Sustainable agriculture is having its political moment. The Biden administration deserves credit for being the first to recognise that food system reforms can go a long way toward solving the climate crisis. Yet for all its big-picture vision, some critical details are getting overlooked. A big one is a loophole within the USDA’s National Organic Program that undermines its mission and impedes the nation’s path toward climate-smart agriculture.
The rule glitch has the effect of encouraging farmers to cut down native forests and grasses so the land can be used to grow organic crops — a net loss for the environment. Despite the advantages of organic farming over conventional practices, pristine ecological habitats are vastly better from a climate and biodiversity standpoint than any form of agriculture.
Early in his presidency, Joe Biden vowed he would “position American agriculture to lead our nation and the world in combating climate change.” And he’s making an effort to deliver. With 92 votes, the Senate recently passed the Biden-backed “Growing Climate Solutions Act,” which aims to help farmers and ranchers participate in markets so they can get paid to sequester carbon in their soil. Meanwhile, US Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has introduced a “Climate-Smart Forestry and Agriculture Strategy” and is sinking $4 billion into production practices that include $500 million for small and mid-size local meat producers to compete with Big Ag, and new funding to expand organic agriculture.
These are wise investments. Small, distributed producers support nimble supply chains in an era of increasing environment disruption; organic farms improve soil health — and healthier soil draws down more carbon. Organic farms sequester about 25% more carbon than soils from nonorganic farms. They also emit far fewer greenhouse gasses, including 56% less nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide that’s produced by the evaporation of chemical fertilisers, according to University of California at Davis data.
Yet those benefits are being undermined by the misuse of an ostensibly sensible rule that requires farmland to be free from pesticides for three years before its production can be certified for sale as organic. It’s a necessary precaution, but also a costly one for farmers who must fallow their fields to transition from conventional to organic production. So some have come up with a more expedient alternative: simply clear wildlands that have never been treated with agrochemicals and get certified without the wait. The profit motive is strong; organic foods can be sold at a premium over conventional products and demand is growing. US sales rose by more than 12% to $62 billion in 2020.
According to a recent University of Wisconsin study, hundreds of thousands of acres of native forests and grasslands have been converted to agricultural use in the last year — and millions of acres in the last decade — with no penalty to the growers. California vineyards have been eating away native oak woodlands. Wheat farms are taking over former prairie lands in the Northeast.