cows in field

Climate Policy for Agriculture that Works

Ensuring that America’s Organic Farmers are Part of the Solution

By Meredith Niles
Cool Foods Campaign Coordinator
Center for Food Safety

Added August 1, 2009. Not since Earl Butz’s famous “hedgerow to hedgerow” comment of the 1970s have America’s farmers been at such a turning point. Food and farming policy in the United States is largely determined by the Farm Bill, behemoth legislation that comes around once every five years. Yet, the current climate legislation—The American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES)— offers an unprecedented opportunity to rethink the way America farms. Since the start of ACES (March 2009), agriculture interests have had an unspoken, yet powerful voice in the bill. Ag was explicitly exempted from the “capped” sector, which meant that it was always intended to receive offset benefits in ACES. But the question remains whether agricultural offsets will be awarded to the types of practices and systems that are scientifically proven to actually reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and sequester carbon. It’s the quality—not the quantity—of offsets that will determine how effective the legislation is at reducing GHG emissions.

An increasing amount of peer-reviewed science demonstrates the true ability of organic practices and systems to not only sequester more carbon than conventional and no-till agriculture (yes, even no-till, the industry’s exalted climate change solution), but to inherently produce fewer GHG emissions overall. This is a point I can’t emphasize enough-climate legislation can not simply hope to sequester its way out of a looming environmental crisis. Unless ACES makes actual and verified reductions in GHG emissions it will be ineffective. And one of the best agricultural solutions that have the science to back up such reductions is organic agriculture, with agroecological practices including abstaining from synthetic fertilizer and pesticide use, cover cropping, pasture-based animal production, incorporation of compost and manures into soils, and prevention of bare fields.

So what does the science say? The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization concluded “[w]ith lower energy inputs, organic systems contribute less to GHG emissions and have a greater potential to sequester carbon in biomass than conventional
systems.” Research published by Pelletier et al. last year in Environmental Management found that organic cropping systems required half the fossil fuel inputs and generated three-fourths the GHG emissions of conventional agriculture. Additional studies share similar results, largely because organic agriculture abstains from using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. If we are really aiming for “energy independence” why aren’t we directing our farm policies to organic practices?

Let’s direct our attention to another issue that dairy producers know better than anyone in this country- manure. There have been a lot of questions floating around as to why Americans should care about livestock poop, particularly in the context of climate change and GHG emissions. While it is little discussed, it is actually quite a significant contributor to GHG emissions. First and foremost- animal manure and livestock produce methane and nitrous oxide, which are about 23 and 300 times respectively stronger than carbon dioxide. According to the EPA GHG Inventory, manure is the 5th largest source of methane and the 4th largest source of nitrous oxide in the U.S. It results in more GHG emissions per year than all cement production and more than twice as many emissions as waste incineration and natural gas systems in the U.S.

It should also be mentioned that enteric fermentation-gases produced from livestockis the number one source of methane emissions in the U.S. Combined, manure and enteric fermentation produce about as many GHG emissions as the entire commercial sector’s burning of fossil fuel in the United States. The United Nations estimates that animal production contributes nearly one fifth of all global GHG emissions, making it not only a significant source of emissions but a significant opportunity for
reductions and mitigation.

Yet, not all manure is created equal. The EPA has determined that when manures are stored or treated in liquid storage systems commonly found on factory farms, the decomposition of manure
produces great amounts of methane, unlike when manure is handled as a solid or deposited on pasture, range or paddock lands. Manures spread appropriately on pastures and paddocks produce
minimal amounts of methane. Research has also documented that manure stores on conventional farms emitted about twenty-five percent more methane gas than organic farms.

Still more scientific studies are finding that organic pasture raised animals offer a variety of climate benefits. Research by Flessa et. al. (2002) published in Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment
suggested that transitioning to pasture agriculture is the single best way to cut GHG emissions in animal production. Additional studies (Boadi, 2004 and DeRamus et. al., 2003) determined
that feeding livestock on pasture compared to feedlot diets usually consisting of corn and soy reduced methane emissions about 20%. I may be preaching to the choir here, but I think you get it- feeding your animals on pasture reduces manure enteric fermentation emissions. This is a climate solution that thus far has remained little discussed in ACES or most other climate change legislation.

We are at a turning point—and you, America’s progressive and organic farmers—are at the heart of it. Perhaps you have not thought about climate change before, or prefer to keep your distance from the political dealings of Washington. But farming, and in fact even eating, in America is no longer an isolated act- it is fundamentally political. Climate change legislation has the potential to completely change the way you farm, the way you receive payments and how America eats. At the heart of feeding a country safe and healthy food and ensuring the environmental protection of our planet are America’s organic farmers. Yet, progressive and effective climate change legislation is no longer progressive when it perpetuates and rewards industrial agriculture that has been the main source of agricultural emissions for decades. Failure to include organic practices and certified organic producers in ACES, or any other climate change bill for that matter, will set back our goal of reducing GHGs in the present and prevent America’s farmers from economically transitioning to ecological farming in the future.

As the model for what climate-friendly animal production can look like, I encourage you all to do something you may not have done before- get political. Make calls, stay informed, and contact your
Congress person. They want to hear from America’s farmers, but if they aren’t hearing from our organic and progressive farmers, they won’t understand the real role that you can play in climate change mitigation. You are farmers, but you are also a powerful voice in the climate debate—speak up and let your voices be heard.