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Why we need agroecology, now

“Coach” Mark Smallwood, executive director of the Rodale Institute speaks at Monday's press conference.

On Monday, the Carbon Underground, Rodale Institute and Organic Consumers Association held a press conference featuring leading scientists to explain why cutting emissions alone won’t solve climate change, and how nurturing healthier soil is an essential part of the climate solution. Speakers included “Coach” Mark Smallwood, the Executive Director of the Rodale Institute; Dr. Kristine Nichols, Chief Scientist at the Rodale Institute; Dr. Richard Teague, Professor at Texas A&M; Andre Leu, President of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM); Vandana Shiva, Founder of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy; Dena Hoff of La Via Campesina; and Tom Newmark, Co-Founder of the Carbon Underground.

The speakers had a powerful message to convey: we already have the tools to slow climate change. The metaphor used throughout the press conference was of a 400-pound man who visits a doctor hoping for advice on how to restore his health and the best solution the doctor offers is a diet plan that can slow the rate of weight gain. In this scenario, it’s obvious that the solution is not to slow the rate of weight gain, but to lose excess weight. The same applies to CO2 emissions: we not only need to slow the rate of emissions, but take CO2 out of the atmosphere. This is a task that regenerative organic agriculture (also called agroecology by many groups, including IATP) can achieve by building healthy soils to sequester carbon underground.

According to the speakers, if we converted all global cropland to regenerative organic management, we could sequester 40 percent of annual CO2 emissions. If we also converted all global pasture and rangelands to organic regenerative management, we could sequester 71 percent more annual CO2 emissions. This adds up to a possible sequestration of 111 percent of annual CO2 emissions by managing our croplands, rangelands, and pastures differently. Rodale’s white paper on the subject includes the full details.

The regenerative organic model includes practices such as cover crops, crop rotations, conservation tillage and incorporation of compost. Beyond sequestering carbon, this type of management increases soil water retention and nutrient levels, making land more resilient to the droughts and floods that will become increasingly common as the climate changes. In a side-by-side trial at the Rodale farm, organically managed non-GMO crops outperformed genetically modified drought-resistant crops by 18 percent to 23 percent. This means that a regenerative organic model also has the capacity to increase crop yields and food security.

The political hurdles to achieving such a paradigm shift in agricultural management were acknowledged by several speakers. Vandana Shiva called “a system that refuses to recognize data” the biggest obstacle to achieving widespread regenerative organic agriculture. This obstacle is especially clear as the UN Climate Summit is underway. The Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, being launched in conjunction with the UN Climate Summit, is using the term “climate smart” to refer to false solutions, including the use of genetically modified seeds. This is likely to be a significant barrier to regenerative organic farming, considering that corporations such as Syngenta and Yara are at the climate smart table and stand to profit from perpetuating genetically modified and chemical-heavy farming.

We all have to do our part to contribute to the change we need. Over 100 NGOs signed a letter rejecting the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, La Via Campesina wrote a statement denouncing Climate Smart Agriculture, Action Aid authored an illuminating report on the confusion surrounding “Climate Smart Agriculture,” IATP’s Dr. M. Jahi Chappell organized a letter from scientists urging the FAO to use agroecology as the best pathway for achieving sustainable food production, and many farmers on the ground are already incorporating regenerative organic practices on their land.

Now is the time to continue spreading this message and pressuring the UN, Congress, and other decision making bodies to follow suit. In his address at the UN Climate Summit this morning, President Obama alluded to a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.” One of the best ways to combat the climate crisis is through agroecology and regenerative organic agriculture.