Imagine if we could quickly reduce the threat of climate change and grow healthier crops at the same time, without the sacrifice the coal and oil industry tells us are inevitable! Turns out we can, and the solution is literally right under our feet.
As we know now, too much carbon dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere is disastrous for our planet. CO2 traps heat and results in the ice caps melting, more extreme weather, sea levels rising and a variety of consequences that will disrupt life as we know it.
Much of the CO2 in the atmosphere (as much as 30 percent) is leaked by industrial farming. Climate scientists tell us there should be no more than 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere and we are already at 400 ppm. What does this mean? We are racing against the carbon clock to combat climate change.
However... CO2 in the ground, where it naturally occurs, is in fact necessary for fertile soil, and results in healthier and more drought-resistant cropland. We can keep CO2 in the ground through a natural process that traps it in a "carbon sink." That process is organic or "carbon farming."
We all remember learning about photosynthesis in school. Plants manufacture much of their food from sunlight, water and CO2, turning those molecules into food. The CO2 is exchanged with the fungi and bacteria in the soil that need it to make richer soil and, in turn, healthier plants. In doing so, the CO2 is captured in the ground. In this natural ecological barter system, carbon is sequestered, helping plants grow while keeping the soil healthy. Industrial farming literally prevents this underground transaction from happening by releasing the CO2 into the atmosphere.
Organic farms, like the famous Rodale Farming System Trial in Pennsylvania, showed that building up soil carbon has other benefits too. It also acts like a water sponge and helps maintain crop yields when conventionally grown crops are dying of thirst during droughts. Unfortunately, extreme droughts may become the new normal as climate change alters our weather patterns, giving us yet another reason to implement organic farming on a large scale. According to the USDA-funded Marin Carbon Project, the overuse use of insecticides, herbicides and fertilizers also release what is normally sequestered carbon -- adding to the problems of climate change.
The good news is that if humans get out of the way, CO2 can be tucked back in the soil to do good, instead of being trapped in the atmosphere doing harm. A U.N. report noted using carbon sinks through natural farming methods could reduce the carbon in the atmosphere to pre-industrial levels in just 50 years!
The critics say we need industrial agriculture to feed the growing population of the world. We're told that we cannot go back to natural, regenerative, organic farming as the way we grow our food. In short, this isn't true.
The world has less of a food problem, than a food distribution problem, and studies show that yields are comparable between the two methods when done to scale. The United Nations Environment Program points out that "in the United States 30 percent of all food... is thrown away each year [and] about half of the water used to produce this food also goes to waste, since agriculture is the largest human use of water."
Propping soil up with increasing use of chemicals will lead to soil that can no longer produce as plants become immune to them. The ingestion of chemicals from pesticides and the introduction of GMOs from industrial farming both cause havoc to the natural ecosystem, and have uncertain and understudied health effects for us. Industrial farming is itself not viable for our future.
The scientific journal, Nature, sums up the benefits of carbon sinks. Organic farming and sustainable land management improve "soil structure and reduce erosion, leading to improved water quality in groundwater and surface waters, and ultimately to increased food security and decreased negative impacts to ecosystems."
And here's a bonus: we can do this right now. We don't need a technological breakthrough to solve the climate crisis. We are already learning this from farming and grazing system trials across the world -- from the U.S. to Costa Rica, Thailand, Egypt, and now China.
If enough farmland and grassland are converted back from industrial to natural farming, we can put huge amounts of carbon back where it belongs, maintain yields in times of drought, eat healthier food and reduce healthcare costs.
So while more research is being done, and should be, we already know enough to say, let's begin the transformation today. What you can do is spread the word. Shop at your local farmer's market and buy organic products when you can. The price should come down as more produce is grown organically. This means more people should be able to buy it, creating a virtuous circle of increased supply to meet increased demand. The sooner we have support for carbon sinks and organic farming, the sooner we can start to seriously combat climate change.