Climate-friendly Organic Agriculture


Dear friends and colleagues,  

Re: Climate friendly organic agriculture

The article below argues that organic agriculture can face the challenge of adapting to climate change, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  It was published in Third World Resurgence No. 230 (October 2009).


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Third World Network
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Climate-friendly organic agriculture

Agriculture today faces the challenge of having to adapt and respond to climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This challenge can be met through organic agriculture, says Lim Li Ching.

ONE-SIXTH of humanity is suffering from hunger – the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)’s most recent estimates are that 105 million more people were pushed into hunger in 2009, bringing the total number of hungry to a shameful 1.02 billion.

Food prices remain stubbornly high. Although international prices have climbed down from their record highs in 2008, they have yet to drop to pre-food-crisis levels, and the risk of volatility continues. According to FAO, average food prices in May 2009wereabout 24% higher than they were in 2006.

Add climate change to these statistics, and the situation looks decidedly gloomy. A recent report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (Nelson et al., 2009) warns that unchecked climate change will have major negative effects on agricultural productivity, with South Asia forecast to be particularly hard hit. The analysis suggests that there will be 20% more malnourished children in 2050 due to climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had earlier projected that crop productivity would increase slightly at mid- to high latitudes for local mean temperature increases of up to 1-3C (depending on the crop), but would decrease beyond that in some regions (IPCC, 2007). More significantly, for many developing countries, at lower latitudes, especially in the seasonally dry and tropical regions, crop productivity is projected to decrease for even small local temperature increases (1-2C). This would increase the risk of hunger.

On a global scale, the potential for food production is projected to increase with increases in local average temperature over a range of 1-3C, but above this it is projected to decrease (IPCC, 2007). Given that warming by the end of the 21st century (2090-2099) will be worse than expected and that the best estimates project a rise of 1.8-4C, and a likely range of 1.1-6.4C, the world is likely to see a decline in food production.

For developing countries, including where some of the poorest people live and farm, the projections of climate change’s impacts on agriculture are dire (see box on p.22). Climate change will cause yield declines for the most important crops and result in additional price increases for the world’s staples – rice, wheat, maize and soybeans (Nelson et al., 2009).

While different challenges may emerge for different regions, the general indications are that climate change will adversely affect agriculture and human well-being (Nelson et al., 2009). Moreover, it is the majority of the world’s rural poor who live in areas that are resource-poor, highly heterogeneous and risk-prone, who will be hardest hit by climate change. For these vulnerable groups and subsistence farmers, even minor changes in climate can have disastrous impacts on their lives and livelihoods (Altieri and Koohafkan, 2008).

The relationship between climate change and agriculture is however a two-way one; climate change in general adversely affects agriculture and agriculture contributes to climate change in several major ways.

Agriculture releases into the atmosphere a significant amount of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), amounting to around 10-12% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions annually (Smith et al., 2007); mostly methane from livestock raising, biomass burning and wet cultivation practices, and nitrous oxides from the use of synthetic fertilisers. If indirect contributions (e.g., land conversion to agriculture, fertiliser production and distribution and farm operations) are factored in, some scientists have estimated that the contribution of agriculture could be as high as 17-32% of global anthropogenic emissions (Bellarby et al., 2008).

Organic agriculture has both adaptation and mitigation potential

The challenge is therefore to design an agriculture that adapts and responds to the changes in climate experienced, as well as reduces greenhouse gas emissions. This challenge could be met through organic agriculture.

By increasing resilience within the agroecosystem, organic agriculture increases its ability to continue functioning when faced with unexpected events such as climate change (Borron, 2006; Ensor, 2009). Resiliency to climate disasters is closely linked to farm biodiversity; practices that enhance biodiversity allow farms to mimic natural ecological processes, enabling them to better respond to change and reduce risk. Thus, farmers who increase interspecific diversity via organic agriculture suffer less damage compared to conventional farmers planting monocultures (Altieri and Koohafkan, 2008; Borron, 2006; Ensor, 2009; Niggli et al., 2008). Moreover, the use of intraspecific diversity (different cultivars of the same crop) is insurance against future environmental change.

Organic farming practices that preserve soil fertility and maintain or increase organic matter can reduce the negative effects of drought while increasing productivity (ITC and FiBL, 2007; Niggli et al., 2008). Water-holding capacity of soil is enhanced by practices that build organic matter, helping farmers withstand drought (Altieri and Koohafkan, 2008; Borron, 2006). In addition, water-harvesting practices allow farmers to rely on stored water during droughts. Other practices such as crop residue retention, mulching and agroforestry, conserve soil moisture and protect crops against microclimate extremes. Conversely, organic matter also enhances water capture in soils, significantly reducing the risk of floods (ITC and FiBL, 2007; Niggli et al., 2008).

Indigenous and traditional knowledge are a key source of information on adaptive capacity, centred on the selective, experimental and resilient capabilities of farmers (Altieri and Koohafkan, 2008; Borron, 2006; IAASTD, 2008; ITC and FiBL, 2007; Niggli et al., 2008). Many farmers cope with climate change in different ways: by minimising crop failure through increased use of drought-tolerant local varieties, water-harvesting, extensive planting, mixed cropping, agroforestry, opportunistic weeding and wild plant gathering. Traditional knowledge, coupled with the right investments in plant breeding, could yield new varieties with climate adaptation potential.

On the other hand, agriculture has the potential to change from being one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters to a much smaller emitter and even a net carbon sink, while offering options for mitigation by reducing emissions and by sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere in the soil. The solutions call for a shift to more sustainable farming practices that build up carbon in the soil and use less chemical fertilisers and pesticides (Bellarby et al., 2008; ITC and FiBL, 2007; Ziesemer, 2007).

There are a variety of organic farming practices that can reduce agriculture’s contribution to climate change. These include crop rotations and improved farming system design, improved cropland management, improved nutrient and manure management, improved grazing-land and livestock management, maintaining fertile soils and restoration of degraded land, improved water and rice management, fertiliser management, land use change and agroforestry (Bellarby et al., 2008; Niggli et al., 2008; Smith et al., 2007).

Niggli et al. (2008) estimate that a conversion to organic agriculture would considerably enhance the sequestration of CO2 through the use of techniques that build up soil organic matter, as well as diminish N2O emissions by two-thirds due to no external mineral nitrogen input and more efficient nitrogen use. Organic systems have been found to sequester more CO2 than conventional farms, while techniques that reduce soil erosion convert carbon losses into gains (Bellarby et al., 2008; ITC and FiBL, 2007; Niggli et al., 2008). Organic agriculture is also self-sufficient in nitrogen due to recycling of manures from livestock and crop residues via composting, as well as planting of leguminous crops (ITC and FiBL, 2007).


Redesigning agriculture in an era of climate change entails investing more resources, research and training into, providing appropriate policy support to, and implementing national, regional and international action plans on organic agriculture. Doing so will not only be beneficial in terms of climate adaptation and mitigation, but will also be a paradigm shift towards increasing productivity while ensuring sustainability and meeting smallholder farmers’ food security needs (IAASTD, 2008).

Maximising the synergies between adaptation and mitigation means that these strategies should be developed simultaneously. In particular:

* There should be more research and action on adaptation measures in agriculture, especially in developing countries in order to assist farmers there to reduce the adverse impacts of climate change on agriculture.

* Action plans for mitigation measures for agriculture should be urgently researched and implemented.

* Financing assistance for adaptation and mitigation measures in the agriculture sector in developing countries should be prioritised.

* Arrangements should be made for the sharing of experiences and the transfer of good practices in agriculture that can constitute mitigation and adaptation.

* Given the many advantages of organic farming and sustainable agriculture, in terms of climate change as well as social equity and farmers’ livelihoods, there should be a much more significant share of research, personnel, investment, financing and overall support from governments and international agencies that should be channelled towards sustainable agriculture. Promotion of sustainable agriculture can lead to a superior model of agriculture from the environmental and climate change perspective, as high-chemical and water-intensive agriculture is phased out, while more natural farming methods are phased in, with research and training programmes also promoting better production performances in sustainable agriculture (Khor, 2008).

With appropriate focus on organic agriculture as providing adaptation, mitigation and increased productivity options, a ‘win-win-win’ scenario for agriculture is possible. Importantly, organic agriculture approaches are also accessible to small-scale and poor farmers who depend on biodiversity, soil health and locally-available resources in agricultural production.                                

Lim Li Ching is a researcher with the Third World Network and coordinates its sustainable agriculture programme.


Altieri, M.A. and Koohafkan, P. 2008. Enduring farms: Climate change, smallholders and traditional farming communities. TWN Environment and Development Series 6. Third World Network, Penang.

Bellarby, J., Foereid, B., Hastings, A. and Smith, P. 2008. Cool farming: Climate impacts of agriculture and mitigation potential. Greenpeace International, Amsterdam.

Borron, S. 2006. Building resilience for an unpredictable future: How organic agriculture can help farmers adapt to climate change. FAO, Rome.

Ensor, J. 2009. Biodiverse agriculture for a changing climate. Practical Action, UK.

IAASTD. 2008. Agriculture at a Crossroads. International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. Island Press, Washington DC.

IPCC. 2007. Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. [M.L. Parry, O.F. Canziani, J.P.  Palutikof, P.J. van der Linden and C.E. Hanson (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 7-22.

ITC (International Trade Centre) and FiBL (Research Institute of Organic Agriculture). 2007. Organic Farming and Climate Change. ITC, Geneva.

Khor, M. 2008. Food crisis, climate change and the importance of sustainable agriculture. Presentation at FAO Food Security Summit, Rome, 4 June 2008.

Nelson, G.C. et al. 2009. Climate Change. Impact on Agriculture and Costs of Adaptation. IFPRI, Washington D.C.

Niggli, U., Fliessbach, A. and Hepperly, P. 2008.  Low Greenhouse Gas Agriculture: Mitigation and Adaptation Potential of Sustainable Farming Systems. FAO, Rome.

Smith, P., Martino, D., Cai, Z., Gwary, D., Janzen, H., Kumar, P., McCarl, B., Ogle, S., O’Mara, F., Rice, C.,  Scholes, B. and  Sirotenko, O. 2007. Agriculture. In: Climate Change 2007: Mitigation. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [B. Metz, O.R. Davidson, P.R. Bosch, R. Dave and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York.

Ziesemer, J. 2007. Energy use in organic food systems. FAO, Rome.


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