The scope and intensity of the climate crisis can make us desperate for answers. As we struggle to find hope, however, we need to beware of “silver bullets,” greenwashing and snake oil masquerading as real solutions. Cover crops offer myriad benefits to the soil and our climate, but when they are burned down with herbicides, the soil biota responsible for critical functions, which include decomposing dead plants and animals, regulating pests and diseases, and sequestering carbon in the soil, are destroyed.
Organic agriculture is a ready solution for the climate crisis. A voluntary, third-party verified, holistic form of ecological farming that prioritizes soil health should be championed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), yet the department has been reluctant to highlight organic agriculture for fear of alienating non-organic growers.
The reality is that a growing number of conventional farmers are choosing to make the transition to organic. While still a small percentage of farmers overall, the number of producers seeking organic certification increased by almost 40 percent between 2012 and 2017, and the average value of sales per organic farm increased 84 percent. Demand for organic continues to grow, reflecting the public’s willingness to pay a premium for environmentally friendly products and it can grow further with additional support and investment.
More frequent, extreme weather events are forcing all farmers to adapt, and during this time of transition, we have an opportunity to support holistic solutions that include ending our reliance on fossil fuel-based inputs, promoting longer-term crop rotations and diverse cover cropping that work synergistically to build soil health and resilience while reducing our climate footprint. Dozens of states across the country are advancing legislation to help farmers in this time of transition.
Although organic production provides a voluntary, market-based approach to addressing climate change, farmers making the transition face many hurdles often without the financial or technical support they need to effectively implement organic management practices. Organic farmers have been leading the way in using cover crops and crop rotations, and protecting biodiversity, water quality, and more, with little to no support for far too long.
The Agricultural Resilience Act (ARA) would make permanent a program to provide producer assistance during the often-difficult transition period when farmers need to refrain from using most of the tools in the traditional farm toolbox. Instead, these farmers are rebuilding the soil fertility that will become foundational for a resilient and profitable organic farming operation. While that is a small piece of the historic investments the ARA will make, it is an important one.
The ARA also will support more farmer-led research on plant diversity and selection for climate change specific to regions. Smaller farm operations that can be nimble and adapt to shorter growing seasons, drought or extreme weather events will make our food system more resilient. Large corporate ownership of mono-crop varietals, relying on synthetic inputs, will not save our soils or our planet.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom VilsackTom VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE recently announced plans to allocate up to $20 million in additional organic certification cost-share assistance as part of the USDA Pandemic Assistance for Producers initiative. In addition to restoring the funding cut to cost-share due to an accounting error by a prior administration, a portion of the $20 million will also be used to provide support for producers transitioning to organic. This is an important administrative step in the right direction to support climate-smart farming.
The climate crisis calls for proven solutions. Organic farmers have them. They are the early adopters of demonstrated practices we need to address climate change. Now is the time to lift up the tried-and-true solutions of organic agriculture and pair that with the comprehensive climate conservation initiative of the ARA to support organic and transitioning farmers as the stewards of our collective future.
Amalie Lipstreu is the policy director for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.
Lori Stern, MA Ed is the executive director of Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service. She lives on a small, organic farm at the edge of the Driftless Region in Wisconsin.