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Organic and Climate Change

Climate change. You’ve heard a lot about it but you may not be aware of its connections to agriculture.

On the one hand, agriculture generates about 8% of Canada’s greenhouse gasses (mainly carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane) but on the other hand, a shift in food production practices has the potential to make agriculture part of the solution to climate change.

We’re happy to say that many organic farming practices are already part of the solution! 

Farmers for Climate Solutions has identified several ways to reduce agricultural emissions. They recommend that all Canadian farms:

Optimize the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. 

Producing synthetic fertilizers is an energy intensive process and the inefficient use of nitrogen fertilizer results in nitrous oxide emissions from soil. Nitrous oxide is 300 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. With better management of nitrogen fertilizer, farmers can use less without sacrificing crop yields.  

Organic farming uses NO synthetic fertilizers.

Improve grazing management of ruminant livestock (cattle, sheep and goats).

Ruminant animals digest food through enteric fermentation, a microbial process which produces methane as a by-product. Grazing practices that reduce greenhouse gasses include increasing the proportion of legumes in pasture and extending the time that animals spend grazing on pasture. Digesting legumes produces less methane than digesting grasses. And having more nitrogen-fixing legumes in the pasture means less synthetic fertilizer nitrogen is needed to maintain fertility.

Organic farmers depend on legumes as part of their fertility management.

Organic ruminants are required to be on pasture during the grazing season.

Increase cover cropping and intercropping.

Keeping the soil covered with a mix of growing plants (including legumes) decreases the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and increases soil carbon sequestration.

Cover cropping and intercropping are common practices in organic farming.

Another way that agriculture contributes to greenhouse gas emissions is through the clearing of vegetation, like trees, to create more cultivated land; the carbon that was stored in the vegetation is released into the atmosphere. Criticism of organic farming as a climate solution often focuses on the fact that organic yields tend to be lower than intensive farming yields, suggesting that more land would need to be cleared to maintain current production levels. 

Long-term studies at the Rodale Institute show different results. Although yields were lower for the first few years on land transitioned to organic, once soil health was restored, yields tended to be similar - except in years of drought, when organic yields were up to 30% higher than intensive. Healthy soil is better at holding water and nutrients which buffers plants from environmental stressors. 

When comparing productivity, it’s important to think about the long-view. Intensively farmed soil will continue to degrade. In the future, it will not produce at the same level it does today, even with the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. 

Organic agriculture is already building climate resilient farms!

Climate change is bringing more extreme weather events, droughts, heat waves, and shifting pest cycles.  Farm resilience is key to adapting to these environmental challenges and that means building soil health, increasing soil organic matter, and supporting biodiversity. With a commitment to continuous improvement, organic farmers are building regenerative farms which actually draw carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it as stable carbon in the soil. 

You, the eater, have an important role to play. Your food choices impact the way in which food is grown. By supporting farming practices that build climate friendly and resilient farms, you are supporting secure food production for the future.

For more information on climate change:

CLIMAtlantic facilitates access to data and information that supports adaptation to climate change in Atlantic Canada including maps of expected changes in temperature and precipitation.

Agriculture in the Classroom Canada resources for K-12. Farming and Environment.