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Rolling cover crops are an alternative method to using burndown in organic farming systems Jack Sherman
ROLLING THE COVER: Rolling cover crops are an alternative method to using burndown in organic farming systems. The executive director of Rodale Institute says farmers need to adapt organic practices in order to stave off the worst effects of climate change.

Time to farm like our world depends on it

Commentary: Organic, regenerative agriculture is the best way forward.

By Jeff Moyer

We can stop the climate crisis.

At least, we can start reducing the 23% of global greenhouse gas emissions that the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently attributed to agricultural activities.

The answer is regenerative organic agriculture. And the time to implement it is now.

In a recent report, the UN concluded that humans can’t stave off the effects of climate change without making drastic changes to the way we grow food and use land.

Conventional agriculture depends on the use of chemical inputs and fossil fuel-intensive synthetic fertilizers, in addition to heavy machinery and tillage, to grow food. Industrial farming also relies on factory farms for animals. These methods release large amounts of carbon, methane and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

In contrast, science proves that regenerative organic systems, which prioritize soil health and good farming practices like cover cropping, crop rotations and pasturing animals, use 45% less energy and release 40% fewer carbon emissions than conventional agriculture, with no statistical difference in yields.

Regenerative organic agriculture works with natural systems to produce nutritious and abundant food, instead of relying on synthetic inputs like pesticides and artificial fertilizers. Regenerative agriculture goes beyond sustainability to improve resources, not just maintain them.

At Rodale Institute, a nonprofit research institution recognized as the global leader in regenerative organic agriculture, our Farming Systems Trial has been running for nearly 40 years and is the longest side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional grain cropping systems in North America.

Since 1981 we’ve collected data on soil health, crop yields, energy efficiency and more through our research trials, which have led us to discover the implications of switching to an organic system.  

Rodale Institute and others have concluded that if we converted all global cropland and pastures to regenerative organic systems, we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions. As the UN report states, we don’t have time to wait.

Regenerative organic agriculture utilizes strategies such as organic no-till, which uses cover crops to return nutrients to the soil while absorbing carbon dioxide, reducing GHG emissions. Because the soil is not disturbed in organic no-till systems, the carbon dioxide absorbed by the cover crop is sequestered in the soil instead of released into the atmosphere.

Regenerative organic prioritizes soil health, but also considers animal welfare and social fairness in its standards. Regenerative organic livestock management emphasizes rotational grazing, grazing on grass, and no antibiotics or hormones, reducing the heavy burden livestock place on climate.

But we don’t only need regenerative organic agriculture to mitigate the effects of climate change. We also need it in order to feed a world that’s already been shaped by a changing climate.

As extreme weather events become more frequent, agricultural systems must become more resilient. Our research has found that organic crops have the potential to produce yields up to 40% higher in times of inclement weather — such as flooding or drought — than conventional systems.

This means that it is possible to feed the world while reducing carbon emissions. Regenerative organic farming prioritizes soil health, creating living soils teeming with bacteria, fungi and a thriving microbiome that is otherwise degraded through the use of pesticides and herbicides, and other industrial farming practices like monocropping.

Healthy soil is also more stable, sticking together like glue and preventing the erosion and runoff that come with climate change’s extreme weather and decimate crops.

Each region is feeling climate change differently, which is why Rodale Institute is starting regional resource centers in three agricultural hubs of the U.S.: Iowa, Georgia and California. We will conduct research on resilient agriculture in these distinct regions, bringing our world-renowned expertise to new audiences as we face a growing climate crisis.

Moyer is executive director of Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pa. He has worked in organic farming for over 40 years and is the author of “Organic No-Till Farming: Advancing No-Till Agriculture.”

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