Member Highlight - Rodale Institute

Friday, February 27, 2015

What does the Rodale Institute see as the primary challenges and opportunities of climate change?

Climate change is a gift from nature. She is telling us to wake up, and that it’s not yet too late to change. As we all know, heavy use of fossil fuels has contributed to a huge excess of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. However, industrial agriculture has also played a large role through excessive tillage and through the use of synthetic chemicals, both of which kill the vitally important microbiology in the soil. We have an incredible opportunity to reverse agriculture’s contributions to climate change if we commit to bringing the carbon cycle back into balance through soil carbon sequestration.

We can do this by shifting our agricultural practices globally to adopt the four tenets of regenerative organic agriculture: compost, crop rotations, cover crops and reduced tillage. When soil biology thrives, not only does the carbon cycle come back into balance, but the crops are also healthier and thus, the people who eat those plants become healthier, too. There is no downside. We do not need to fear becoming too healthy.

Of course, an Organic Planet is easier said than done. A focus on quarterly earnings obscures the basic needs of future generations we are meant to steward. But this challenge is not insurmountable. Dismissed as a fad as long ago as the 1940’s, the organic approach has proven itself to be the healthiest option for people and the planet. For the past 35 years, Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial (FST) has collected data to dispel the most common myths around organics (Read the fast facts on FST here). Today, U.S. sales of certified organic products top $35 billion and organic market share continues to grow exponentially. With the advent of GMO’s and ever increasing use of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers, the public has embraced a new discussion about where our food comes from, how it is grown and how we can improve our food system. Hope is abundant and we are on a trajectory to success.


Rodale recently put out a white paper on agriculture and climate change. What were some of the main findings?

The white paper is a meta-analysis of several studies on soil carbon sequestration based on our own Farming Systems Trial, the longest running side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional farming, as well as three other trials from locations around the world including Egypt, Iran, and Thailand. The study also looked at soil carbon sequestration on pasture lands. Based on these trials, we developed a model which asks the following question: If all agricultural lands were to transition to regenerative organic methodologies, how would this affect the greenhouse gas effect and climate change? What we discovered is truly remarkable. The model shows that 111% of 2012 emissions would be sequestered. Pushing the needle past 100% means a reversal of the greenhouse effect. Such a transition would indeed cover all the annual emissions and begin to draw down the vast amounts of excess carbon in the atmosphere.

A global transition may seem lofty to some readers. Consider that the four main tenets of regenerative organic agriculture are (1) the use of compost, (2) crop rotations, (3) cover crops and (4) reduced tillage. No new technologies are required, though more research is needed to develop best methods to suit different climate’s and growing conditions around the world. Regenerative organic agriculture will require less mechanization, which translates to more jobs. We have all we need to achieve an Organic Planet, we need only to commit to making it a reality.


What policies would Rodale like to see in response to climate change?

Taxpayers currently subsidize much of the agricultural industry’s harmful practices yet we do not reward the organic farmers who build and protect the vital life in our soils. Conventional agricultural practices are indeed based on a very well-known and well respected science known as Chemistry. Rodale Institute seeks policy changes which support farmers who farm using principles based on another very well-known and well respected science; Biology. Funds are much needed to aid farmers as they transition their lands to organic, to compensate farmers who lock up carbon in the soil and to continue research into the best methods of regenerative organic agriculture with regards to carbon sequestration.


What has worked and not worked on Rodale’s farm in response to more extreme weather?

We are currently in the 35th year of our Farming Systems Trial which is the longest running side-by-side comparison of conventional and organic agriculture. Over the course of the study, the yields were essentially equal, despite the myth that only and industrialized agriculture will be able to feed the booming population into the future. However the variation on this trend was that in drought conditions, the healthy soil in the organic plots was much better equipped to hold water, producing a yield up to 31% higher than the conventional plot. This particular comparison utilized a GMO strain which was marketed specifically as ‘drought-resistant.’ This finding is a very clear example of how regenerative organic farming has a multitude of highly substantial benefits beyond the common but limited understanding of organics as “food without toxic chemicals.”