According to the most recent data on the subject, no less than a quarter of all the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, and from the food chain that brings its produces to the consumers. Considering that such a large impact comes from just one sector of the economy, making whatever changes seem sustainable (and not only in the sense of being environmentally sustainable but economically sustainable too), is essential to act against climate change across the world. Unlike in other highly-emitting sectors such as energy production, however, the ways to decarbonize agriculture are less clear and rely less on the invention of new technologies. Instead, they are more about the adoption of new techniques and the implementation of many strategies dedicated to reduce food waste and change consumption habits, for example.
A comparison (courtesy of the Rodale Institute) between soil cultivated using traditional (left) and organic techniques (right). The darker color of organic soil implies a higher carbon content, as a result of better carbon conservation and sequestration practices.
Organic agriculture is key for achieving these goals, bringing a whole new set of practices that decrease the environmental impact of agriculture. Such were the findings of a 2018 study by researchers from the universities of Harvard and Sharjah, in the UAE. In their study, the researchers used data from the United States in the period 1997-2010 to assess the difference in emissions between conventional and organic agriculture. Their conclusions were steadfast in their support of organic agriculture’s reduced emissions:
"Organic farming practices are by design sustainable in the role they play in maintaining optimal soil health, increasing carbon sequestration, and reducing GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions".
They also address clearly the frequently repeated concerns that organic agriculture might in fact be unsustainable, by being based on speculation, questionable, inadequate or non-existing evidence. In contrast, the researchers state clearly:
"After accounting for other sources of emissions and potentially influential observations, we find that one percent increase in organic farming acreage could decrease GHG emissions by 0.049%".
According to these calculations, a net increase of 100% in the organic cultivated area could lead to a 4.9% fall in greenhouse gas emissions. That might not sound like much, but to put this in context, however, the United States currently has only 0.6% of its land under organic cultivation. An increase of this to the level of some European states such as Austria, where that figure stands at 25%, could mean an incredible amount of reduced greenhouse gas emissions, potentially turning agriculture into a carbon-capturing industry. The future will decide if this happens, but one thing is clear: there’s potential in organic agriculture to change the world, one hectare (or acre) at a time.