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Climate Change and Organic Agriculture

Climate change mitigation is urgent and adaptation to climate change is crucial, particularly in agriculture, where food security is at stake. Agriculture, currently responsible for 20-30% of global greenhouse gas emissions (counting direct and indirect agricultural emissions), can however contribute to both climate change mitigation and adaptation. The main mitigation potential lies in the capacity of agricultural soils to sequester CO2 through building organic matter. This potential can be realized by employing sustainable agricultural practices, such as those commonly found within organic farming systems. Examples of these practices are the use of organic fertilizers and crop rotations including legumes, leys and cover crops. Mitigation is also achieved in organic agriculture through the avoidance of open biomass burning and the avoidance of synthetic fertilizers and the related production emissions from fossil fuels.

Common organic practices also contribute to adaptation. Building soil organic matter increases water retention capacity, and creates more stabile, fertile soils, thus reducing vulnerability to drought, extreme precipitation events, floods and water logging. Adaptation is further supported by increased agro-ecosystem diversity of organic farms, due to reduced nitrogen inputs and the absence of chemical pesticides. The high diversity together with the lower input costs of organic agriculture is key in reducing production risks associated with extreme weather events.

All these advantageous practices are not exclusive to organic agriculture. However, they are core parts of the organic production system, in contrast to most non-organic agriculture, where they play a minor role only.   

It is important to emphasize that mitigation in agriculture cannot be restricted to the agricultural sector alone. Consumer behaviour strongly influences agricultural production systems, and thus their mitigation potential. Significant factors are meat consumption and food wastage. Mitigation in agriculture needs to address the entire food chain and to be linked to general sustainable development strategies.

Finally, the main challenges to climate change mitigation and adaptation in agriculture are as follows:

  • the understanding of some of the basic processes, such as the interaction of N2O emissions and soil carbon sequestration, contributions of roots to soil carbon sequestration and the life-cycle emissions of organic fertilizers such as compost;
  • approaches for emissions accounting that adequately represent agricultural production systems with multiple and diverse outputs and that also encompass ecosystem services;
  • the identification and implementation of suitable policy frameworks for supporting mitigation and adaptation in agriculture, i.e: not putting systemic approaches at a disadvantage due to difficulties in the quantification of emissions, and their allocation to single products;
  • how to assure that the current focus on mitigation does not lead to neglect of  the other sustainability aspects of agriculture, such as pesticide loads, eutrophication, acidification or soil erosion and e) the question how to address consumer behaviour and how to utilize the mitigation potential of changes in consumption patterns.