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Why Conversion to Organic is Not 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 evidence
of agriculture’s potential to combat climate change.”

(http://www.soilassociation.org/Whyorganic/Climatefriendlyfoodandfarming/Soilcarbon/tabid/574/Default.aspx)

In the paper you make the case that extensive conversion of agriculture to Organic
would lead to highly significant levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide reduction by carbon
sequestration in the high organic matter soils that Organic farming builds.

Because this is an important question I would like to make some comments about the
paper 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 scientific
literature dealing with aspects of the “carbon footprint” of agriculture. It is based on this
reading 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 paper
by LaSalle and Hepperly titled, “Regenerative Organic Farming: A Solution to Global
Warming” (http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/files/Rodale_Research_Paper-07_30_08.pdf).

I should start by saying that one of the most positive features of Organic farming has
been the focus on building soil organic matter (SOM). You are certainly accurate in your
description of a high organic matter soil as a system which enhances water capture and
retention 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 atmospheric
carbon 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 the
composting process that negate the sequestration benefit. This becomes important
because the sequestration that you describe is directly dependent on repeatedly
applying 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 say
on 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. The
quantities of compost added vary between the studies you cite, but many of these
additions are substantial, in the range of tens of tons/ha/year, with some being above the
Soil Association limit of 28 t/ha. It is logical that compost would increase SOM better
than manure because the carbon that remains has already survived an intense,
microbial, metabolic process. Compost contains a higher proportion of the more
recalcitrant forms of organic carbon. I do not at all dispute the fact that compost addition
can build soil carbon. The question is at what “cost” from a carbon-equivalent point of
view.

It is widely assumed that composting is an aerobic process, but in fact when the
emissions from a compost operation are actually measured (which few researchers
bother to do), it turns out that there are modest methane and nitrous oxide emissions as
well. This implies that at least some anaerobic microbial activity is also involved. That is
not surprising since oxygen deficit can occur on a micro-site level. Also, during the peak
oxygen demand of the aerobic activity, oxygen is almost certainly going to be limiting in
parts of a large pile of material.

In a study published by Hao et al of Ag Canada (J. Environ. Qual. 33:37–44, 2004,
http://jeq.scijournals.org/cgi/reprint/33/1/37) 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. Most
of the carbon loss over that time was in the form of CO2, which would be considered
“carbon neutral.” However; some of the carbon was also emitted as methane and a
small amount of the nitrogen was emitted as nitrous oxide (greenhouse gases with 21
and 310 times the global warming potential of CO2 respectively, so these emissions are
not at all “carbon neutral”). There is also some fuel burned to turn the pile. These
scientists reported emissions of 188.6 kg of CO2-carbon equivalents per metric ton of
original manure dry weight (90% of that was from the methane). You can check the
math, but by my calculations this represents 112 kg CO2-Carbon per Metric ton of
finished compost. On a nitrogen basis this is around ten times the carbon footprint of a
synthetic nitrogen fertilizer like urea.
On page 95 you say that the average annual carbon sequestration rate that could be
expected after conversion to Organic is 563 kg CO2-C/ha/year and that seems like a
reasonable number based on the studies you cite. Thus, if the amount of compost
applied is anything more than 5 t/ha/year (and most of the studies you cite use much
higher levels), then the non-carbon neutral greenhouse gas emissions from composting
are greater than the amount of carbon sequestered. Instead of mitigating climate
change, widespread adoption of this Organic practice would contribute to climate
change. The higher rates of sequestration you report from the literature come from
cases 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 before
composting 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 to
manures. It has also been documented in composting of green wastes
(http://gis.lrs.uoguelph.ca/AgriEnvArchives/bioenergy/download/hellebrand_emission_compost.pdf). The
same 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 of
manure results in methane emissions (see table 10.17 in this 2006 IPCC guidelines for
GHG inventories,
http://www.ipcc-nggip.iges.or.jp/public/2006gl/pdf/4_Volume4/V4_10_Ch10_Livestock.pdf).

There are also methane and nitrous oxide emissions following the field application of
manures (http://jeq.scijournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/36/1/23,
http://www.springerlink.com/content/j792635246465887/).

On page 71 you cite a Defra review of UK studies which found that cattle FYM (farm
yard manure) increases soil carbon levels by an average of about 15 kg C/ha/yr per
metric ton (fresh weight). Even a very small emission of methane from manure will more
than 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 in
which they found “little difference between the effects of manure & legume-based and
legume-only”
(http://soil.scijournals.org/cgi/reprint/70/3/950). From that single article you conclude that compost
addition is not in fact necessary for building soil carbon if cover crops are used (which is
actually in conflict with your extensive earlier statements about the importance of
compost). I read the Marriott and Wander study and I don’t believe that it provides
sufficient evidence to make that conclusion. It is not a controlled experiment, but more
of a survey of various treatments in different places on different soils with different crop
rotations, different fertilization regimes, different time-spans, and different tillage
systems. The authors themselves point out that the lack of difference between the
legume/manure and legume only systems is probably because of the “design” of the
study and in conflict with their earlier research. The Marriot and Wander study is
certainly not sufficient evidence to say that Organic systems could achieve the kind of
sequestration you are talking about without the problematic need for composting (or
storing manure). It also leaves the “importation” question open.

I am in agreement with your goals. I would like to see agriculture have a major role in
mitigating climate change and I am a big believer in building soil carbon. Since building
soil carbon is so beneficial both for crops and climate, it is important to find a different
way to achieve that end that does not have this “methane issue”. I believe that there is a
way to change agriculture to achieve these worthy goals.

You are correct that the carbon sequestration potential of “no-till” farming methods was
previously over-estimated because of the failure to account for carbon balance over the
entire soil profile (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.agee.2006.05.014). However, if you look at studies
where “no-till” farming is combined with cover cropping, real sequestration is achievable
(http://jeq.scijournals.org/cgi/reprint/35/4/1374,
http://jeq.scijournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/35/4/1507 ).

If “no-till”, and cover crops are further paired with “controlled wheel traffic” and precision,
variable-rate fertilization, “embedded carbon” and nitrous oxide emissions are also
minimized. This set of farming methods is objectively the best option we have.

Virtually none of the comparison studies that you cite include a non-organic farming
option that would be considered “state-of-the-art” today. This is not surprising since
such practices are extremely rare in the UK or in Europe as a whole
(http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6VB0-4SHFSR9-
1&_user=10&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_versi
on=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=8f39b39b69dd32da0bac5e9291429342 ).

Continuous no-till with cover cropping is somewhat more common in North America, but
still represents a small percentage of all farms. These energy-efficient, erosion
minimizing, and climate-friendly practices are actually much more common in South
America and Australia. I believe that this is the direction we need to move rather than
towards Organic. I have described this alternate vision for the future of farming in the
following two blog posts:

http://eatdrinkbetter.com/2010/01/08/a-virtual-tour-of-tomorrows-super-sustainable-farm-part-1/

http://eatdrinkbetter.com/2010/01/08/a-virtual-tour-of-tomorrows-super-sustainable-farm-part-2/

Sincerely,

Steve Savage
Encinitas, California, USA

The authors or anyone else are welcome to email me at feedback.sdsavage@gmail.com