Recent studies have shown a promising correlation between organic agricultural practices and carbon sequestration. A study published in fall 2017 by the National Soil Project at Northeastern University in partnership with The Organic Center compared farms across the United States and concluded that, on average, soils from Certified Organic farms have 26% more potential for long-term carbon storage, and 13% more Soil Organic Matter (SOM) than farms managed with chemical-based systems. These eye-opening results demonstrate that the organic system can play a key role in drawing down carbon and combating climate change.
Though the USDA Organic seal is only 16 years old, organic standards and practices have been in the making since the 1970s.
The standards detailed in our National Organic Program were largely developed by farmers and certifiers who strived to create an agricultural system that not only limited chemical inputs that affected our foods, but also accounted for the health of the soil. The National Organic Program details a number of soil-building requirements including the use of cover crops, crop rotations, manure and compost additions.
Organic management also improves soil quality by increasing microbial diversity, boosting chemical and physical soil properties, as well as nutrient content. Research shows that these soil building standards are already having a major impact, and their potential to benefit the climate could be even greater.
It’s important to keep in mind that The Organic Center study only measured the top 6 inches of farmland to determine the SOM difference between Certified Organic farms and chemically managed systems. Research indicates that carbon is stored much deeper in the soil, so the amount of carbon stored on Certified Organic farms is likely much higher. Furthermore, the 13% increase in SOM on Certified Organic farms was achieved before we had a clear understanding of the link between carbon additions to the soil and climate change, and should be viewed as a starting point, rather than a set goal.
Now that we have a better understanding of how organic practices increase the carbon-storage potential of soil, we stand to make an even larger impact.
It’s clear that we need to take immediate action to slow climate change, and supporting organic offers us a unique opportunity to leverage an existing system to do so. In recent years, the organic industry has seen a tremendous amount of growth. In a marketplace saturated by certifications and label claims, consumers are increasingly choosing the clarity of organic certification to support the health of their families. In fact, it is estimated that 82% of households are currently purchasing organic products. In addition to customer awareness and interest, USDA oversight of the National Organic Program is a key component in utilizing organic as a solution to climate change.
Because of the USDA’s involvement in regulating the organic program, organic is the only soil building system with a legal definition as well as enforcement provisions. This strong consumer support paired with a functioning regulatory framework make organic the only carbon building agricultural system with a clear mechanism in place to engage consumers in supporting a climate change solution.
To fully realize the impact organic stands to have on our environment, we need to prioritize research spending on organic agriculture.
We are heartened to see that the 2018 Farm Bill provides substantial increases in funding for organic research, and we will continue to follow this research while seeking out opportunities to educate and inform our community on any advancements.