USDA-Office of the Chief Economist: Climate Change 09-19-08 - Organic Trade Association
Organic Trade Association
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USDA-Office of the Chief Economist: Climate Change 09-19-08


RE:  Request for Public Input on USDA's Climate Change Strategic Planning Priorities and Goals for Research, Education, and Extension.


As representative of over 1600 members in every aspect of the organic farming, processing, distribution and retail supply chain for food, organic textiles, personal care products, and more, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) is pleased to have this opportunity to comment on the USDA's Climate Change Strategic Planning Priorities and Goals for Research, Education, and Extension. OTA has been involved in encouraging organic agriculture since 1985, and OTA continues this effort through www.HowToGoOrganic.com, a clearinghouse of information for those farms and other businesses hoping to offer organic products.


Fostering organic practices offer a significant opportunity to help address climate change issues. Organic agriculture is mitigating climate change today, and increasingly strong support of organic agriculture will help USDA achieve its goals in this area. The more USDA can support organic agriculture, the more organic agriculture can mitigate climate change.


To better incorporate organic agriculture into these climate change strategic plans, OTA recommends the following:


Goal 1: Understand the effects of climate change on natural and managed ecosystems.


In seeking to understand the effects of climate change on agriculture, consider organic agriculture as a separate category from other types of agriculture. There is evidence (see below) that organic farms can better withstand some problems caused by climate change, while at the same time preventing further degradation of the environment that can lead to climate change (see below for specific citations).


Goal 2: Develop knowledge and tools to enable adaptation to climate change and improve the resilience of natural and managed ecosystems. This goal includes a focus on developing knowledge to address detrimental effects of climate change. 


Organic agriculture provides a model for sustainable practices in agriculture-organic farm management strategies are proven methods that enable farmers to cope with the challenges associated with drought, moisture stress, pests and disease. In order to meet these goals, it is not necessary to risk costly genetic modification or other unproven tactics. Knowledge to enhance ecosystem sustainability already resides in the nation's organic farmers, and that knowledge, if systematically disseminated and put into practice more broadly, with encouragement from the extension service (CSREES), can help increase ecosystem resilience. Furthermore, organic farmers have been at the forefront of using seeds and breeds adapted to particular environmental conditions. To ensure that these valuable seeds and breeds are available to future generations, USDA must work to maintain lines untainted with unproven and risky genetic engineering.


Goal 3: Develop knowledge and tools to reduce the contributions of agriculture to the build up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. One area of focus within this goal is knowledge and technologies that will assist resource managers in enhancing carbon sequestration.


With proper attention within these plans, organic farming could be a firm foundation for carbon-responsible agriculture. Extension agents need to have training and information and an understanding of how organic agriculture fits the big picture of climate change. All those who advise farmers need to understand that encouraging organic agriculture is a high priority because it helps fulfill USDA goals concerning climate change.


Furthermore, the Joint Statement of the Managers of the 2008 Farm Bill states on p. 186, under Title 7-Research (73) High Priority Research and Extension Areas, that "The Conference substitute adopts the Senate provision with an amendment to add the following to the list of high-priority research and extension initiatives:... Agricultural Practices Relating to Climate Change...." 


Given the high priority the Managers of the 2008 Farm Bill placed on research and extension initiative concerning agricultural practices relating to climate change, the time is right to further support transition to organic production. The Farm Bill does provide funds for farmers converting to organic production (Section 2501). With this renewed interest in organic agriculture as demonstrated in the Farm Bill, there is an opportunity to further expand organic acreage to take better advantage of organic farming's environmentally friendly characteristics, especially around issues of climate change. 


The following citations will be useful in demonstrating why fostering transition to organic agriculture is one of the best strategies USDA can adopt to address climate change efficiently.


USDA's Economic Research Service has published a report on the benefits of organic agriculture, including the potential of organic soils to sequester carbon; please see http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/aib780/aib780.pdf (page 4), especially the work of Drinkwater et al. and Lal et al.1  OTA urges USDA to expand and refine these reports to address other benefits of organic agricultural systems in regard to mitigating the effects of climate change.


Lal also published a viewpoint article in Science saying that restoring soil carbon levels should be a top priority globally.2  According to Lal, the amount of carbon that can be restored in agricultural soils will directly influence global food security and climate change, and he called for such management practices as cover crops, and using manure and compost.


Several other recent studies demonstrate the value of organic agriculture in mitigating the effects of climate change.


In 2002, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization published "Organic Agriculture, Environment and Food Security,"3 which contains a wealth of information regarding both analytical frameworks and specific studies, including a discussion of the various pathways by which organic agriculture reduces agricultural trace gas emissions (including the categories of agricultural land use and management, use of manure and waste, animal husbandry, and management of fertilizers).


OTA would also draw USDA's attention to a paper from the Institute of Science in Society, "Mitigating climate change through organic agriculture,"4 which covers energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and carbon sequestration.


A more recent study from Rodale confirms the potential of organic agriculture in energy use and carbon sequestration.5  Researchers at the Rodale Institute in October unveiled findings from the institute's long-term studies reaffirming that organic farming practices can help battle the effects of global warming.  Results show that organic agriculture systems absorb and retain carbon at significant levels in soil.


In the report, Rodale notes that "Organic systems increase soil carbon 15-28 percent, accumulating about 1,000 pounds of carbon per acre foot of soil each year (equal to about 3,500 pounds of carbon dioxide per acre taken from the air and sequestered into soil organic matter)."  In addition, researchers reported that organic farming practices emit one-third fewer greenhouse gases by eliminating energy inputs required to produce pesticides and fertilizers.


Other findings from the field trials, which have compared three cropping systems on 12 acres (conventional using a five-year crop rotation of corn, corn, soybeans, corn and soybeans; organic manure-based; and organic legume-based): after a four-year transition period, organic corn and soybean yields were comparable to those of conventional systems; production costs were 26 percent lower in the organic systems; in drought years, corn yields in the legume-based system were 22 percent higher than those for the conventional system; and organic farming increases soil nitrogen levels 8-15 percent and reduces nitrogen loss that may occur through leaching.


Research findings from the trials published in the American Journal of Alternative Agriculture6 showed that organic crop systems perform better than conventionally managed crop systems during climate extremes, both for drought and excessive rainfall, and stating, "Organic crop management techniques will be a valuable resource in an era of climatic variability, providing soil and crop characteristics that can better buffer environmental extremes."


The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) has posted the results of a 64-page report, "The Role of Organic Agriculture in Mitigating Climate Change: A Scoping Study,"7 at www.ifoam.org/orgagri/ClimateStudy_IFOAM, in which researchers report organic farming practices emit one-third fewer greenhouse gases by eliminating energy inputs required to produce pesticides and fertilizers.


Governmental and other groups have already recognized the potential for organic agriculture in address climate change. For example, Pennsylvania's Departments of Agriculture and Environmental Protection have agreed to support further study, education and research efforts with The Rodale Institute concerning organic agriculture's potential role in reducing the effects of excess atmospheric carbon associated with global warming when considering Federal-State collaboration.


The Forschungsinstitute für biologischen Landbau (Research Institute of Organic Agriculture) has published a dossier that includes climate change mitigation as a benefit of organic agriculture.8  The report highlights what is known about the quality of organic products, and how they differ from non-organic products in terms of quality and safety.  The dossier includes highlights from literature reviews carried out between 1995 and 2003, and is available for download as a PDF document from www.fibl.org.


Also, the Forschungsinstitute für biologischen Landbau teamed with the International Trade Centre (UNCTAD/WTO) to produce a study focusing on organic agriculture and the "considerable potential of organic agriculture for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, and its contribution to sequestration of CO2 in the soil."9




Taken together, the benefits of organic agriculture represent a significant opportunity for USDA to move quickly address climate change issues without the need for costly investment in unproven and expensive new technologies. By continued market support and investment in training for farmers, extension service agents, and others, USDA can make great strides in using agriculture to mitigate climate change.


OTA encourages USDA to move forward expeditiously with this strategic plan and to harness the benefits of organic production in its work on climate change.


Finally, the Organic Trade Association supports the comments of Rodale Institute and the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition on this issue.


1 Drinkwater, L. E., P. Wagoner, and M. Sarrantonio. 1998. Legume-based cropping systems have reduced carbon and nitrogen losses," Nature, Vol. 396, November 19.


Lal, R., J.M. Kimble, R.F. Follett and C.V. Cole. 1998. The Potential of U.S. Cropland to Sequester Carbon and Mitigate the Greenhouse Effect. Chelsea, MI: Ann Arbor Press.


2  Lal, Rattan, et al., Soil Carbon Sequestration Impacts on Global Climate Change and Food Security, Science, June, 2004.

3  Scialabba, Nadia and Caroline Hattam, eds.  Rome:  Food and Agriculture Organization, 2002. Organic agriculture, environment and food security,

4  Ho, Mae-Wan and Lim Li Ching. London: Institute for Science in Society, 2007.  Mitigating Climate Change through Organic Agriculture.

5  LaSalle, Tim J. and Paul Hepperly. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Institute, 2008.  Regenerative Organic Farming:  A Solution to Global Warming.

6  Lotter, D.W., R. Seidel and W. Liebhardt. American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, Vol. 18, No. 3, 2003.

7  Kotschi, Johannes, and Karl Müller-Sämann. "The Role of Organic Agriculture in Mitigating Climate Change: A Scoping Study." May, 2004, International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements.

8  Alföldi, Thomas, José Granado, Edith Kieffer, Ursula Kretzschmar, Marion Morgner, Urs Niggli, Alfred Schädeli, Bernhard Speiser, Franco Weibel, Gabriela Wyss, Wanda Schmidt, Gernot Schmidt.  Quality and Safety of Organic Products-Food Systems Compared.  Forschungsinstitute für biologischen Landbau. 2006.

9  International Trade Centre UNCTAD/WTO, Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL). Organic Farming and Climate Change. Geneva: ITC, 2007.

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