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Can organic farming tackle climate change?

Organic Farming and Climate Change

How best can we reduce UK farming’s carbon footprint? There are many theories and you may have seen news stories this week claiming organic farming will contribute more greenhouse gas emissions than intensive farming. But other research suggests the exact opposite. Gareth Morgan, Soil Association Head of Policy, explains why:

At the Soil Association, we think any realistic research on how to produce food in an environmentally sound way must look at the impacts on nature and diet, as well as food production yields and emissions. It is all linked - we cannot solve one problem while ignoring the others.

That’s why we are so impressed with recent work by the IDDRI research institute assessing the feasibility of a Europe-wide transition to “agroecological” farming, which is akin to organic and uses nature-friendly methods first and inputs like chemicals last.

The problem with other projections is they assume our diets will stay the same - presumably along with the same obesity and diabetes crises. And they are vague about whether we merely offshore our carbon footprint to other countries who produce the animal feed to keep the system going - disappointing when we know that tropical deforestation is currently linked to our existing unsustainable food and farming system.  

We can't ignore the dietary health crisis

By contrast, the IDDRI study suggests Europe can adopt 100% agroecological farming and still feed our growing population a healthy diet, while protecting biodiversity, almost halving agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and eliminating pesticide use and imported animal feed.

It tells us what we’ve known for years: Dietary change – with ‘more and better’ plants and ‘less and better’ meat – will benefit public health and free up land to make an organic scenario entirely possible.

With organically farmed soils storing up to 44% more carbon and supporting 50% more wildlife – it’s surely a no brainer.

Any study which assumes no change in diet is clearly untenable given the dietary health crisis and the alarming losses of wildlife, soil, water and forests that intensive agriculture is driving globally.

organic vegetables

What is agroecology?

It is obvious the status quo cannot continue

Meat production must be brought in line with what we can produce from nature-rich grasslands, as so many extensive and organic beef and sheep farmers are doing already.

While it might use less land and seem “efficient” to cram thousands of fast-growing chickens into a barn where they never see the light of day, what is the point if all it does is offshore our environmental impact as we need to import so much feed for them?

It’s time to stop feeding so many crops to animals – especially soy from deforested areas of the Amazon rainforest – and this means avoiding intensively produced grain-fed poultry and pork.

Using grasslands to graze livestock helps build soil fertility, and organic farmers go further as they don’t use artificial nitrogen fertiliser, which is energy intensive to make and contributes to emissions and soil erosion.

And animals on organic farms must be kept at much lower stocking densities, meaning high welfare systems like organic support the required move towards less but better produced meat.

organic cows outdoors in Witshire

Organic can feed us healthily & sustainably

Yes, organic farming often has lower yields, but not so low that it cannot feed the population healthy, sustainable diets. As the IDDRI reseach proves, it requires a wholesale system change to produce more of what’s good for people, animals and planet, and less of what’s bad for us all. And there is every reason to believe that with a fair share of research funding, yields from organic farming will rise.

More than a hundred UK organisations and leading figures in food, farming, environment and health backed the recommendation of the RSA’s Food, Farming and Countryside Commission that the UK needs to commit to a 10-year transition to agroecology.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the UK going 100% certified organic, but there is widespread recognition that the linked crises of climate, nature and health demand a joined-up solution. An agroecological UK, with organic farming at its heart, is that solution.

Gareth Morgan, Soil Association Head of Policy

Read more how the IDDRI model shows organic can feed Europe