24. November 2014

Organic Farming and Climate-Smart Agriculture – A Complicated Relationship

When working in international politics, you realize that efforts to improve (or, I daresay, save) the world revolve around buzzwords. Clearcut visions and concepts are required to form alliances, formulate action plans and (most importantly!) pledge political and financial support. 

In agriculture, it seems we have passed ‚green‘ (too reminiscent of the green revolution and its controversies) and ’sustainable‘ (too vague and multi-faceted) and arrived at ‚climate-smart agriculture‘ (CSA). Climate-smart ag fits into global climate action, is quantifiable (via CO2-equivalent emission savings) and can encompass both mitigation and adaptation actions, making it a catch-all for a plethora of initiatives that can satisfy both the global North and South in their aims. So far, so good.

Thus, at the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit in New York on 23 September, 180 senior officials and stakeholders attended the inaugural meeting of the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture. The Alliance aspires to be a „food security and nutrition focused, agriculture-driven and action-oriented coalition of entities committed to incorporating climate-smart approaches encompassing all scales and types of agriculture systems, across all climates and approaches to farming, including crop, livestock, fishery and forestry activities, providing farmers an innovative toolbox of options from which to choose“. Its goals (which match the FAO definition of CSA) are to contribute simultaneously to „sustainable and equitable increases in agricultural productivity and incomes; greater resilience of food systems and farming livelihoods; and reduction and/or removal of greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture (including the relationship between agriculture and ecosystems), where possible“ (quoted from the Alliance’s Framework document available here). 

According to a number of research projects, organic farming can indeed contribute to climate change mitigation. First and foremost, its use of nitrogen-fixing rotations, cover crops and organic compost increases the carbon sequestration potential of soils and boosts their carbon content. There are also secondary effects, such as lower fossil fuel use, a lesser reliance on imported feed concentrate and the transportation and land use change consequences stemming from it, and a decrease in methane emissions from landfills. 

Thus, organic farming and the CSA idea should be born allies, right? However, as always, it gets more complicated once you dig a bit deeper.

Cattle production is one of the greatest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the agricultural sector. What’s the solution? Less, but organic beef, or more efficient, shorter growing cycles? Image via European Commission, Organic Farming website.

Looking at livestock production, for instance, the longer lifespan of organic animals translates into more methane from the gastric fermentation from ruminants. Should the goal of a natural and healthy animal life be abandoned to decrease their greenhouse gas impact, though? And what about the other important aspects of sustainable agriculture – related to nutrient cycles, biodiversity, the provision of nutritious and diversified diets and the empowerment of smallholders – that cannot as easily be connected to either climate mitigation or adaptation? This worry leads organic pioneers and other NGOs to watch the CSA movement with interest, but some doubt as to its aims and inclusiveness.

What it boils down to, essentially, is the challenge of reducing complex problems to one, or few, indicators. Such an approach will never be able to be all-inclusive and respect the diversity of solutions available. Yet, the quantification of environmental improvements is an easy way to appreciate them, and to remunerate efforts undertaken by farmers to provide such public goods.

The other day, at a conference, another participant asked me where I see my role in the world. After some reflection, I said that I would like to be a bridge builder – connecting groups that have the same goals despite having different approaches. As I am preparing to step from the organic world into that of CSA, I’m hoping for the possibility to build some bridges there too.