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Organics   |   Climate change

Why organic farming can slow climate change

For the last few years, we’ve seen unprecedented concern and public protest over global warming, but still far from enough action to curb carbon emissions. From wildfires in Australia to storms and floods in the UK, we can all now see the ruinous effects of climate change on the environment around us.

Organic farming can play a key role in helping to tackle it. Food and farming are a huge source of carbon emissions, accounting for around a quarter of greenhouse gases released worldwide. But what’s less well-known is that the very stuff we grow our food in – soil – has an incredible capacity to lock away carbon.

There are currently some 2,500 billion tonnes of carbon stored in the world’s soils: that’s more than in plants, trees and the atmosphere combined. And organic soils are around 25 per cent more effective at storing carbon in the long-term.

We also need to talk about nitrogen, which is a fundamental element essential for all food, farming and life on earth. But too much of it can cause damaging impacts for climate, nature and public health. Excess nitrogen can oxidise; a reaction creating the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide and an overlooked driver of climate change.

There’s plenty of focus on methane and the impact of ruminants like cows, but rarely any mention of nitrous oxide when it comes to climate impacts. Indeed, nitrous oxide is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide and has a long-term global warming effect. It’s also the primary ozone depleting pollutant.

Crops like clover help organic farmers fertilise soil without synthetic nitrogen. Image Andrew Bennett. 

Overuse of nitrogen fertilisers has led to extra nitrogen in our environment. In the same way humans released huge amounts of CO2 through burning fossil fuels, huge amounts of reactive nitrous oxide have been released through farming. Achieving the target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 means we need to reach near net-zero nitrogen too.

If managed poorly, any form of nitrogen, whether it’s from manures, nitrogen-fixing plants or synthetic fertilisers, can lead to nitrogen pollution. In organic farming, these fertilisers are not permitted; there is no shortcut to nutrients and instead farmers nourish plants naturally by building up fertile soils.

They do this using clover and legumes (such as peas and beans) to 'fix' nitrogen in the soil, as well as using compost, natural manure, and crop rotations to keep the soil healthy and full of nutrients. As manufacturing nitrogen for fertiliser also has a high energy footprint, recycling nutrients on-farm presents one of the strongest alternatives to reduce the climate impact of farming. If you want to find out more, our Fixing Nitrogen report goes into more depth.

If we could all recognize the damaging impact of nitrogen on climate change, we can help put this on the agenda for government.

This year has brought more changes to our world than anyone could have foreseen. More and more of us want to make changes to our lives and help restore nature, our own health and a safe climate. In the hope-filled month of September, embracing organic is a great way to start.



8 Months

Thank you for such an informative article. Disturbing and worrying. Now is the time for change, we have abused our planet for too long. Governments around the world need to act, and not by promising “jam tomorrow” - but by bringing in legislation to ensure that farming (and other) practices are changed NOW. We owe it to our planet, our wildlife, and to future generations.

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Louisa Pharoah

Louisa Pharoah is the director of development at the Soil Association, the UK's largest certifier of organic food and charity for organic and agoecological issues.

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The twin crises of climate change and biodiversity losses will be the defining stories of our future, but it is not too late to change direction. 

Here at Wicked Leeks, our mission is to help inform and inspire positive change. Our journalism is free to all because of this, but we want to reach as many people as possible who share our desire for a better world. We know our readers are some of the biggest advocates of sustainable living, and you can help us grow this movement by sharing this article widely, with your friends and on social media. Now is the time to act.