In these chaotic times marked by the Covid-19 pandemic, social and economic upheaval, and already record-breaking extreme weather events taking their toll on crops and communities, people are thinking more about what it takes to be resilient. In the biological world, resilience has always been the critical underpinning for a healthy environment. Organic farming provides that resilience, and helps farms and whole ecosystems bounce back in the face of biological disturbance, particularly in the context of environmental disasters associated with climate change.
Across the world and in the U.S., climate change is causing extreme seasonal temperatures, exaggerated rain and snowfall in some areas or deepened droughts in other areas, and more frequent severe storms. For farmland to withstand and recover from extreme weather events, it needs to have healthy soil and strong, diverse communities of wildlife, insects, and microorganisms to maintain ecosystem balance and function. Conventional farming heavily relies on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, chemical pesticides and practices that reduce diversity both in crop composition and non-crop vegetation throughout the farm. These practices have degraded the health of our soils, prevented farms from recovering from climate disturbances, and emitted more greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change in the first place.
Fortunately, organic practices can counteract the impacts of conventional farming and build resilience back into our farming systems in ways that also mitigate climate change. Organic promotes biodiversity that restores balance, and builds healthy soils that can withstand drought and floods. Meanwhile, research is discovering that organic farming not only builds environmental resilience, but also economic resilience, while boosting the economy of rural areas.
Building soil resilience
Healthy soil can simultaneously mitigate climate change by storing more carbon, and protect farmers against climate change because it is comprised of chemical and biological elements that increase nutrient cycling and increase water-holding capacity, which helps withstand drought and flood.
Research shows that soil under organic management has more favorable fertility and significantly more biological activity like worms and microscopic mushrooms that improve soil structure and reduce soil diseases. These soil qualities make crops stronger, healthier and more productive, and they also make farms more resilient to extreme weather events.
The Organic Center partnered on a ground-breaking study with Northeastern University showing that organic soils store more carbon, which not only mitigates climate change but also builds resilience to extreme weather associated with climate change. For instance, more soil organic carbon helps reduce erosion and soil compaction, while improving soil aeration and water filtration, which are particularly important during flood events. Carbon sequestration also increases water-holding capacity of the soil so that more water remains in the soil instead of running off during heavy rainfall or evaporating during drought.
While below-ground biodiversity is critical to soil health, above-ground biodiversity is also critical to balance and function of the farming system. Organic practices benefit many types of above-ground biodiversity that improves yield. As temperatures warm, native pollinator ranges are shrinking, while crop pests are expanding their natural ranges. Farms with more biodiversity have more natural pest control to fight back against rising pest pressures
Organic farming practices that increase vegetative diversity throughout the farm by planting multiple types of crops at once, flower strips, and hedgerows, or by preserving larger pieces of natural habitat on and around the farm receive more ecosystems services that help farmers boost their yields. These services include increased pollination, natural pest control, weed control, and soil health, and aren’t limited only to the farm. Research shows that the benefits of organic farming spill over into surrounding grasslands and forests, reducing the negative impacts of conventional farming on nearby natural areas.
In the face of environmental and economic disasters, farmers need to be able to bounce back in the field to protect their profitability. The body of research is growing that shows organic production can be more profitable than conventional farming, particularly when challenged by environmental stress. Even when yield is smaller than that of conventional farming, organic can still be more profitable when it relies less on costly inputs and more on ecosystem function because of the increased price premium organic commands.
Organic not only provides economic resilience to the farmer, it also brings more long-term stable jobs to rural communities, particularly when the farming operations grow many types of crops. //
Dr. Amber Sciligo is the Manager of Science Programs for The Organic Center (firstname.lastname@example.org).