“In other words, while not all certified organic farms are necessarily climate-smart, a chemical farm can NEVER be climate-smart agriculture.” – Linley Dixon

Climate-Smart Agriculture and Organic Farming

Sunday April 17th, 2022: Fiddling while Rome Burns

Dear Friend,

The USDA has announced that it will grant $1 billion for the “implementation, verification, and development of markets for climate-smart agriculture.” In other words, the USDA is searching for a program that will market a kind of agriculture that is good for the climate.

Ironically the USDA already has a program that is a starting point to launch this effort. It’s called the National Organic Program!

But, somehow they failed to use the “O word” anywhere in this announcement. Why?

The Cargill logo with a caption below it that reads "Highly Publicized Promises: 10 Million Acre Regenerative Agriculture Commitment But, what does that mean?"

What Makes A Farm Climate Smart?

Let me be clear why I’m asking.

  • NO farm that uses synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides can ever actually be “climate-smart,” even if some good (organic) practices like cover cropping or pastured livestock are implemented.
  • This is because the manufacturing of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer alone accounts for 1-2% of the TOTAL global carbon dioxide emissions.

There are no “best practices” that can make up for the Haber-Bosch deficit.

Add to that the fact that plants only take up half of the nitrogen fertilizer applied. The remaining releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. (And also goes on to cause eutrophication, red tides, and groundwater contamination).

Problems such as these have furthered the consolidation in the industry, which actually limits ethical brands from differentiating themselves because they rely on each other for shared processing facilities.

In other words, while not all certified organic farms are necessarily climate-smart, a chemical farm can NEVER be climate-smart.

SO… why didn’t the USDA use the word “organic” as a bare minimum requirement for application for the funds?

Ironically, it’s because the companies that are leaders in destroying the climate, like Cargill, Bayer, Walmart, General Mills, and PepsiCo, lobbied to have the program in the first place.

A Bayer logo with a caption below it that reads: "Bayer is assisting farmers in implementing "climate-smart" agricultural practices, including "no-till" with herbicide and fertilizer use. Who stands to benefit, farmers or Bayer? "Farmers will receive assistance in implementing climate-smart agricultural practices and Bayer will acquire the carbon removals created by those practices at transparent prices."

Why is Cargill going regenerative?

We need to ask ourselves why a chemical company like Cargill has committed to converting 10 million acres to “regenerative” agriculture by 2030.

  • Did they finally develop a conscience?
  • Is it token greenwashing?
  • Or, does it actually help them sell more chemicals?

I’m afraid it’s the last point.

The reality is that when they say “regenerative”, they actually mean adding a cover crop and terminating it with herbicides.

No-till chemical agriculture. This practice doubles to quadruples herbicide use – a particularly troubling scenario considering herbicides make up roughly 75% of pesticide use in commodity crop agriculture. Not so climate-smart.

The General Mills logo with a caption below it that reads "General Mills is converting 1 million acres to "regenerative" partially defined as "reduced chemical disturbance.""

Cover Crops Alone Aren’t Climate Smart

We must confront this reductionist thinking – that simply adding a cover crop to a chemical system is “climate-smart.” It is an improvement, but we can do much better.

A more holistic systems approach is what we need.

Something the Organic Foods Production Act accomplished beautifully back in 1990.

Organic farmers, by law, are already required to farm within an ecological system founded on healthy soil.

Healthy soils are maintained and improved by cover crops, crop rotations, green manures and composts, all of which are known systems for benefiting climate.

All without reliance on synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides.

If the goal is to reward best practices (which I wholeheartedly agree with), we can’t do so while ignoring the worst. And, I’m not saying all certified organic farms deserve to be incentivized. It’s simply a bare minimum.

But if we are seeking real change, it’s beyond time to disincentivize the worst practices, or we might as well fiddle while Rome burns. For now, the USDA is fiddling.

  • Linley

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