Cool It!

Organic Food and Farming a Remedy for Climate Change

Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

Earth Day Quiz: What would you guess is the number-one global health threat facing the 21st century?

Answer: Climate change. (1) According to George Benjamin, M.D. executive director of the American Public Health Association, climate change is "one of the most serious public health threats facing our nation, and the planet."(2) And the World Health Organization counts children among the most vulnerable to its effects. (3)

What's going on?  

Climate change is largely blamed on human beings burning fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas). The related increases in "greenhouse gas" (GHG) emissions act like a blanket, trapping heat in our atmosphere. (2,4) The major greenhouse gasses, and their sources, include: (7,8)

  • Carbon Dioxide (CO2): Released through burning oil, coal, gas, and deforestation.
  • Methane (CH4): Emitted during the production and transport of coal, natural gas, and oil; also from livestock manure, agricultural practices, and by the decay of organic waste in solid waste landfills.
  • Nitrous Oxide (N2O):  Emitted largely as the result of increased reliance on nitrogen-based fertilizers, and during combustion of fossil fuels.

How does food and agriculture contribute to climate change?

Anna Lappe, author of "Diet for a Hot Planet," says most of us don't think about global warming when we sit down to dinner, but "the climate crisis has a lot to do with what's at the end of our forks." (9)

For example, it's estimated that our industrial food and agriculture's dependence on fossil fuels to produce synthetic fertilizers, drive heavy farm machinery, then process, package, and transport food long distances contributes as much as one third of total greenhouse-gas emissions.  (9-11

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) reports methane and nitrous oxide emissions from industrialized animal production and the overuse of synthetic fertilizers are even more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide.  (12) Sure enough, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley showed that increased fertilizer use over the past 50 years is responsible for a dramatic rise in atmospheric N2O. Not only does N2O trap heat, it also destroys stratospheric ozone, which protects the planet from harmful ultraviolet rays. (8

Organic agriculture to the rescue!

Now the good news: A worldwide switch to organic farming could offset global GHG, and create an abundant food supply in the face of climate change challenges. (10-11,13-14)

How? Organic farming methods sequester carbon as organic matter in soils, which builds soil fertility, and improves both water retention and drainage. Organic farmers avoid synthetic fertilizers, thereby reducing N2O emissions, and support resiliency through plant and animal biodiversity. (10-11,14)

Moving from fear to action:  Kitchen, garden and community change for all Earth's children

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change member, Kristie Ebi, encourages us
to put the face of children on climate change. As warming trends accelerate
over the next few decades, Ebi explains: "our children will experience a
future nothing like the past." She suggests we think about climate change in
terms of "commitment and choice."

Below are five suggestions for empowerment. Cultivate your list and reap the benefits!

1. Eat ecologically. Choose organic meats and dairy, which naturally depend on pasture-feeding and less fossil fuels. Plant a vegetable garden or even just a pot or two of herbs and tomatoes on a sunny deck. Seek out local, organic produce at farmers' markets.
2.  Plant trees. They naturally cool our environment and reduce carbon dioxide levels. Consider planting a fruit tree to help nourish your family.
3. Be water wise. Invest in a rain barrel to utilize collected rainwater during periods of drought. Drink filtered water from the tap rather than wasteful plastic bottles. 
4. Practice citizenship. Call your local, state and national representatives and let them know you support legislation that supports organic farmers, and the infrastructure for local food production.
5. Create community. Start an eco-book club where you share stories and make plans to care for your small piece of the Earth. Recommended reading: "The Organic Manifesto," by Maria Rodale.

Resources and References

1. "Managing the health effects of climate change," Lancet and University College London Institute for Global Health Commission. May 2009. 

2. "Addressing the Urgent Threat of Global Climate Change to Public Health and the Environment," American Public Health Association Policy Statement

3. "Protecting Health from Climate Change," World Health Day, 2008. World Health Organization.

4. "Climate Change and Your Health: Rising Temperatures, Worsening Ozone Pollution," Global Warming Science and Impacts; Union of Concerned Scientists, 2011.

5. "Scientists Warn Governments to Act vs Climate Change," Business Mirror, Dec. 2011.

6. "Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization," Lester Brown, 2008. www.earthpolicy.org

7. Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Environmental Protection Agency.

8. "Trends and seasonal cycles in the isotopic composition of nitrous oxide since 1940," Nature Geoscience, April 2012.

9. "Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis At the End of Your Fork and What You Can do About it," Anna Lappe, 2010.

10.The Wheel of Life: Food, Climate, Human Rights, and the Economy, Debbie Barker, Center for Food Safety. www.boell.org/downloads/TheWheelofLife_Barker_website.pdf

11."Organic Agriculture and Climate Change," Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, March 2010. www.fao.org/docs/eims/upload/275960/al185e.pdf

12.Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

13.The Soil Association

14. "Why Eat Organic, " Jim Riddle, e-organic extension webinar, Jan. 13, 2012. (Hear Jim Riddle with Melinda on Food Sleuth Radio.)

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The Grass is Greener - benefits of pasturing
There's climate, and then there's weather

Kristie Ebi, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), explains the difference between climate and weather like this:  "Climate is what we expect; weather is what we get."

So the temperature outside today, wind speed and humidity define our weather. But average weather patterns over several decades describe our climate.

Many of us think about climate change in terms of melting ice caps and the demise of polar bears. However, warming trends also predict an increase in fungal infections and mosquito-borne diseases in previously unaffected places. Higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere fuels the growth of ragweed and poison ivy, and warmer temperatures increase ground-level ozone, resulting in breathing difficulties and spikes in asthma rates. (4)

Climate change also brings more frequent extreme weather events, such as ice storms, hurricanes, floods, droughts, wildfires, rising sea levels, and more acidic oceans –  all of which threaten  agriculture and our food supply.  (2,5,6)

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