Global warming deniers, their credibility shot down to the level of flat-earthers by the UN-sponsored science report on climate change, have morphed from weather skeptics into economic skeptics.
But doubters don't have a leg to stand on here either, according to two recent publications on the carbon-fighting virtues of organic farming. The answer is actually right under their feet.
I'm chronically shocked that this simple fact eludes policy-makers: soil is the global warming gas storage motherlode, a "sink" (as the wonks call it) that can hold about three times more carbon than all the world's plants and trees. This is true with one proviso: that the soil is not disturbed by industrial-style farm equipment and methods.
Even though it's an almost invisible issue, there's a consensus that agribusiness accounts for about a third of all global warming gases. Research shows that strategic subsidies to local and organic farmers (which governments now avoid) could easily return food-related warming emissions to the 1990 levels required by Kyoto.
A new report from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization called Organic Agriculture, Environment And Food Security concludes that diverse cropping (planting species together), composting and crop rotation all alternatives to fossil-fuel fertilizers and pesticides "are protecting the fragile soil surface and may even counteract climate change by restoring the organic matter content."
A hectare of well-managed organic land can store nine tonnes of carbon, almost making it eligible for payouts from emission-trading and guilt-trading schemes (like my fave flight tickets that include a cost for measures to offset fuel pollution).
The FAO report notes that the Kyoto treaty specifies "protection and enhancement of sinks" in agricultural soils as worthy undertakings, however much neglected by energy wonks who've narrowed their focus to energy efficiency and transportation changes.
As well, with all the buzz around carbon dioxide as the culprit in the global warming discourse, little attention is paid to on-farm emissions of methane (about 22 times more potent than carbon dioxide) and nitrous oxides (about 200 times more potent), both of which are whittled down in organic systems.
Organic delivers that by its composting techniques, which keep animal manure aerated so it doesn't give off methane. Composted manure is then applied to the soil so it doesn't give off nitrous oxides the way chem fertilizers do.
Once the public benefit of keeping the world from suffocating in its own fossil fuel vomit is acknowledged, says international food analyst Rod MacCrae in his newly released report from the Organic Agriculture College of Canada, then organic farming will be seen to deserve taxpayer support like education or health.
Public benefits don't exist in the thin air occupied by ag economists, who seem smitten with former Brit PM Margaret Thatcher's infamous comment that "there is no such thing as society," only individuals. That's why ag policy is based on subsidizing chemical farming and schlock food, and can only see organic as a niche market.
Organic farmers get no reward for their soil-saving strategies. There's no premium at the cash register because their carrot stored more carbon in the soil or because the local carrot travelled fewer miles to the store. Some customers will pay more for a healthier edible, but unless they're really putting on politically correct airs, they won't dig deep to pay for extra worms and composted manure that kept the carbon down beside the carrot.
This is what MacCrae calls a "market failure," because of the many unseen and untasted inputs and outputs that aren't captured in the retail sticker price. Economists call these ignored variables "externalities," a phrase that betrays an obsolete assumption that there's some cliff at the end of the flat earth where pollution can be tossed without any species paying the price.
Europeans long ago dumped this notion and instead provide government farm supports on the basis of what's called "agricultural multi-functionality." This is a fancy way of saying you get what you pay for, and if you want clean air and water and lots of tourists swooning over local strawberries, you have to pay for it with taxes.
MacCrae's many articles make the case that the organic changeover is pain-free, with incentives and supports paying for themselves through free benefits and reduced costs over 15 years. Pain-free, that is, save for ag bureaucrats and obsolete input suppliers (fossil-fuel fertilizers and pesticide producers, for example) whose ox gets gored in the changeover.
But that's where the problem is, in outdated privileges, not in the economics, two different factors that should not be considered in the same breath.
If farmers are to be rewarded for their enviro contribution, the bonus points anti-air miles, we might call them must come from taxpayers. In the end, it won't be farmers bailed out, but entire cities that could otherwise get swamped by the stormy weather, the curse of an overheated atmosphere.