Oct 6, 2020
Organic ag can mitigate climate change, industry tells congress
Stephen Kloosterman

Organic growing techniques could be part of the solution for slowing or reversing climate change – that’s what the industry told Congress recently.

Members of the Organic Trade Association (OTA) participated in a “virtual fly-in” Sept. 21-Oct. 2, lobbying lawmakers for policy encouraging sustainable agricultural practices, including those mastered by organic growers, to counteract climate change.

Agriculture is poised to play a big role in climate change policy, OTA CEO Laura Batcha said in a media call after the lobbying event. Organic growers – who are certified not to use artificial fertilizers or chemicals and who use techniques, such as growing cover crops, to build soils and control pests and weeds – may be at an advantage.

“We believe very strongly that the policies and programs have to be science-based, data-driven and really meaningful,” Batcha said. Climate-change agricultural policies need to produce measurable outcomes in terms of the farms’ practices and measurable outcomes. “In that kind of rubric, we trust that organic agriculture will fare well. These are practices that have been part of organic certification for decades now and organic farmers are well-versed in them and we’re prepared to embrace the most verifiable, data-driven programs that can be brought forward.”

Growers get involved

Many organic growers already have reason to be concerned about climate change.

California, which accounts for 40% of all organic production in the U.S., was amid farm-disrupting wildfires that are thought to be worsening over the years with climate change.

“Of course, this is a deeply emotional and traumatic time for all of us in an already hard year,” said California Certified Organic Farmers CEO Kelly Damewood. Farmers were opening their homes to those displaced by the fires.

Phil La Rocca

Organic winegrapes grower Phil La Rocca said his operation, in the mountains near Chico, California, was facing extreme hardship after 47 years of operation.

“I first began to recognize climate change eight to 10 years (ago),” La Rocca said. “For the last 30-40 years, we always received at least two to four snowfalls a year during the winter. Average temperatures were in the 30s to low 40s. (The) last few years … temperatures in January and February have been as high as 80 degrees. (It’s) extremely bad for the vines – they think they’re coming alive. They start to open up, and then they get cold again. (It) weakens the entire structure of the vine.”

In addition to the climate change, fires themselves have also devastated La Rocca vineyards, killing vines, he said. In an earlier fire, Red Cross once barred anyone from working there because of the danger.

“The 2018 fire was absolutely devastating to us, and now as we were trying to get back on our feet, this came,” La Rocca said. “One of our bright spots was, we did have our tasting operation, and when COVID came and shut that down, we ended up getting a food license. And we’re serving food so we can open up to 25% capacity to at least help pay the rent and keep our employees back in operation.”

Unfortunately, Batcha said, La Rocca’s story is not unique. And other growers around the country are taking note of climate change. Farmer Co-op Organic Valley, which represents nearly 2,000 farmers in 34 states who supply organic produce, dairy, eggs and meats, fuels its trucking fleet with biodiesel and powers its business facility with 100% renewable energy.

“We see the climate of the present day threaten the way we do business,” said Organic Valley Director of Sustainability Nicole Rakobitsch. “We know we have more work to be done to reduce our emissions as a cooperative. … Smart energy and climate policy will continue to play a role in our success. We really see the need for a financial incentive at the farm level to get these projects installed.”

Policy pressure

Organic industry organizations this year produced a variety of papers demonstrating the climate benefits of organic agriculture. The Pennsylvania-based Rodale Institute in September released a white paper that said shifting both crop and pasture management globally could draw down more than 100% of the world’s annual CO2 emissions, pulling carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil. A report from California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) in February outlined policies to encourage organic farming, helping the state to be better prepared for climate change. And the OTA itself in August produced a white paper laying out 10 principles for policies that “elevate the role of organic in the climate change discussion and further support organic agriculture.”

headshot photo
Laura Batcha
CEO/Executive Director
Organic Trade Association

“I think we recognized there is a role for the private sector, the consuming public as well as policymakers in bringing forward solutions,” Batcha said.

Armed with the OTA’s policy papers, its members contacted lawmakers. Megan DeBates, OTA’s Director of Legislative Affairs and Coalitions, said they spoke to six Republicans and 21 Democrats in the House and Senate who represented 19 states and who served on special climate committees as well as the agriculture and natural resources, energy and commerce committee.

“I think that there is strong bipartisan momentum right now on developing policies to address climate change, but particularly to the state of agriculture,” DeBates said. “So, we see a lot of opportunities there, and we’re already seeing bipartisan legislation introduced. I think we will see organic agriculture introduced in the next round of bills that gets introduced in the next congress.”

Above, smoke from wildland fires in rural Sonoma County, Napa County and Mendocino County and other nearby North Bay counties tint the sunlight seen from Alameda, California, on October 12, 2017. Photo: USDA/Lance Cheung

Stephen Kloosterman is the managing editor of Organic Grower.

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