Byline: Reana Kovalcik, Public Affairs Director, Organic Trade Association & Amber Sciligo, Ph.D. Director of Science Programs
Is Organic the Right Choice for Climate-Conscious Consumers? The short answer is – yes! But since you’re reading this, you’re probably interested in learning a bit more, so let’s dig in. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) formally adopted organic production as a federally regulated label claim in the 1990 Organic Food Production Act (OFPA). Even though the organic program was designed to be better for farmers, better for the environment and animals, and better for consumers, most conversations about organic have focused more on what organic isn’t than what it is.
- Organic is not a production system that uses toxic chemicals to control pests or weeds.
- Organic does not allow genetically modified seeds or other inputs.
- Organic does not rely on environmentally-harmful, synthetic fertilizers to boost yields.
What organic is, is the original version of climate-smart agriculture in the United States. Before climate change and climate crisis became regular topics of conversation in media and around the dinner table, organic farmers and ranchers were developing and implementing strict systems of production to ensure that their operations safeguarded environmental, animal, and human health. In fact, organic farmers are required to maintain or improve the natural resources on and around their farms. OFPA directs organic producers to develop comprehensive plans for regenerating soil health and protecting water, wetlands, and wildlife habitats. Because of this focus on regenerative agriculture, organic operations:
- Produce healthier soils that contain 13% higher total organic matter and capture 44% more stable sequestered carbon.
- Increase pollinator diversity by up to 50%, and overall biodiversity by 30%.
- Use 61% less energy than conventional production, significantly reducing the burning of fossil fuels.
- Generate yields up to 40% higher than conventional systems in times of drought.
As the only eco-label backed by third-party certification and federal oversight, consumers can be confident that organic purchases are climate-smart purchases. Organic relies on a whole-system approach to ensure that our products are grown in a way that best supports a healthy, regenerative ecosystem. Core organic practices (required by OFPA) include cover cropping, crop rotation, limited tillage, and use of safe, non-toxic pest prevention and fertility methods.
Organic systems may take some time to properly establish, but once that system is in place, their resilience pays dividends for farmers and for the environment. Farmers worldwide are struggling, for example, to produce in the midst of a global shortage of chemical fertilizer. While organic farmers are not wholly unaffected (conventional producers looking for stop-gap solutions are squeezing organic fertilizer supplies), they have been spared the worst of it thanks to a strict prohibition on synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, and soil fumigants, and sewage sludge (aka “biosolids”).
The manufacture of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer – commonly used in conventional production, but strictly prohibited in organic – is responsible for as much as 10% of all direct global agricultural emissions! The manufacture and application of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer lead to the release of new reactive nitrogen, an extremely dangerous compound that is responsible for extreme environmental damages such as eutrophication and oxygen depletion in water bodies, change, and loss of biodiversity, acidification of waters, and soils, coral reef degradation, and global warming. Compared with conventional, organic production uses around 50% less new reactive nitrogen! By prohibiting synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and adopting more practices from organic production that pull carbon dioxide back into the soil, we can significantly reduce direct global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.
Recently, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) – the nation’s leading voice for organic in the US, serving over 9,500 organic businesses nationwide – submitted comments on fertility inputs used in certified organic agriculture. These comments will serve to inform USDA’s decision-making about the use of dangerous, chemical fertilizers, which will in turn influence the long-term sustainability of the US food and farm system. The US can produce high-quality food and fiber without relying on toxic chemical fertilizers that damage the land, pollute our natural resources, and endanger human health. The best way to achieve that is through organic production.
What organic isn’t is important, what organic is could change the very future of agriculture.