In 2010, Organic Valley developed a sustainability platform to help guide our projects and ground our work. This platform is built on the foundation that sustainability is at the core of all operations throughout the cooperative. In order to more deeply explore the ways our business—from farm to consumer—impacts the world around us and to respond to current issues, we defined three areas of focus designed to target the entire cooperative:
With this platform, we wish to guide not only our cooperative’s business operations but provide assistance to our 1,600+ farmer-owners as well. In this ongoing series about our sustainability efforts, we will share our accomplishments, challenges and process of continual improvement. In part one, we explore the first of our three focus areas: climate change and the environment.
Our work in this arena focuses on the impacts our farms and the business have on ecosystems. At the core of organic agriculture is a commitment to building living, healthy soils so that we can, in turn, grow strong healthy plants that will aid us in the production of healthy livestock and nutritious food. Because we approach this task from a biologically managed strategy, our farms provide the earth with many services. These services include clean water, habitats for pollinators, elimination of toxic runoff, and encouragement of biodiversity and carbon sequestration. Collectively, these have been termed “ecosystem services” and are getting increased attention globally.
For the past two years we have been focused primarily on understanding the role we play in climate change. We conduct an annual Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Assessment to calculate the footprint of our internal business operations, and each year, we work to expand this assessment further to more accurately represent all of the emissions associated with the production of our products. Currently we are working to engage our processing plants in reporting their emissions so that we can integrate them into our collective footprint.
Where it becomes more difficult is assessing our farms. Research shows that the three main GHGs associated with agricultural production are carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4). CO2 is generally associated with fossil fuel consumption (i.e. vehicle use, electricity, etc.); N2O is primarily generated from soil offgassing (i.e. excess nitrogen in the soil that oxidizes and is released as N2O); and CH4, the bulk of emissions, is from livestock (i.e. enteric fermentation (burping) and manure offgassing).
But farm emissions are not the only story. Our farms also sequester carbon, which means they capture greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and hold them in the soil and forests. We have been working to understand how to quantify the climate mitigation potential of our soils. One way to get at this is to measure soil organic matter because it is an indicator of the sequestration potential. This summer, we are visiting farms in Washington, Wisconsin and Vermont to collect soil samples, which we will use to preliminarily evaluate the sequestration potential of differing soils in various climates with diverging management practices. The results of this project will be available this fall. We hope to use the information we gather to further influence grant proposals to support greater study of the role organic agriculture plays in climate change mitigation.
For more information about Organic Valley’s sustainability efforts, visit www.organicvalley.coop/about-us/sustainability.