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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Is farming the solution to climate disruption?

Back in my days at DCNR, I had the privilege of visiting and learning about the work of Pennsylvania’s Rodale Institute, which studies the link between healthy soil, healthy food, and healthy people. Rodale has been a pioneer in organic agriculture – a statement that does not do their work justice.

I learned about Rodale’s development and refinement of what they call regenerative organic agriculture – inexpensive (yet marginally used) organic practices that restore and build soil quality while storing carbon in the soil. The practices include cover crops, residue mulching, composting, crop rotation, and conservation tillage. Rodale’s work was extremely compelling to me.  It suggested the potential for organic agriculture to be an immensely important tool in the fight against global climate disruption.

How important?

Rodale has released an important white paper Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate ChangeIt makes the provocative statement:
If management of all current cropland shifted to reflect the regenerative model…we could potentially sequester more than 40% of annual emissions (an estimated 21 GtCO2 each year). If, at the same time, all global pasture was managed to a regenerative model, an additional 71% (~37 GtCO2) might be sequestered, bringing us into an annual negative emissions scenario rapidly.
Is Rodale offering the world a silver bullet to slay the climate disruption beast? It's never that easy. But at a minimum, regenerative organic agriculture may be cheaper than other technological and regulatory fixes. It can be widely adopted immediately. It may be able to scale globally.  It may buy us time to get to a renewable energy future, and pay dividends in the long run. 

Rodale’s work must be vetted, peer-reviewed, and globally tested - as Rodale suggests. Are there limits to the benefits of regenerative organic agriculture – especially given our current trajectory of CO2 emissions? After all, China, for example, is on pace to build three new coal plants every month between now and 2020. Is a soil carbon saturation point reached?  Do these practices work everywhere? 

What are the barriers to implementation? Can the benefits of regenerative organic agriculture be incentivized though carbon offset/carbon trading regimes? Can the amount of carbon stored be quantified accurately, remotely and affordably, enhancing both its credit-worthiness and the efficiency of embracing it as a carbon stabilization tool? Can farmers benefit financially by adopting these practices? 

There are doubtless many more questions. Including, of course, political ones. The adoption of these practices means taking on a set of immensely powerful interests - the giant global corporations that manufacture pesticides and fertilizers, the need for which would at least be vastly reduced with the adoption of organic practices.   

Is an agricultural revolution the most readily implementable, globally-scalable, and effective climate stabilization solution? That is a question that the world needs to ask – and answer.

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