Organic agriculture deserves a seat at the grown-ups’ table
This essay was written by Dr. Martin Entz, Professor of Cropping Systems and Natural Systems Agriculture, Department of Plant Science. It was discussed at the Advanced Plant Science Seminar on April 8.
This essay explores the fundamental role organic agriculture can, and will play in sustaining people and the planet. It begins by identifying two major environmental threats, and how industry is being pushed to respond. It then spends time on the question of food security – a hurdle in the minds of many when discussing organic agriculture. How do we might reconcile Canada’s aspirations of increasing agricultural exports with a farming system that is more focused on environmental targets? Informing this question requires a critical look at global population and diet trends. Where will food be required in future? And given that the planet has more people suffering from over- rather than under-feeding, is the present food system the right fit? Finally, it circles back to the original question of how organic agriculture can contribute to solutions for climate change and biodiversity loss while producing heathy food and livelihoods.
The dual challenge of biodiversity loss and climate change
Biodiversity is the variability of life on earth. “Species are to ecosystems as rivets are to a plane’s wing” (Ehrlich and Ehrlich, 1981). Losing one would be OK, but each loss increases the risk of disaster. Biodiversity loss results in more crop-killing pests, less crop pollination and reduced yield, water pollution, and other effects that threaten the basic needs of humans (Dias et al. 2006). Effects of biodiversity loss are being felt around the planet including the Canadian Prairies, one of the youngest and most ecologically intact bread baskets in the world. Let’s consider songbirds. Canadian researchers have documented a 16 to 39% decline in bird populations, depending on species, between 1966 and 2013 (Stanton et al. 2018). The largest decline was for species that eat flying insects – insects that reduce crop yields.
The second threat is climate change, which is already reducing crop yields in Australia and intensifying human migrations from affected areas. Climate change will reach beyond species loss, creating destructive weather events, and significant economic costs for farmers and taxpayers. Climate change threatens the year-to-year consistency of agricultural production here at home. Extreme events like the 2001, 2002, 2012 droughts, the 2010 and 2011 floods, and the 2019 late-season deluge can reduce yields as much as 50%. Climate change could cost Canada $21-$43 billion per year by 2050, according to estimates from the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy.
Industry is pushed to respond
Businesses see the need to get more serious about the environment. Consumers and investors are demanding action. Climate action is being driven anew by the Paris accord, now that the US has rejoined. Financial institutions are getting serious about biodiversity loss (https://www.financeforbiodiversity.org/signatories/) and other sectors of the economy are sure to follow. Biodiversity action is also being driven by the international convention on biodiversity (https://www.cbd.int/conferences/post2020).
But wait, what about feeding the world?
“Organic farming cannot feed the world” is a statement I hear often. So, let’s spend a moment unpacking it. As the world’s 5th largest exporter of raw and processed agricultural products, Canadian agribusinesses and governments are reluctant to take their foot off the production gas pedal. In fact, a government sanctioned report (2017 Barton report; CAPI, 2018) identified agriculture as one of Canada’s best hopes for future economic growth, aiming to become the world’s second largest food exporter. So, it is easy to see why people are threatened and asking “Why should we consider organic agriculture with its (sometimes) lower yields?” One reason is that organic agriculture is driving the very innovation Barton calls for, and it is doing this by harnessing nature’s processes. Another reason speaks to farmers’ worst enemy – overproduction, which leads to low prices. What if world markets for our products are smaller than we predict? The United Nations Development Program projected a global population in 2100 of 10.88 billion, however taking a new look at fertility rates, Vollset et al, (2020) suggest that global population will peak at 9.73 billion in 2064, then drop to 8.8 billion by 2100. Further, if the Sustainable Development Goals for education and contraceptive were met, Vollset et al. (2020) predict a global population in 2100 of 6.88 billion, less than today. Female education is our best hope to stave off runaway global population growth (Samir and Lutz, 2017).
There are three additional points to consider when thinking about global food security. First, most food consumed around the world is produced locally. International trade in wheat, for example, makes up less than 10% of global production. Rice is the staple food of almost half the world’s population but very little is traded on world markets. Small-scale farmers play an important role here – 1 in 12 people on the planet is an Indian farmer! More local production is important, especially in areas of the world where populations are projected to increase dramatically by 2100, like sub-Saharan Africa (3.07 billion by 2100, Vollset et al. 2020). But here is my second point – more local production does not necessarily translate into all being fed well. For example, fertilizer subsidy programs designed to increase production in developing countries have sometimes led to lower nutritional outcomes because of reduced crop diversity (Jones, 2017; Kansanga et al. 2020), less time for women to breastfeed, a focus on export crops (Bezner-Kerr et al. 2012), and in some cases, failure to actually increase yields (Messina et al. 2017). Community-based participatory approaches based on ecological farming methods that tackle gender and other social inequities are more effective for nutritional security (Bezner-Kerr et al. 2012; Pretty, 2003; Madsen et al. 2020; Salomons et al. 2017).
Third, a lot of food goes into our gas tanks. Roughly 35% of the entire US corn crop is used to produce fuel, amounting to about 10% of all automobile gas used in that country. Interestingly, a 10% reduction in US gas consumption would free up 20 million acres of land for food production, about twice the agricultural land base of Ontario! In Canada, use of canola as an automobile fuel is also increasing. The biofuel lesson is this – conservation and energy efficiency will save more fuel than can be replaced by putting crops into our gas tanks.
But Canada will remain a major food exporter. We have a large land base and a small population, plus viable international markets for our high-quality products exist. But to design a food strategy based mostly on exports not only poses risks to nature at home, it could put Canada into a precarious economic position if global markets are smaller and less certain than predicted.
I now want to shift the attention to organic agriculture, and the role it can play in environmental sustainability. Today, organic agriculture occupies 2.3% of agricultural lands worldwide (57 million hectares) and is practiced by 3.1 million farmers. One quarter of organic land and 87% of organic farmers are in developing and emerging market countries (Willer and Lernoud, 2019). In Canada, certified organic agriculture provides livelihoods to 5700 Canadian farm families and 1400 food processing companies. Organic agriculture is regulated by the federal government and follows general principles including this one. “Organic agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plants, animals, humans and the planet as one and indivisible” (Canadian General Standards Board, 2015).
Organic agriculture innovation at UM
We have been working on organic agriculture at the University of Manitoba since 1990. The UM is home to the Glenlea study, Canada’s longest running organic crop plots.
Established in 1992, the Glenlea study compares organic and conventional farming, including use of nutrients from the circular economy in organic production (Carkner et al. 2020). The UM also manages the “Organic Crops Field Laboratory”, a site dedicated to organic agronomic research and outreach located on the Ian N. Morrison Research Farm in Carman, Manitoba.
Organic farming and climate change
Research at Glenlea has shown that organic farming results in fewer emissions associated with food production. For example, over the last 29 years of research, organic systems have produced similar amounts of crop calories per acre than conventional systems but required 40% less fossil fuel energy (eg., Hoeppner et al. 2006). How does organic agriculture achieve this incredible reduction in fossil fuel use? By using legume plants instead of factories to produce nitrogen fertilizer. Factory-produced nitrogen (called the Haber-Bosch process) accounts for almost half the fossil fuels used in on-farm crop production. Our organic systems also produced 30% less nitrous oxide (N20) per bushel of wheat produced (Westphal et al. 2018). Nitrous oxide is an even more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2.
The research also shows that organic systems can be effective at increasing carbon storage in soils. Soils contain roughly twice as much C as the earth’s atmosphere so storing C in soils can buy us time to retool our energy systems away from fossil fuels. At Glenlea, we have documented higher levels of living organic matter (called microbial biomass C) in some organic rotations – compared with the conventional systems (Braman et al. 2016). But there is a dilemma. Sometimes, higher levels of soil organic matter mean higher levels of CO2 and N20 emissions due to more biological activity in soil. So, in our research we measure the ratio of greenhouse gasses emitted per unit of living soil organic matter (CO2 or N20/per unit microbial biomass C). While there was no difference between organic and conventional farming for CO2 emissions/unit of microbial biomass C, N20 emissions/per unit of microbial biomass C in early spring were 81% lower for organic systems without manure added and 63% lower for organic systems with manure added, compared with conventional production (Braman et al. 2016).
We continue to improve the environmental footprint of organic systems. Perhaps our most exciting climate action work now is using nutrients from the circular economy. Organic agriculture is leading the way to recycling nutrients from urban waste streams (waste water nutrients, municipal digestate, insect frass) back onto farms. Organic yields are also increasing through the use of crop varieties bred specifically for organic production and the introduction of robotic weeders and other technology.
Organic farming and biodiversity
A significant body of scientific research shows that when organic farms include a diversity of crops and non-crop areas, when synthetic pesticides are replaced with natural pest management systems, and when nutrients are added using biological sources such as compost (animal manure and increasingly municipal manures) instead of synthetic fertilizers, then organic systems almost always score higher for biodiversity than conventional farming.
Using data from Europe, New Zealand, USA and Canada, Hole et al. (2005) stated that “The majority of the 76 studies reviewed in this paper clearly demonstrate that species abundance and/or richness, across a wide-range of taxa, tend to be higher on organic farms than on locally representative conventional farms.” A major driver of improved biodiversity on organic farms is greater plant diversity. Higher floral diversity in organic fields increased host plants for larvae and adult nectar resources for flower-visiting insects, resulting in more butterflies and bumblebees, for example. Elimination of pesticides, especially insecticides, also helps (Stanton et al. 2018).
I want to emphasize plant diversity, not only because I am a professor in a Plant Science department, but because plant diversity is something that farmers can control. By managing plant diversity, farmers can increase the diversity of other organisms. Today, organic farms grow an average 7 crops in rotation while conventional farms grow an average of 3. Organic farmers also grow more “service” or “cover” crops; plant designed to enrich soils, reduce nutrient losses to the environment, capture atmospheric carbon and provide habitat for pest-eating birds and insects. Great plant diversity produces both biodiversity and economic benefits.
The “Jena” project is located in central Germany and has allowed scientists to test the plant diversity-biodiversity theory in a grassland context (http://www.the-jena-experiment.de/The+Experiment.html). Results show that as plant diversity increases, so does above and below ground biodiversity. Examples of above ground biodiversity included flower visits by insects and activity of parasitic wasps, while below ground processes included beneficial nematodes and mycorrhizal fungi (Scherber et al. 2010). Plant diversity increases in the Jena project also coincided with more carbon capture in soils (Lange et al. 2015).
Deploying organic farming in Canada
Now that we know organic farming systems can result in greater biodiversity, a new question becomes “How do we best deploy organic farming on the landscape for maximum biodiversity benefit?” In other words, given that we are experiencing serious biodiversity decline, how can we best use the 2% of organically managed land in Canada for maximum effect?
This question has been studied by a team of Swedish agroecologists led by Henrik Smith. One study showed that in order to restore farmland biodiversity, organic farming was most efficient in monoculture landscapes where there were only a few crop types and few natural areas (Smith et al. 2010). The organic fields and farms acted as hotspots, which allowed organisms born and bred in the organic fields to spill over into adjacent conventional fields. If I could apply their results to my home province, imagine if we were to insert an organic farm in the middle of an intensive agricultural region like the Red River Valley. Of course, organic farms play an important biodiversity conservation role in all landscapes, but I can understand the logic of giving nature a break from monoculture and pesticides, and thinking about Manitoba, such a break is most needed in the Red River Valley.
Make room at the grown-ups’ table
I am not proposing organic agriculture as the sole solution for agricultural sustainability for all of Canada or, in fact, the prairies. Reganold and Wachter (2016) argue that “a blend of organic and other innovative farming systems, including agroforestry, integrated farming, conservation agriculture, mixed crop and livestock, and still undiscovered systems, will be needed for future global food and ecosystem security”.
But here is the rub. Canada’s national and provincial governments, and agricultural associations have discussed biodiversity and climate change schemes for years, and developed a long list of “best management practices” or “BMPs”. It has been frustrating to watch organic farming be excluded. This must stop. It is time that certified organic farming be recognized as a legitimate and highly effective BMP for restoring farmland biodiversity and reducing the greenhouse gas footprint of agriculture in Canada. Integrated into Canada’s existing agricultural landscape, organic agriculture is a market-based solution to some of our most “wicked” problems and a promising alternative to build a sustainable future for humans and the planet.
References and additional resources
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Bezner Kerr, R., J. Kangmennaang, L. Dakishoni, H. Nyantakyi-Frimpong, E. Lupafya, L. Shumba, R. Msachi, G.O. Boateng, S. S. Snapp, A. Chitaya, E. Maona, T. Gondwe, P. Nkhonjera and I. Luginaah. 2019. Participatory agroecological research on climate change adaptation improves smallholder farmer household food security and dietary diversity in Malawi. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 279: 109-121.
Braman, S., Tenuta, M. and Entz, M.H., 2016. Selected soil biological parameters measured in the 19th year of a long term organic-conventional comparison study in Canada. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 233, pp.343-351.
CAPI, 2018. Canadian Agriculture Policy Institute. https://capi-icpa.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/CAPI_Barton_WhatWeHeardReport_Eng.pdf
Carkner, M., Bamford, K., Martens, J.T., Wilcott, S., Stainsby, A., Stanley, K., Dick, C. and Entz, M.H., 2020. Building capacity from Glenlea, Canada’s oldest organic rotation study. In Long-Term Farming Systems Research (pp. 103-122). Academic Press.
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