(Beyond Pesticides, April 27, 2015) Last week, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced initiatives and energy programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase carbon sequestration, and expand renewable energy production in the agricultural and forestry sectors, but failed to stress the importance of moving away from chemical-intensiveÂ agriculture toward organic methods. While the announcement doesn’t specifically mention âorganic,â the meaning is still clear: chemical-based agricultural practices have contributed to climate change through heavy use of fossil fuels âboth directly on the farm and in the manufacturing of pesticides and fertilizersâ and through degradation of the soil, which releases carbon. Now, USDA is suggesting the use of conservation tilling, or no-till practices, along with cover cropping and natural management of organic inputs to the soil â in other words, organic agriculture.
USDA outlined ten âbuilding blocksâ that aim to lead us away from climate change. The first two of these ten could, if interpreted from an organic practice perspective,Â address the necessity to changeÂ chemical-intensive agricultural practices. The first âbuilding blockâ is soil health. The stated goal is to improve soil resilience, therefore increasing productivity, by promoting conservation tillage or no-till farming. The initiative suggests planting cover crops, planting perennial forages, managing organic inputs and compost application, and alleviating compaction. The second âbuilding block,â nitrogen stewardship, focuses on the right timing, type, placement and quantity of nutrients to reduce nitrous oxide emissions and provide cost savings through efficient application.
Organic no-till agriculture incorporates cover cropping as a critical component to the system that adds both nutrients and a weed barrier. The system can incorporate mulch. In a no-till organic system, a cover crop,Â such as hairy vetch, is planted in the early fall on a field. In late spring, as soon as this vetch has flowered, a single tractor equipped with both an implement to knock down the vetch and an implement to seed another crop (corn, for example), passes through the field. Soil bacteria in a symbiotic relationshipÂ with the vetch, because it is a legume, fixesÂ nitrogen to the soil, providing the corn with natural nitrogen fertilizer. The vetch provides mulch so weeds cannot compete with the corn, eliminatingÂ the âneedâ for herbicides.
As part of its efforts to promote and support chemical no-till, USDA has been a staunch advocate of genetically engineered (GE) crops that are engineered to be herbicide-tolerant in chemical no-till systems. USDA has deregulated these crops under the Plant Protection Act. The systems rely on Â the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup), which was recently classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization as a carcinogen based on animal studies. Glyphosate, like other synthetic chemicals, relies on petroleum-based production practices that emit greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate change. The efficacy and toxic effects of the GEÂ production system has been called into question because of weed resistance to glyphosate and the introduction of more and more toxic chemicals, such as the new 2,4-D-tolerant crops recently approached by USDA.
The adoption of organic methods, particularly no-till organic, is an opportunity for farming both to mitigate agricultureâs contributions to climate change and cope with the effects climate change has had and will have on agriculture. In 2014, Rodale Institute published a white paper that explainsÂ it is possible to sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions by switching to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices.
Organic agriculture also promotes ecological health and human health benefits. Besides killing non-target organisms, many synthetic pesticides have deleterious effects on long-term species survival because they impair their reproductive abilities. Endocrine disrupting pesticides affect the hormonal balance of wildlife and humans, often at very low doses. Â One very common herbicide,Â atrazine, has been linked to serious effects on the reproduction of frogs (for more information, read Dr. Tyrone Hayes’s 2013Â articleÂ in Pesticides and You). In conventional agriculture, farmworkers are subjected to exposure of dangerous pesticides, putting them at risk of certain types of cancers, among other health effects. Organic agriculture does not allow the use of toxic pesticides, negating these detrimental effects that occur due to conventional farming.
In order to understand the importance of eating organic food, we need to look at the whole pictureâfrom the farmworkers who do the valuable work of growing food, to the waterways from which we drink, the air we breathe, and the food we eat. Organic food can feed us and keep us healthy without producing the toxic effects of chemical agriculture.
While Beyond Pesticides commends USDA for taking steps towards mitigating climate change and reducing the harmful effects of conventional agriculture, more can be done. The greatest benefit and positive change would come from adopting whole systems changes, starting with the âfeed-the-soilâ approach, instead of a âpick and chooseâ method, which leaves open avenues for toxic pesticides to still be used, lending to the dangerous cycle that conventional agriculture promotes.
Beyond Pesticides has long supported âfeed-the-soilâ approaches to agricultural management. We promote a systems approach that centers on management of soil health and proper fertilization that eliminates synthetic fertilizers and focuses on building the soil food web and nurturing soil microorganisms. Experience demonstrates that this approach will build a soil environment rich in microbiology that will produce strong, healthy land. Understanding the soil is the key to whole systems farming, the necessary approach to take in order to most effectively mitigate climate change.
To learn more about organic agriculture and how you can make the necessary changes to protect the environment and yourself, visit Beyond Pesticidesâ Organic Agriculture webpage. Help us safeguard the integrity of organic by visiting our Save our Organic and Keeping Organic Strong webpages. You can also contact us for useful ideas and tips at (202) 543 -5450 or through email at email@example.com.
Source: USDA Office of Communications
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.