Organic agriculture cost-effective in tackling climate change, says expert

21 October 2014

“UN system-wide initiative on agroecology is needed”

At the Global Landscapes Forum 2014, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) will be making the case for organic agriculture having the potential to be part of a solution to climate change adaptation and mitigation. Landscapes.org spoke with Gábor Figeczky, Advocacy Manager at IFOAM about the benefits of organic agriculture in the face of climate change.

Q: Could you explain why organic agriculture is an appropriate climate-smart solution?

Organic agriculture is an integrated tool for addressing climate change mitigation and adaptation, and for strengthening national efforts on food security, poverty eradication and inclusive rural development.

A recent study by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture found that on average, each hectare of farmland that uses organic farming practices can convert 2,000 kgs of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into soil carbon each year. There is also compelling data from the Rodale Institute in the USA that farmers can significantly increase soil carbon sequestration even further through the application of carbon-rich organic matter through composting, a technique regularly used in organic farming.

But there is more to it. Agricultural carbon sequestration can help increase agricultural productivity and enhance farmers’ capacity to adapt to climate change. Increased soil carbon improves soil structure, it reduces erosion of the soil and the depletion of nutrients. Soils with increased carbon stocks retain water better. This improves the resilience of agricultural systems to drought. These positive biophysical impacts of soil carbon sequestration lead directly to increased crop, forage, and plantation yields – and to land productivity.

Organic farming practices are also one of the most promising options for early action on climate adaptation as they are highly cost-effective compared to other approaches. The Asian Development Bank Institute states that, in parts of Asia, it would need an investment of only US$ 32 to US$ 38 per capita to move a household out of poverty through engaging farmers in organic agriculture. The ability to scale up quickly and economically makes organic agriculture more attractive still to policy makers.

Q: What is the role of research in this?

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Organic agriculture in the European Union, click on infographic to see original in full format

Research should move away from the present focus on industrial intensification towards ecological intensification. Funds, especially within the CGIAR system, should be directed to research on sustainable farming techniques. This would require a shift in research policy and funding, away from the present dominance of industrial corporations sponsoring research for an agriculture that is becoming even more industrialized. Research needs to be redemocratized. Scientists working on sustainable agriculture should be provided with better career perspectives.

Q: Why is it important for global food systems and agriculture to change and what are the most important changes?

Industrial agriculture today is controlled by corporations and promotes agrochemically-based, monocultural, export-oriented systems. It is degrading the planet’s life support systems. It is alienating people from nature. It weakens the historic, cultural and natural connection of farmers – and of all people – to the sources of food. It is also destroying the economic and cultural foundations of societies and creates a context for social disintegration and violence.

Agribusiness dominates the rural development agenda economically and politically – at the expense of consumers, farmworkers, small family farms, wildlife, the environment, and rural communities. Because of climate change it is even more urgent to make smallholder farms resilient. They are the ones most exposed to the effects of climate change. We also have to empower them to influence relevant policy-making processes.

Most of us agree that there is a need for a paradigm shift. We have to transition to a sustainable, ecological agriculture, an agriculture that addresses the needs of small-scale and family farmers. The approach needs to be systemic and holistic and should involve national multi-stakeholder assessments.

Q: How can this change be brought about?

In 2008, the groundbreaking International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development came out. This laid the foundations for the sustainable and equitable transformation of agriculture, and the global policy framework to help with this is now emerging.

UNEP’s work on the green economy initiative has a huge potential to deliver results in terms of providing farmers with knowledge on resilient farming techniques. It can create a strong network for exchange of information on policy development for sustainable agriculture and raise awareness on how food is produced globally. The same potential lies in UNEP’s 10-year Framework Programme on Sustainable Consumption and Production.

The Committee on World Food Security needs to be strengthened to fulfill their task of fighting hunger and poverty. A regulatory link should be created between policy initiatives and international trade with a special focus on trade agreements such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

All this work can be guided by a UN system-wide initiative on agroecology that many scientists call for. And the development of the Sustainable Development Goals can be the most impactful process ever to make the shift in global agriculture happen.

Further reading:

Harvesting Agriculture’s Multiple Benefits: Mitigation, Adaptation, Development and Food Security

Sustainable agriculture and food security in LDCs

Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa

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