the most nitrogen intensive crop that we grow, corn, is grown for feed and corn syrup at a ridiculous scale. Reducing meat consumption and getting rid of CAFOs would do us a huge amount of good in terms of reducing methane emissions.

    Moving towards a sustainable agricultural system means more than just switching to manure. It also means changing how we eat, how many animals we raise, in what manner we raise them, and how we deal with the waste streams produced by these processes. There is enormous room for improvement on every single one of these issues, most of which also bring with them a reduction in greenhouse gases, sedimentation problems, eutrophication of water bodies, etc.

    Additionally, the nitrogen runoff issue can be dealt with when using non-chemical fertilizers much the same way as with chemical fertilizers. Farmers tend to over-apply fertilizers of any type, can do so at the wrong time, and frequently don’t have any means of controlling runoff from their fields. Compost is compatible with most of the methods you’ve proposed, including no-till, cover crops, etc, and many of the same techniques for reducing NOX emissions apply to it as well.

    Let me be clear that I’m not opposed to the careful application of chemical fertilizers when it’s useful. It has its place in sustainable farming practices. The main goal however, as you clearly understand by what other things you suggested, is to rebuild soil ecology and fertility, and maintain it sustainably, while controlling runoff, and where possible, greenhouse emissions.

    No one solution can, or will be the answer. “Conventional” farming is no more the solution than “Organic” farming. If a healthy soil ecology, and with it fertility, were restored and maintained on most farms, total overall need for fertilizer applications would decrease, even for relatively intense cultivation.

    I think erecting what boils down to a strawman argument against compost application doesn’t do you any credit, as you clearly understand and want to fix the problems facing the agricultural systems of the industrialized world.

  • http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com Steve Savage

    MS Patterson,
    I really agree with your point “No one solution can, or will be the answer.” I’m not saying that current “conventional” agriculture is ok. I want to see change. I don’t want to make a “strawman argument” against compost. I just want folks to understand that it is not quite as “green” as they think. The science supports that point

  • http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com Steve Savage

    MS patterson,
    You didn’t give me an email address so I can’t respond in greater detail as I would like. I appreciate your input. I’d like to answer your points.

    Steve

  • Alison Grantham

    The conclusion that organic farmers will “definitely” need to supplement cover crop and leguminous N with manure to meet the crop N needs of corn, barley, wheat etc. is not accurate. One of the organic systems trialed in the Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial is an organic legume system that receives no manure inputs. The hairy vetch cover crop we produce between small grain harvest and corn planting supplies 150-250lbs. N/acre, which supplies plenty of N for the succeeding corn crop (especially in Berks Co., PA where the yield goal is 130 bu/A). Additionally, the assumption that organic farmers will have to till in the leguminous cover crop to establish corn is no longer true. Mechanically terminating the cover crop by rolling and establishing the corn crop by no-till means in a single pass has been developed over the last decade and is now being tested at research stations around the country.

  • http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com Steve Savage

    Alison,
    The cover crop approach is excellent and I am glad to see that it is becoming a more widespread practice today. Still, I’m sure you would acknowledge that the use of manure or compost is common for Organic row crop farms.
    As for the rolling crimper – the researchers I’ve talked to say it is not something very practical, at least so far.

    I certainly understand that Rodale has quite a history with regard to Organic so I’ll ask you -why is it still only practiced on less than one percent of our cropland?

  • http://OrganicConsumer'sGuide Theodore Carlat

    What next? Headlines: “Organic farming threatens future expansion of chemical industries in rural communities!” Really enough sensationalism. Has this guy been drinking an agricultural cocktail spiked with $ from the agri-chemical industry?

    Real cogent thought is what is needed when approaching all our challenges. Livestock manure (nitrogen and now methane) has often gotten a bad rap by the “environmental movement and the conventional agricultural advocates”. But, wait what if the farms livestock grazed on grass on pastures as nature intended? Their manures would be rapidly recycled by birds, insects and other animals in a balanced ecological farm system. Fact number one: we need a diversified Agriculture incorporating both plant crops and livestock as was the healthy model for a few hundred years in Europe and in Americas first 150 to 200 years. A Biodynamic farm sometimes referred as a “farm organism” does consider the wider cycling of the farms elements. Biodynamic preparation 500 cow-horn-manure and biodynamic composting used correctly will encourage humus development. Humus is the key factor and the missing link in conventional agriculture systems and on many industrial organic farms as well. Without a discussion of humus their is no real point in talking about carbon footprint. Make humus materials out of livestock waste ( and manure is not waste only in a wasteful conventional agricultural system) to create sustainability. Humus can hold and incorporate all the potentially harmful organic farm substances. Organic mater so often referred to in organic farming is only the first step to sustainability. Organic matter on organic farms needs to be turned into humus at every opportunity. Why has the author omitted the carbon foot print of conventional feed lot farming systems which feed most Americans? The organic farms are never the problem when compared to the destructive impact of all of convention farming’s practices, which must include the use of industrial and sewage sludge waste (used as fertilizers), pesticides, the herbicides and fungicides, GMO”s, irradiation of conventional food and all the hidden costs and impact on human health and the ecosystem. Humus can incorporate and make stable most organic compounds. Allen Savory with the Holistic Resource Management has also addressed the wider environmental issues with rotational grazing management and the Sierra Club, the State of Utah and many others have endorsed this system which by increasing livestock can improve the environment in many ways. The wheel showing crop production is an incorrect and false premise in agriculture to start with be it in organic or conventional production. We should not be growing the unnecessary quantities of federally subsidized corn and soy commodity crops in the first place.
    And, yes we need bio-digesters many of them ASAP used at every large dairy operation and feed lot.

  • http://www.earthwormworks.com/ Red Worms

    Using red worms for composting manures would go a long way in addressing this issue of methane from manure compost piles. There is no question that we must find a different way than the past of big-agriculture. Using vermi-compost and worm castings is certainly one answer. Locally grown is a must.

  • http://www.monroeworks.com/ Worm Castings

    When it comes right down to it, if we focus on growing food that is healthier for us with methods that cause the least harm to the plant, it’s just common sense. And not that complicated

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  • Su

    Quote from Steve…….”Some of that can also be done by genetic engineering – the kind that is offered for free to poor farmers through groups like the Gates Foundation or the Danforth Center”………………………………..Honestly, when are you guys going to give us a break??? What if we offer you some un tried and tested potentially dangerous ‘science’ from a myopic philanthropist in Africa? …………and for free too!!…………………would you bow down and say thankyou for fear of seeming non appreciatiative???

    We don’t want free hand outs. We don’t need free hand outs and we are not stupid and naive as you appear to think we are.
    Since when did America hold all the solutions, if it did you would not have the problems you do with obesity due to poor food quality………you have gone beyond ‘common sense’. When food is industrialised to the degree that value addition is resulting in value depletion and a sick population you need to stop and figure out your own problems before even attempting to ‘help’ us for free!! There is no such thing as free.

    Bush opened our eyes to this when he said NO Anti retrovirals unless we adopt GMO’S …………………. can you imagine an African leader ever saying this to the peoples of America?

    There is simply nothing holistic about conventional agriculture. It is production line agri to the extreme , the results are in your face today and damaging the planet. Organic may not prove to have all the answers, but conventional has certainly proved to be a disaster. Add on GMO’s to this ? You do the math.

    Whilst learning alot of new angles to the ongoing debate, Steve you lost my respect with that one liner about ‘Gmo offered for free to the poor farmers ……………..’ With an attitude like this Monsanto should be proud and would do well to employ you.

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