Why Organic Farming Could Save the World

Protecting your health by avoiding pesticides is great, but organic farming's benefits extend far deeper (literally).

May 2, 2014

Pesticides, GMOs, fighting a broken food system…there are lots of reasons to go organic. But saying that organic farming could save the world? That might feel like a bit of a stretch.


Except that it's not. A new review of research on the links between organic farming and climate change has just been published by the Rodale Institute, the country's oldest nonprofit organic-farming research institution. Its conclusion: If every piece of cropland on earth and every acre of animal pasture were converted to organic methods, we could not only stop climate change in its tracks, but we could reverse it.

"We base everything we do on the scientific data that's available," says Mark "Coach" Smallwood, the Rodale Institute's executive director. "And through our references, 75 scientific journals that are backing up this paper."

He says that the current body of soil science shows that all the cropland on Earth, if farmed organically, could sequester 41 percent of all the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The pastureland could sequester an additional 71 percent. "We feel like we can not only take care of 100 percent of current carbon emissions [with organic farming], but we can also send the needle past 100 percent and begin to draw down some of these excesses," he adds. If just half the world's cropland and pastureland were converted, organic soil could pull 55 percent of annual carbon emissions out of the atmosphere.

So why is organic farming so great for the climate? "It starts with the soil; it all starts with organic soil," Smallwood says. Healthy, nutrient-rich soil actually holds carbon dioxide and keeps it out of the atmosphere, where it contributes to the greenhouse effect and a warming planet—a warming planet that's causing more severe storms, weird swings in temperature (including the polar vortex that gripped much of the U.S. in winter 2013–2014), more severe allergies, an increase in the spread of insect-borne diseases, and all manner of other health and environmental problems.

The carbon dioxide gets there through photosynthesis, Smallwood adds, which is the process plants employ to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, use sunlight to convert it to energy, and then exude the rest through their roots, where the carbon dioxide gets stored in the soil. Microorganisms and beneficial fungi in healthy soil use the carbon dioxide as feedstock themselves, and the result is vibrant, nutrient-dense soil that produces vibrant, nutrient-dense food.

Chemical farming doesn't foster that rich carbon-sequestering soil, his paper points out. Damaging farming practices, such as tilling the soil and growing a single crop year after year, cause carbon dioxide to escape and deplete the soil of nutrients. Farmers try to add them back with nitrogen-based fertilizers, another source of greenhouse gases. Any life left in the soil typically gets killed with pesticides, Smallwood points out. Livestock farmers add to the problem by cramming large numbers of animals into small spaces, where they produce methane, another greenhouse gas. "Over the past decade, these direct agricultural emissions have increased about 1 percent a year…or about 10 percent of total annual emissions," the paper states. "The food system at large, including feed, fertilizer and pesticide manufacture, processing, transportation, refrigeration, and waste disposal, accounts for 30 percent or more of total annual global greenhouse-gas emissions."

While organic farming can't avoid emissions associated with transportation, refrigeration, and disposal, it can mitigate those emissions with what Smallwood calls "regenerative" practices that build healthy soil and counteract the staggering damage of carbon dioxide on our planet and the future.

And it can feed the world. Being able to feed 9 billion people has been the war cry of chemical agriculture for decades, the paper points out, but Smallwood points to research from all over the world—Egypt, Iran, and even the Institute's 31-year-old farming trials—that proves organic can outproduce chemical agriculture for all commodity crops, including corn, soy, wheat, rice, and even sunflowers. "Their whole play is that bringing on genetically modified crops is going to increase yield, and that's a lie. We've proven that." In fact, at Rodale Institute, organic farms over a 31-year period outyielded conventional by 28 to 34 percent.

"Soil, in my view, is the stomach of the earth, where nutrients are exchanged. It is the most valuable resource we have," Smallwood says. "It provides the one thing everyone will need forever—food. And we're destroying it."

And you can do something about it—by demanding organic from your grocery stores, your local farmers, and yourself (if you grow your own food!).