Can Real Organic Farming Reduce Climate Change and Enhance Biodiversity?
By Jean-Paul Stewart-Courtens
I will start off with a somber fact; agriculture has a terrible reputation for its impact on the environment. The displacement of hunting and gathering by farming caused tremendous disruption on our planet. Desertification and the loss of biodiversity are but two consequences. Land use has already contributed hundreds of billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere and is responsible for 17% to 32% of greenhouse gases annually. It is also responsible for significant pollution of rivers, oceans and drinking water. Can farming change from having a negative impact on the environment to having a positive impact?
The Research institute for Organic Agriculture (FiBL) paper on Organic Farming and Climate Change shows that organic farming can help avert the worst consequences of climate change and help to mitigate the devastating losses of insect species and the decline of bird life. Unfortunately, we can no longer assume that converting to organic production methods (as in USDA certified organic) will assure this. Cows in feedlots fed with organic grains and blueberries in pots on weedmats under high tunnels certainly do not provide the ecological services assumed under the studies like FiBL.
What does a Real Organic Farm look like? We will have to go back to the inception of Organic Agriculture as a concept within modern agriculture. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of biodynamic agriculture, articulated this in 1924 by stating that: “The farm can be conceived as a kind of independent individuality, a self-contained entity. Every farm ought to aspire to this state of being a self-contained individuality. This state cannot be attained completely, but it needs to be approached….”. His statement reflects the other founders of organic agriculture that this kind of agriculture is based on the fundamental principle of integrity; that everything in nature is interdependent and that the farm is a living organism. Let me share how I understand this statement.
I think of a single cell organism as an analogy for the farm as a living self-contained organism in that any organism has one or more semi-permeable membranes. Semi-permeable membranes are not designed to keep everything in and leave everything out, they discriminate what comes in and what leaves. Membranes allow the organism to have integrity. A more complex barrier to consider is the skin. Healthy skin protects animals from a wide range of environmental hazards, and each major opening of this barrier is cause for concern. If the farm is viewed like any other self-contained organism where is the analogy of a membrane or skin that ensures its integrity? Yes, it is the soil itself.
Over my lifetime of working with soil I wonder if exposing the soil isn’t like breaking a skin or breaching a membrane. Leaving the soil exposed is compromising the integrity of the farm as a living self-sustaining organism. The rapid depletion of organic matter of the former prairies gave us plenty evidence that cultivation caused both massive erosion and rapid mineralization of organic matter. At the time of Manifest Destiny, the soil organic matter was around 15%. In many places this has dropped to less than 5%. Aside from the tremendous loss of soil health, this also implies the release of 260 tons of CO2 per acre into the atmosphere over the course of 150 years.
Cultivation reduces organic matter and reduces soil health in general; absence of living roots eliminates mycorrhizal activity in the soil. And absence of mycorrhizal activity reduces the ability of the soil to hold nutrients.
The recent study “Symbiotic soil fungi enhance ecosystem resilience to climate change” by Laura Martinez in Wageningen University shows that fungal threads function like a matrix to hold nutrients. The presence of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi in the soil greatly reduced phosphorus and nitrogen losses under high rainfall scenarios. As mycorrhizal fungi need to have a direct relationship with living roots, it is safe to conclude that a healthy farm has much of its blanketed in living cover at all or most of the times. What better way to cover the soil than with grasses and legumes? Given that bovines are not built to properly digest cereal grains and soybeans, Real Organic Agriculture embraces the notion of actively managed grasslands, for the well-being of the animals, the health of the consumer and because it mitigates climate change, enhances biodiversity and increases soil health.
The current argument against cows is that they burp out methane, a gas that is almost 30 times more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. According to some studies, grass-fed cows burp even more methane than corn fed cows. But none of these studies correctly budget for any offsets from reduced nitrous oxide emissions and organic matter sequestration by grasslands. What if we add the pollution of surface and groundwater caused by nitrogen fertilizer application due to corn production? Organically managed grasslands are completely self-sustainable in nitrogen, as legumes, in symbiosis with nitrogen fixing bacteria, convert nitrogen into ammonia. And, oh yes, these bacteria need both soil and roots. Converting the Midwest corn belt back to prairie grazed by ruminants is a bold idea but possibly the most effective way to achieve multiple objectives from mitigating nitrogen pollution to sequestering carbon and increasing biodiversity.
How perfect it will be to offer our domestic animals a natural environment as opposed to the feedlots they are currently kept in? And for the doubters amongst you that are still not convinced that grass-based agriculture might be an important step in saving our world, I will point to two more studies. First, there are ways to cut the methane burping of cows. An article in MIT technology review on a recent study at UC Davies says that cows fed even 1 lbs. of seaweed can cut methane output by 60%. Secondly, in context of the California and Australian wildfires researchers concluded that “Grassland is a more reliable carbon sink than trees”.
While alternating pasture and hayfields with cropland is an important step in making agriculture part of the solution instead of the problem, we also need to consider how we work the cropland for human consumption. Creating living soil does not imply converting every acre to no-till. No-till all by itself is not a gold standard. No-till all by itself does not build soil, it keeps it in place. But by applying cover crops, reduced tillage and mulching, actual soil building can be accomplished.
At our own farm we converted land that was planted predominantly in potato and corn into a mixed vegetable and grass-based livestock operation. Each year about 10% of the farmland was opened for annual vegetable crops, another 10% planted into green manures, while the rest remained in semi-permanent cover for livestock and native habitat. By incorporating tall green manures combined with tillage we still saw a steady improvement of the health of the soil.
But I wanted to push the envelope. In working with my students at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub, we experimented with a rolled and crimped legume cover crop in our hopes to reduce tillage during the growing season. In June we rolled the cover crop and planted sweet corn, broccoli and cauliflower. The weed suppression was excellent in sweetcorn, but we needed significant amount of hoeing in the broccoli and cauliflower, so more work needs to be done here to perfect this system. The yield in sweet corn was equal or better than the conventional plot, with better quality ears. But what was fascinating to see was the side by side comparison as the conventional tilled field with broccoli wilted while the one that was not tilled never did. The moisture holding capacity of the soil was much greater in the plot where did not disturbed the soil before planting.
The cauliflower was much healthier in the undisturbed plots, and the crew preferred to harvest in this plot as there was no presence of bad odors as often happens when dead leaves fall to the ground. And then we went out with a shovel and dug around the soil a bit the soil under the cauliflower had good texture, full of worm holes and showed and abundance of earthworms as compared to dusty and blocky soil in the conventional tilled and planted plot.
We are in a place of history whereby we were able to see this planet as a living organism. We have the evidence that our actions have an impact, but more importantly we can also now imagine that agriculture can have a positive impact. Real Organic farming by itself won’t reverse climate change, but it can take important steps in the right direction. Real Organic farming fills an important role in preserving the biodiversity of this planet and preserving our water resources as well.
What sustains mankind with much of our nutritional needs is just a small sliver of the surface of this planet. This sliver is getting smaller due to development and desertification, so we better take good care of what we have left. If we want to survive, we will need to take care of it and then it will take care of us as well. I look forward to the time when we acknowledge that we are not separated from nature but that we are nature. By learning to work in partnership with nature, be better stewards of that little sliver of land that feeds us, we will ensure our source of nutrition while contributing to averting climate change and the loss of biodiversity.
About the Author:
Jean-Paul Stewart-Courtens is a native of the Netherlands. He is a graduate of Warmonderhof, part of Groenhorst Agriculture College, specializing in biodynamic farming. He moved to the US in 1986 and founded Roxbury Farm in 1990 growing from 5 acres of vegetables to a 425 acre integrated farm. In 2018 he founded Roxbury Agriculture Institute at Philia Farm to further education and research in regenerative agriculture.
Between 2014 and 2017 Jean-Paul created the ProFarmer program at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub in Hurley NY; an on-the-job training program to provide a path to farm-ownership. During this time, he guided the transition of their 1250-acre sweet corn operation to organic and biodynamic practices. Jean-Paul was recognized as Farmer of the Year by NOFA NY in January 2018.