TCS Daily


How Organic Food Contributes to Climate Change

By Robert Wager - August 8, 2007 12:00 AM

As the world's policymakers and business elites look to curb greenhouse gas emissions, one economic sector due for a closer look is agriculture. What many people presently view as a 'green' agriculture choice is, upon closer examination, deeply environmentally suspect.

Most people do not realize that agriculture is a major contributor to atmospheric CO2. Further, different types of agriculture have very different CO2 emission profiles. The widespread adoption of modern agricultural biotechnology products have allowed farmers to maintain yields while reducing CO2 emissions.

Like all animals, soil micro-organisms "breathe out" CO2. In fact soil respiration contributes approximately 20 percent of all land-based CO2 emissions.

The United Nations estimates a 2-5 degree C increase in global temperature in the next hundred years. Couple this with research that showed a 5 degree C increase doubles CO2 emission from soil and it becomes clear agriculture must be included in future CO2 reduction strategies.

Soil management by farmers is important. Tillage practices can have a major effect on the levels of soil CO2 emissions.

Organic agriculture controls weeds primarily by ploughing. The microbial respiration rate is increased every time a plough churns up the soil. When compared to no-tillage, mould-board ploughing doubles CO2 emissions from the soil.

Along with microbial production of CO2, tractors burn huge amounts of diesel fuel pulling metal ploughs through the soil. Research has shown that a conversion to no-tillage practices can save up to 32 litres/hectare. With no-tillage farming practiced over millions of hectares, there is a huge reduction in the amount of CO2 produced by tractors.

The UN estimates that the conversion from conventional ploughing to no-tillage agriculture would store carbon in the soil at 300 kg/hectare/year. The US and Canada are world leaders in no-tillage agriculture. The advent of genetically modified (GM) herbicide tolerant (HT) crops has allowed farmers to use highly effective, low environmental impact herbicides instead of the plough for weed control.

Over the past ten years US farmers have eagerly adopted GM crops with 84 percent of corn, 90 percent of soy and 85 percent of cotton now planted with GM varieties. In Canada, farmers have increased no-tillage canola from 0.8 million hectares to 2.6 million hectares. Ninety five percent of this acreage is planted with GM herbicide tolerant canola.

Like tillage practices, the type of fertilizer used can have a large effect on CO2 emissions. Conventional agriculture relies on synthetic fertilizers while organic farms primarily use manure. Synthetic nitrogenous fertilizers depress soil respiration rates. Conversely, research has shown that the use of manure fertilizer increases soil respiration rates and therefore CO2 emissions by 2-3 fold.

Some have suggested a complete conversion to organic agriculture. But, on average, organic agriculture produces 30 percent less per hectare than conventional farms. If we were to convert entirely to organic agriculture, we would need at least 30 percent more farmland. Significant amounts of the remaining wilderness would have to be ploughed under to maintain current food production levels.

The conversion to organic farming would also require a tremendous increase in animals to generate manure fertilizer. Anyone who has ever been near the back end of a cow knows this would significantly increase a different greenhouse gas.

The organic food industry proudly states double digit increases in sales each of the last few years. However the world is not black and white and research has demonstrated there are significant environmental consequences of this success.

Organic farming practices generate significantly greater CO2 emissions while producing less than conventional agriculture. On the other hand, growing genetically modified crops allow the farmer to reduce CO2 emissions while maintaining yields.

Research has demonstrated soil and water conservation benefits of genetically modified HT crops. It is now clear that these products of modern biotechnology can also help farmers reduce agriculture based CO2 emissions.

The public is calling for "greener" options in every industry. But when it comes to agricultural CO2 emissions, the "greener" option may not be what people think.

The author is a technician at Malaspina University College in Nanaimo BC Canada.


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31 Comments

30+ papers on problems with the temperature record
http://climatesci.colorado.edu/2007/06/20/documentation-of-ipcc-wg1-bias-by-roger-a-pielke-sr-and-dallas-staley-part-i/

all of which were ignored by the IPCC

This is weird, this post is dated July 18th
How did it get here?

This carbon is not fossil carbon
In most cases, carbon dioxide emitted by agriculture is not fossil carbon. It has to come OUT of the atmosphere before it goes back INTO the atmosphere.

I would worry more about methane emissions. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so the same amount of carbon emitted in this form is a net gain in greenhouse effect even if it's not fossil carbon.

WTF?
Um, when did TCS Daily start heeding the useless sh*t about CO2 emissions and the global warming trend, which is not global and for more than half of the earth is not a warming trend?

CO2 does NOT produce nor even contribute to large-scale climate change. There are plenty of essays and commentaries published at TCS that demonstrate this fact, but now we get some academic bozo criticizing the organic farming which is demonstrably healthier and more nourishing for the environment and for human beings?

That's disgusting. I mean, really.

More than just carbon..
The environmental impact of 'organic' produce is much greater than modern farming practices in other ways as well. While C02 is the latest hip thing for greens to rant over, there are other considerations with obvious and immediate impact.

You mentioned the land use issues, and suggested that 30% more land would be required. This is a very conservative estimate, because in fact, the crops which are most commonly organicly farmed are the ones which produce the highest yields under organic practices and thus have the most acceptable market prices. Many crops are ill-suited to organic farming because of high pest induced loss and have yields much less than just 70% of modern farming practices. If all crops were converted to organic practices, the additional land usage and resulting habitat loss would likely be considerably higher than that.

The other problem with organic farming is that it involves greater risk of disease exposure in the crop, either from pest damage or contamination. To minimize disease losses, many organic crops require higher than normal water application to ensure that the plants do not suffer drought stress and thus lower disease resistance. This requires additional irrigation. Surface water overuse and aquifier drainage could be at least as big of problems for many areas of the world as climate change. Falling fresh water tables (drying up springs) and reduced river flow (or changed river temperature or increased murk) have major impacts on the ecologies in the area, easily comparable in impact (outside say the artic) to a several degree change in average temperature.

Additionally, just because it is organic, doesn't mean it doesn't involve the application of pesticides. Most people are unaware that some pesticides qualify as organic because they are derived from natural materials. The obvious problem with this if you've studied pesticides, is that many of these compounds were abandoned precisely because thier toxicity to non-pest species (including humans) was much higher than more modern replacements. If the application of organic poisons becomes widespread - as it would certainly have to if organic became the standard farming practice - it might end up poisoning the environment alot more than we do with manufactured compounds.

Finally, its not at all clear to me that organic farming doesn't gain a significant yield benefit by being a low density farming practice admidst other farming practices. In other words, outbreaks of pest species are controlled by the fact that the majority of farm land is under modern agricultural cultivation. The organic farmer reaps a side benefit from the fact that his neighbors are using conventional practices to control pest species. If however everyone was using organic practices, the pest species burden would I think be considerably higher and the result would be far lower crop yields than what we already see in organic farming.

glosssed over the most important effect
The most important impact that growing plants has on CO2 levels is basic biology -- every single solitary carbon atom, which is in every single molecule of the plant, gets into the plant by sucking a CO2 molecule out of the air, liberating the to oxygen atoms, and keeping the carbon. That's every molecule -- root, stalk, branches, etc.

So the most important reason that organic agriculture has a bigger "carbon footprint" than modern agriculture is the lower yields. If modern agriculture can stick ten 12-foot-tall corn plants where organic agriculture can only put five or six 6-foot tall plants in the some patch of ground, then the organic agriculture is sucking much less carbon out of the air.

organic is BAAAD
I laugh everytime I see an essay about how bad organic is, how it's a plot to inflict dire things on unsuspecting consumers.

Those anit-organic folks are fighting an rear-guard action.

No Subject
It will take a bit more study to determine if organic food truely contributes to climate chage, while there is certainly lower yield, there is also significently less input.

Then again...

People don't buy organic because they are worried about climate change, they buy organic because they are worried about pesticides, chemical fertilizers and genetic engineering.

If your primary concern is climate change it probably makes sense to get on the local food bandwagon than the organic food bandwagon.

Subject should have been: Silly article, organic is for health nuts.. if your worried about global w
...

Much more to the story than that
What's not being said in this article is any discussion of the externals in conventional, high-input farming.

First, our remaining rain forests and dry forests worldwide are being cut down and the forest cover-- now rubbish-- burned to make way for new sugar, soy and oil palm plantations. Merely burning off this enormous plant mass puts huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. The crops that replace the forests only produce a tiny fraction of the bound carbon as biomass-- one percent or less.

Then the ground is prepared and crops sown and grown maximizing the use of mechanical equipment. The author is simply not serious if he pretends organic growers use more mechanical equipment than do mechanized factory farms in their approach to agriculture. Equipment has replaced labor in the current ag model, while in sustainable practices, labor again replaces equipment.

Then the subsequent crops must be transformed into usable products, either for food or biofuel, requiring further carbon to be emitted in the refining process. A fresh potato uses quite a bit less energy than a box of instant potatos. And energy use consumes fuel to emit carbon.

Finally, these crops, grown in remote areas, are distributed worldwide. Anyone troubling to look at the organic and sustainable ag web sites will know a primary topic being discussed there is the transformation from reliance on the global distribution grid to the approach that we learn to buy and consume locally grown produce.

The recommendation is that we relearn how to cook actual foodstuffs, and not just buy highly processed foods in boxes and cans. Every step put between garden and table magnifies the amount of carbon being diffused into the atnosphere.

The energy intensive approach to everything is becoming more and more unsustainable. Kiwi fruit really don't have to be flown to us every day from Chile, or jumbo shrimp from the Philippines. We can start eating what is in season. Multiply the fuel saved and the carbon retained by 6.6 billion dinner plates and you begin to see a significant savings in eating the old fashioned way... relying on locally grown foods as much as possible.

Let's just take fertilizer-- only one of the inputs required in energy-intensive agriculture. The use of artificial fertilizer emits huge amounts of nitrous oxides into the environment. Nitrous oxides have a hang time of 120 years once released into the atmosphere, and they are a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than CO2. In the United States, 36% of all N2O emissions are from the use of artificial fertilizers.

Then there's the cost in natural gas in manufacturing N fertilizers, and the cost in fuel to distribute them from source to factory to farm.

Then there's the other cost, in dead zones offshore from factory farming areas around the world, as excess fertilizer runs off to bloom in the oceans, sucking up all the oxygen and starving the ocean life we also depend on for food.

There are many other external costs to be paid in the factory farming model. Here's a discussion of a few of them:

https://www.chekinstitute.com/articles.cfm?select=82

Organic is a MARKETING decision
I'm a soil chemist and agronomist by training, and earn my living as an ecological farmer -- as in no off-farm job, and not a nickel of government subsidy. Through the '90s I inspected about 700,000 acres of land for organic certification, in seven different countries.


Some farmers may, wisely or not, choose to market their products as "organic" and undertake the specifics necessary for the requisite certification, but the "organic" designation really says nothing about the sustainability or environmental benefit of the production system.


In roughly half of the thousands of inspections I performed the farmer was most charitably described as "organic by neglect." By far the most common phrase I heard was, "Of course it's organic; I ain't put nuthin on it in ten years ..." or very similar.


Some 5 to 10% of organic farmers are truly inspiring. Their production systems are well-conceived, well-managed, highly-productive, and generally quite profitable. The remaining 40% or so are at least making a sincere effort but generally can't pull it together.


Any of the well-managed organic farmers are at a minimum equal to a decently managed conventional farm in terms of yield and vastly superior in terms of favorable environmental effects.


Therein lies the critical flaw. Organic systems must be intensely managed to succeed. A few farmers can pull it off splendidly. Most cannot, even within the extremely limited numbers of farmers choosing to market as organic.


Well managed organic systems -- the ones providing equal yields and some overall environmental benefit -- are simply not replicable on any significant scale.


Fortunately, something like 80% of what gets called "organic" is simply good agronomy, and there is nothing in "conventional" systems that preclude their inclusion in normal operations.


Unfortunately only a small percentage of organic farmers apply sound basic agronomy. The rest believe that the use of the "right" products will make a difference, or else they persist in their "organic by neglect" approach. They were lousy conventional farmers beforehand, and they're lousy organic farmers now.


And they keep hoping that an organic premium will somehow save their farms after years of persistently inadequate management.


Meantime, the customer somehow continues to believe that paying 6 bucks for a box of organic corn flakes (for which the grower sees about 6 cents) is a big environmental, social, and economic improvement on the 3-dollar box of conventional corn flakes, for which the grower sees about 5 cents.


As to who might be liquidating that organic "market value" differential ... well, that's another topic entirely, and even more discouraging than this one.

False premise and other inaccuracies
First, the debate is still open on CO2 levels and climate change, so we don't know if the marginally higher levels of total atmospheric CO2 generated by organic farming vs. other methods has ANY impact on climate.

Second, synthetic fertilizers are made of hydrocarbons and use a great deal of hydrocarbons in their manufacture. Without knowing how this nets out, the argument one way or another is invalid. Also attributing the carbon of manure to organic farming is double counting. The manure is a result of milk and meat production. Organic farms are using something that already exists, while traditional farmers are using fertilizer manufactured and distributed specifically for their crops.

Lastly, organic foods are higher in nutrients, while traditionally farmed produce has higher water content. My suspicion is that one could eat 30% less of the organic produce and glean the same nutrients. Organic produce's greater nutrition via a smaller payload saves a lot of energy in transport, which also could lower their relative carbon footprint (not that it really matters.)

In conclusion - this is a pretty poorly argued and researched piece. I expect better from TCS.

GISS changes the past, again.
Yesterday (Aug. 8), due to discoveries of errors in how it had been computing adjustments to the raw temperature data, the GISS released the latest "official" temperature record for the US.

1998 has been dethroned has the hottest year, and 1934 has been restored. 4 of th 10 hottest years are now in the 30's.

Every year since 1998 has cooled of significantly as well.

Kudos to the posters on this board!
Thats all I have, I'm just delighted by the knowledge thrown out by all these posters. To see so many people of different perspectives all slap down such a juvenile article... I'd never seen organic farming in that perspective, I was ignorant to the ideas presented. When I read the article I thought it was ok, it was interesting, if factually accurate (which I doubted, but I was ignorant so didn't know any better). But then to see posters fill in all these holes the article has, I realize its a small fractional perspective of the bigger picture, perhaps even intentionally misleading? Hey, its hard to know whats bad if one doesn't know whats good also.

Some inaccuracies here
I agree with someone who posted a comment earlier, that this paper is not well-researched. Why I said so.

1. No such equation like "organic farming = plowing". Organic farming says a lot about the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticdes, other "-cides", but say little about plowing. Some organic farms use plowing, some use "no tillage". And some inorganic farms also use "no tillage"; their main concern is not recycling soil nutrient but fighting pest attack that could possibly result to total crop failure.

2. Animal manures don't constitute the "bulk" or "majority" of organic fertilizers. Rather, dried leaves, branches, cut or uprooted grasses, vines, other weeds, hay, etc. I'm a farmer myself, along with some farmer friends here in the Philippines, that's what we do.

Organic food and increase of population new pardox
Fifty years back all farming in India was organic,and I myself experienced advantage of this kind of farming.
Pardox is that at that time population was thirty million, today India`s populatin is 110 million without fertilazered farming we could not feed so vast population. How it possible now reverse the time.

Computer vandalism
You should be aware that climateaudit has been under DOS attack since yesterday.

Seems some of the greenslime don't like the truth of their little computer generated fantasy coming out. Seems to be some indication that the attacks are originating in the SFO area.

For what it's worth, surfacestations.org was subjected to DOS attacks about two weeks ago.

Organic food NOT healthier
Any suggestion organic food is somehow superior doesn't sit well with Alex Avery, director of research at The Hudson Institute Center for Global Food Issues.

"Organic foods have never been shown to be healthier, more nutritious or more safe than conventional foods," said Avery, "despite dozens of scientific studies. There is no weight that organic is better or healthier for you."

Also, organic spinach was directly responsible for the death of a two year old boy in Idaho. The "spinach shake" his mother made for him was made with organic spinach. Excerpt from CNN:

Idaho boy dies after eating spinach

BOISE, Idaho (Reuters) - A 2-year-old boy who drank a spinach shake died from a suspected E. coli infection in a case that is possibly related to the nationwide health scare around spinach, a state health official said on Friday.
Kyle Allgood, of Chubbuck in the heart of Idaho's potato country, died on Wednesday night at a hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah, said Ross Mason, a spokesman for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
"His mother or someone in the house made him a spinach smoothie," Mason said.

The Iris affect is real
To my knowledge, this is the third study which finds the existence of the so called "Iris effect".

http://www.uah.edu/News/newsread.php?newsID=875

All of the models assume that when the oceans get warmer, that this will put more water into the atmosphere, resulting in an increase in cirrus clouds. Cirrus clouds let in sun light, but block infrared radiation.

However this is the third study that finds that the opposite happens. That is, as the oceans warm, cirrus clouds decrease.

ALL of the GCM's (general climate models) assume that water vapor is a strong positive feedback. Yet real world data over and over again shows that it is a moderate to strong negative feedback.

Let's take a look
As long as you're invoking the GISS surface temperature analysis data, let's take a look at it.

http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/2005/

I can see why you neglected to post a link, as the actual findings don't resemble your summary of them in the slightest.

so does conventially grown food...
All that chemical fertilizer can't be any better for the climate than organic fertilizers. Organic foods are better as they don't have the 'additives' included in processing like most conventional grown food has. BHT, BHA, MSG, and stuff I can't even pronounce gets added to conventional canned foods. Organic food might have spices or sea salt but you don't find all that 'excess' stuff added to it. I prefer to raise my food closer to 'organic' than use the chemicals conventional growers use. I can always plant a few extra fruit trees to take care of the CO2 situation...

as usual, roy pretends to know what he's talking about
and fails miserably in fooling anyone but himself

I'm not talking about papers put out 2 years ago.

If you had bothered to read, you would have known that.

roy can't tell the difference between reality and his opinion
While your busy accusing me of lying, you might get out and notice that this subject has been all over the web for the last two days.

I'm not surprised that the sites you limit yourself to haven't covered it though.

Bad old chemicals!
So you're a grower! There can't be many like you posting here at TCS. I'll value your opinion accordingly.

I don't necessarily wrinkle my nose up if some small farmer sweetens his field with a little store bought N-P-K. That's not going to upset the world. But scale makes a difference, if you look at the huge tracts that comprise the better part of our corn and soy crops.

Artificial fertilizer is still cheap enough that farmers tend to over-apply, in the event that more rainfall than normal occurs that year and they can get a bumper crop. So whenever they have a normal or below normal year the extra is not taken up by the corn, but flushed out in the ground water. That's what sustains that big Dead Zone at the mouth of the Mississippi.

Similar Dead Zones occur at the mouth of maybe twenty of the world's largest rivers-- nearly all the ones with big ag areas in the hinterlands. It's not only a colossal waste of resource to make all this stuff, it kills aquatic life. But you can apply a bag or two on your own fields and I swear I won't complain.

An interesting link you won't find in the newspapers is between tobacco, lung cancer and phosphate fertilizers. It seems that most phosphate deposits have a detectable amount of polonium 210 occuring in them naturally-- the same stuff that killed Litvinenko. Ingested into the lungs in minute doses, it makes a dandy carcinogen. And tobacco plants take up polonium readily, through their receptors for calcium.

So maybe it's not exactly the tobacco that's killing people. Interesting?

http://www.acsa.net/HealthAlert/lungcancer.html

http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/12/01/opinion/edproctor.php

IPCC author accused of fraud
The case is quite solid

http://newsbusters.org/blogs/noel-sheppard/2007/08/10/un-s-ipcc-accused-possible-research-fraud

He claimed in the report that the documentation for his climate stations shows that they were well maintained and unmoved.

When reviewing the stations, several of the stations had undergone significant moves, many other stations, no documentation for them existed. In any form.

Oh...where to begin?
So let me get this straight--"All that chemical fertilizer can't be any better for the climate than organic fertilizers." Says who exactly? Dude, everything is made of chemicals, even organic fertilizer. Some organic fertilizer might even have a little stowaway called E. coli (in addition to your "spices and sea salt"). Show me the proof that ANY of the compounds you can't pronounce are dangerous at all. Then I'll show you my data on the dangers of E. coli H0157 and mycotoxins like fumonisin and aflatoxin.

Ciao,

Loren

Nov. 2, 1922 edition of The Washington Post: "Arctic Ocean Getting Warm; Seals Vanish and Icebergs M
http://www.washingtontimes.com/article/20070814/NATION02/108140063

And roy keeps telling us that the current temperatures are unique in the last 1000 years.

Unbelievable
I am really hoping that this Robert Wagner guy wrote this article in jest as he obviously doesn't have a clue what he is talking about. Using hypothetical circumstances that do not take into account all of the facts is an interesting and common way to indoctrinate the masses or just sound good but it has nothing to do with reality.

Hey! What about that little plant thing called photosynthesis????????
Nowhere in this article have you mentioned the word: photosynthesis! A scientific statement found on the web:

During the day, plants photosynthesize using the sun's energy, water, and CO2 from the air to make oxygen and sugars. The oxygen is released from plants' leaves during the day. At night, they use a little oxygen and release CO2 in the air. This is called respiring. Animals and humans do this too, only we breathe in oxygen and exhale CO2. This is why we need plants, because they make O2 for us and use the CO2 we make.

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