Could organic farming solve global warming? For the population of a planet asking serious questions about our survivability, the answer lies just under our feet, in the soil. Craig Sams shared the evidence for this promising declaration during his recent presentation “The Answer Lies in Our Soil,” at the Natural Products Scandinavia in Malmö, Sweden.
A dynamic author and pioneer in the movement toward sustainable farming, Mr. Craig is the founder of Whole Earth Foods, Green & Black’s Chocolate and Gusto Cola, and Executive Chairman of Carbon Gold. He is also part of the Soil Association Certification Board.
According to Sams and the research and experience he has gathered, organic farming has the potential to reverse and balance climate change. By farming organically, he suggests, the global warming crisis could be over as the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere decreases, and we increase the life of the soil. By contrast, conventional farming causes the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere to rise. Conventional intensive farming generates thirty percent of excess greenhouse gas emissions though the two percent of the world’s farmland under organic methods is helping offset this, said Sams.
In recognizing current trends in agriculture, the United Nations has identified 2015 as the International Year of Soils, noting that we will run out of usable soil within 60 years. Mr. Sams presented statistics from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, showing that every year 125 million hectares of land become non-farmable because of soil erosion and depletion. We are losing 30 football fields a minute, according to the Save our Soils campaign. “We can’t continue to lose soil at this rate,” Mr. Sams pointed out. He then shared research from a 34-year trial at the Rodale Institute, (Pennsylvania, USA) which showed how organic farming could offset all of the annual increase in greenhouse gas by using regenerative principles.
When he launched Whole Earth Organic Cornflakes in 1997, Mr.Sams discovered that the farmers who grew the organic corn were storing so much carbon in the soil each year, they almost completely offset the carbon emissions from all the transportation, packaging, and processing of the corn flakes. “It was when I made the carbon connection that I realized that there was even more to soil than what I had ever realized,” said Mr. Sams.
The difference between living and dead soil
For the soil to be able to take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in the plants, it has to be alive. “If you take a teaspoon of soil, there are billions of microorganisms in there,” said Mr. Sams. When non-organic farmers treat the soil with certain chemicals and fertilizers, the microorganisms contained in it die. The soil is then unable to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it. Instead, the carbon dioxide that is naturally present in the soil is released into the atmosphere.
Mr. Sams said the nitrogen fertilizers used by conventional farmers produces nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is over 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. He said, “half of all the nitrogen fertilizer that goes into the soil, never touches a plant, it either washes through the soil and ends up in the water and eventually becomes nitrous oxide in the atmosphere or it just evaporates straight out of the soil as nitrous oxide.”
The solution: smaller organic farms and carbon pricing
Mr. Sams says we need to reduce the size of the farms. “My vision is that we will end up with many five hectare farms, that is 12-15 acres, that are intensely productive.” He continued, “The change that will drive that is carbon pricing.”
What carbon pricing means is that companies will pay for their emissions of carbon. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that investments in low-carbon or carbon-free technologies are attractive thanks to carbon pricing and that it ensures efficient use of fossil fuels. Currently, external costs such as crop damage, droughts, floods, and heat waves are put to the public and not on the company responsible for the big carbon emission.
The World Bank is already encouraging carbon pricing as the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition was formed from a groundswell of support at the UN Climate Summit. Over 70 countries and more than 1,000 companies expressed support for carbon pricing. Mr. Sams points out that this could make organic products more affordable than conventional.
The Soil Association may have been ahead of its time when it was founded in 1946 as a reaction towards the increasingly intense agricultural practices that cause soil erosion and depletion. However, its influence and relevance could not be more timely than today. As evidenced at the recent business-to-business fair Natural Products Scandinavia in Sweden, companies are already proud to ally with the Association and to carry their stamp of certification on their product packaging. Some exhibitors made up a large section of the event within the Soil Association Pavilion, including New Nutrition Brands, Plenish, and Big Oz.
The Soil Association has contributed in the development of procedures and standards that allow full traceability back to the farm. These standards cover all aspects of organic food certification including production and packaging, animal welfare, wildlife conservation, and food additives in organic processed foods. They also cover fish farming, textiles and health and beauty care products.
As consumers and industry activists become more informed on the urgency of soil consciousness, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more of the Soil Association Organic label on a wide range of products in the future. As Mr. Sams has learned from experience, more of us may also realize that “we and the soil are indivisible. The life that is in the soil is what makes us alive.”