Soil Association

Food and farming can play key role in ‘kicking the CO2 habit’ and curbing climate change


Source: Soil Association

The theme for World Environment Day 2008 (5 June) is ‘Kick the Habit! Towards a Low Carbon Economy’, but ignores the significant role organic farming can play in rising to the twin challenges of climate change and peak oil [1].

The UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) lists ‘Twelve Steps to Help You Kick the CO2 Habit’, none of which mention food or farming as areas to address when trying to reduce your carbon footprint [2].

This is an astonishing oversight given that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has calculated that, globally, agriculture generates 30% of total human emissions of greenhouse gases, including 50% of methane emissions and more than half of nitrous oxide emissions [3]. Similarly, Defra studies show that nearly 20% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions come from food and farming [4].

In contrast, published government studies show that on average UK organic farming uses 26% less energy per tonne of food produced compared to non-organic agriculture. This is mainly due to organic farming’s avoidance of artificial fertilisers and other fossil-fuel derived chemicals. Nitrogen fertilisers are the largest user of fossil-fuel energy in agriculture and the single largest source of nitrous oxide emissions in the world – a greenhouse gas over 300 times more damaging then carbon dioxide (CO2) [5].

Robin Maynard, Soil Association campaigns director, said:
“World Environment Day asks people to kick their CO2 habit, yet fails to suggest the single most effective change everyone can make in their daily lives – choosing food produced by lower-carbon, 'cooler' organic farming.

“The UNEP and our own government know that if we are to avoid runaway climate change we must cut CO2 emissions by 60-80% across all human activities – that must include food and farming. The ‘elephant in the room’ politicians seem scared to tackle is industrial farming’s dependency on artificial fertilisers. Requiring vast amounts of energy to make, with nearly 7 tonnes of CO2 given off for every tonne produced, fertilisers are industrial farming’s biggest carbon habit.

“Organic farming offers a practical means to kick that habit and so produce more climate-friendly food. Using solar-energy – sunshine and clover – organic farmers fix ‘free’ nitrogen naturally from the atmosphere to build soil fertility. As well as reducing food’s carbon foot-print, this benefits farmers by cutting their input costs.”

The Government’s own Sustainable Development Commission has endorsed organic farming as the ‘gold standard’ for climate-friendly, sustainable food production – because unlike non-organic agriculture it doesn't need vast inputs of oil and artificial fertilisers. And a recent report by the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) recognised that organic agriculture can contribute to delivering global food security and help tackle climate change [6]. This four-year study involved 400 scientists from around the world as well as 30 governments and the same number of NGOs.

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