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Why Conversion to Organic is Not a Solution to Climate Change

Why Conversion to Organic is Not a Solution to Climate Change

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Published by Steve Savage
Authors from the Soil Association made the claim that conversion of UK and other agriculture to Organic could mitigate climate change. I point out why that is not the case.
Authors from the Soil Association made the claim that conversion of UK and other agriculture to Organic could mitigate climate change. I point out why that is not the case.

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Categories:Types, Research, Science
Published by: Steve Savage on Jan 20, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Why Conversion to Organic is N ot a Solution to Climate Change
An Open Letter to Peter Melchett (pmelchett@soilassociation.org) and Gundula Azeez(gundula@yahoo.co.uk).Peter and Gundula,I have read your paper titled “Soil carbon and organic farming: A review of the evidenceof agriculture’s pote ntial to combat climate change.”
In the paper you make the case that extensive conversion of agriculture to Organicwould lead to highly significant levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide reduction by carbonsequestration in the high organic matter soils that Organic farming builds.Because this is an important question I would like to make some comments about thepaper in the form of a public, “open letter” which I will post on SCRIBD.
Full Disclosure: I am an agricultural scientist (Ph.D. in Plant Pathology from U.C. Davis in 1982)and I have been working in the field of agricultural technology for >30 years. I have been employed by the Colorado State University, by DuPont, and by the small biocontrol/biotech company, Mycogen. For the past 13 years I have been working as an independent consultant working for a wide range of companies and Universities. I have been familiar with Organic since my Grandfather taught me about it in the early 1960s (he was an avid reader of “Organic Gardening” magazine). I know some of the pioneers of commercial organic farming and I have spent a significant part of my career on the development of pest control methods that would be acceptable under Organic rules. I’ve also worked on many projects involving synthetic chemicals and biotechnology. I am writing this response strictly as an individual scientist and not on behalf of, or with financial support from, any other party.
Over the last several years I have had the chance to read extensively from the scientificliterature dealing with aspects of the “carbon footprint” of agriculture. It is based on thisreading that I will raise some points of disagreement with the conclusions of your paper.They are similar to points I have raised with the Rodale Institute about their 2007 paperby LaSalle and Hepperly titled, “Regenerative Organic Farming: A Solution to GlobalWarming” (
 I should start by saying that one of the most positive features of Organic farming hasbeen the focus on building soil organic matter (SOM). You are certainly accurate in yourdescription of a high organic matter soil as a system which enhances water capture andretention and which provides a reservoir of nutrients and beneficial organisms (e.g.Mycorrhizae). You are also right that agriculture, because it involves a huge land area,has the theoretical potential to sequester globally significant quantities of atmosphericcarbon dioxide. It is quite clear that Organic farming methods (particularly cover-cropping and compost or manure addition) lead to increases in SOM. This is a well-known fact and one that you have documented quite well in your paper.
The problem is that there are under-appreciated, “greenhouse gas” issues with thecomposting process that negate the sequestration benefit. This becomes importantbecause the sequestration that you describe is directly dependent on repeatedlyapplying substantial quantities of compost. In section 7.12 (page 85) you say,
“Composting is one of the best ways of increasing soil carbon levels, producing very high sequestration rates of 1-2tC/ha/year in trials in favorable conditions.” 
You also sayon page 85-86:
“Composting of organic matter before application is routinely carried out in Organic horticulture. Indeed animal manures must be composted or stacked for several months before being applied to organic horticultural land (to avoid any pathogenic contamination of the food).” 
On page 86 you continue by saying:
“Composting is also a standard practice of biodynamic farmers.” 
You conclude:
“Trials show that composted material produces far better soil carbon results than most other types of organic matter.” 
The case that you have made is very much associated with the use of compost. Thequantities of compost added vary between the studies you cite, but many of theseadditions are substantial, in the range of tens of tons/ha/year, with some being above theSoil Association limit of 28 t/ha. It is logical that compost would increase SOM betterthan manure because the carbon that remains has already survived an intense,microbial, metabolic process. Compost contains a higher proportion of the morerecalcitrant forms of organic carbon. I do not at all dispute the fact that compost additioncan build soil carbon. The question is at what “cost” from a carbon-equivalent point ofview. It is widely assumed that composting is an aerobic process, but in fact when theemissions from a compost operation are actually measured (which few researchersbother to do), it turns out that there are modest methane and nitrous oxide emissions aswell. This implies that at least some anaerobic microbial activity is also involved. That isnot surprising since oxygen deficit can occur on a micro-site level. Also, during the peakoxygen demand of the aerobic activity, oxygen is almost certainly going to be limiting inparts of a large pile of material.In a study published by Hao et al of Ag Canada (J. Environ. Qual. 33:37–44, 2004,
emissions were monitored from a commercial-scale composting of straw-bedded or wood chip-bedded manures. This was a high-quality composting procedure including eight “turns” of the windrow over 99 days. Mostof the carbon loss over that time was in the form of CO
, which would be considered“carbon neutral.” However; some of the carbon was also emitted as methane and asmall amount of the nitrogen was emitted as nitrous oxide (greenhouse gases with 21and 310 times the global warming potential of CO
respectively, so these emissions arenot at all “carbon neutral”). There is also some fuel burned to turn the pile. Thesescientists reported emissions of 188.6 kg of CO
-carbon equivalents per metric ton oforiginal manure dry weight (90% of that was from the methane). You can check themath, but by my calculations this represents 112 kg CO
-Carbon per Metric ton offinished compost. On a nitrogen basis this is around ten times the carbon footprint of asynthetic nitrogen fertilizer like urea.
On page 95 you say that the average annual carbon sequestration rate that could beexpected after conversion to Organic is 563 kg CO
-C/ha/year and that seems like areasonable number based on the studies you cite. Thus, if the amount of compostapplied is anything more than 5 t/ha/year (and most of the studies you cite use muchhigher levels), then the non-carbon neutral greenhouse gas emissions from compostingare greater than the amount of carbon sequestered. Instead of mitigating climatechange, widespread adoption of this Organic practice would contribute to climatechange. The higher rates of sequestration you report from the literature come fromcases where very large amounts of compost are used (e.g. Page 53 describing the “K-trial’ in Sweden where the “Biodynamic” treatment received 30t/ha or 45 t/ha beforecomposting every two years). Those cases would entail correspondingly higher, non-carbon-neutral emissions.This problem of methane and nitrous oxide emissions from composting is not limited tomanures. It has also been documented in composting of green wastes
Thesame issue arises with non-composted manure (as was often what was used in the“Organic” plots in studies you cited). The IPCC estimates that even careful storage ofmanure results in methane emissions (see table 10.17 in this 2006 IPCC guidelines forGHG inventories,
There are also methane and nitrous oxide emissions following the field application ofmanures
On page 71 you cite a Defra review of UK studies which found that cattle FYM (farmyard manure) increases soil carbon levels by an average of about 15 kg C/ha/yr permetric ton (fresh weight). Even a very small emission of methane from manure will morethan cancel-out the soil carbon storage advantage of that soil amendment.In your extended response to the question of whether Organic is simply “importing”carbon (section 9.6) you depend heavily on the study by Marriott & Wander, 2006 inwhich they found “little difference between the effects of manure & legume-based andlegume-only”
From that single article you conclude that compostaddition is not in fact necessary for building soil carbon if cover crops are used (which isactually in conflict with your extensive earlier statements about the importance ofcompost). I read the Marriott and Wander study and I don’t believe that it providessufficient evidence to make that conclusion. It is not a controlled experiment, but moreof a survey of various treatments in different places on different soils with different croprotations, different fertilization regimes, different time-spans, and different tillagesystems. The authors themselves point out that the lack of difference between thelegume/manure and legume only systems is probably because of the “design” of thestudy and in conflict with their earlier research. The Marriot and Wander study iscertainly not sufficient evidence to say that Organic systems could achieve the kind of

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