Rodale's LaSalle urges expansion of organic farming to mitigate impacts of warming

Could organic farming help to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States? During today's OnPoint, Timothy LaSalle, CEO of the Rodale Institute, discusses research conducted by Rodale that shows significant declines in greenhouse gas emissions when organic farming practices are used. LaSalle responds to critics who say organic farming is unsustainable and produces smaller crop yields. He discusses the impact rising food prices may have on the future of the organic farming industry and explains what, he believes, needs to be done legislatively to help promote organic farming.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Tim LaSalle, CEO of the Rodale Institute. Tim, thanks for coming on the show.

Timothy LaSalle: Thank you Monica, it's a delight to be here.

Monica Trauzzi: Tim, you've called organic farming the brightest hope for our planet and Rodale is pushing for organic farming to be implemented across the country to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. How much of an impact do you think organic farming could have on climate change in overall emissions?

Timothy LaSalle: Well, our calculations are pretty simple. If we turned all of our farmland in this country to organic and regenerative methodologies, where we're putting basically cover crops or compost back into the soil and not using chemical fertilizers, we could mitigate 25 percent of our emissions in this country alone. So we don't really know anything more significant than making this transition to start to change our trend of putting more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Monica Trauzzi: So, why hasn't there been more attention on this issue? I mean what you're saying here seems like the golden ticket. Why haven't we heard more about it?

Timothy LaSalle: I think because so much of our science has focused a lot on the chemistry of soils and there hasn't been enough really looked at with regard to the biology. The really exciting thing about Rodale's research that's now been replicated at USDA and at a lot of other land grants is that when you look at the biology, Monica, what happens is that then you need to be feeding that biology and that's the components that want to sequester carbon. But when we use synthetic fertilizers we're starting to kill that biology.

Monica Trauzzi: What's the basic process behind organic farming that could provide emissions benefits?

Timothy LaSalle: Basically the biology in the soil wants to pull the carbon and keep it down in the soil. There is a fungi that's very active and it kind of creates ending casement around its self that's a really solid form of carbon and it wants to stay in the soil for decades. What happens when we apply fertilizer, synthetic fertilizer, is it feeds the organisms that will quickly breakdown the organic matter, that then really volatizes and goes back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. So that's the paradigm shift that this research of 28 years of field trials at Rodale offers to the world.

Monica Trauzzi: Is there some kind of natural disaster that could occur that could remove that carbon from the soil, like if a tornado were to happen or something like that?

Timothy LaSalle: Not a tornado, no. Kind of the natural disaster has been a slow one. There used to be 20 percent carbon levels in some of the rich soils in Illinois and the Midwest that were the old grasslands, some of those soils are down to 5 percent or less now. And all of that carbon now lives as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And that's because of our conventional, what we term modern fertilizer based agriculture. The beauty about our research is we can get the nitrogen in the soil with cover crops, which is a natural way to do it. And with the high price of fertilizer today, it's a great time for farmers to consider converting and getting the additional profits that organic food would provide to them. Because their prices are high right now in commodities and changing out to be very expensive fertilizer based system, it would give them an opportunity to make a great transition.

Monica Trauzzi: There are contentions that organic farming is unsustainable and that yields through organic farming are much lower. Would we need to use more land to derive the same number of crops and yields? Would we need to expand our farming?

Timothy LaSalle: Well, Monica, I'm glad you brought that up. Our research doesn't validate that at all. As a matter of fact, it's in quite much of a contradiction. Because when we grow corn or soybeans side-by-side with our conventional plots in this 28 year field trial, what we've known is that we are totally competitive in conventional farming years. But when the years are dry or very wet, we outperformed in organic systems. One of the great testimonies I want to offer is a farmer that had a certain number of acres in organic. One of the things he noticed in heavy rains was his conventional fields started to wash away, but his organic fields, the soil held in place. And what we're saying here is the soil is greatly improved with putting organic matter back in. In the drought years it holds a lot of moisture, so it will feed the plants and we can get 40 to 70 percent more production in heavy drought years. In the very wet years it wicks the water away and it doesn't run off, so it doesn't create such flood conditions or soil erosion conditions because the organic matter, like a sponge, will pull it into the soil. So the beauty is, is that it's a myth to say we can't perform. We can. The research is there. Now, with some other crops we need to do more research, but it just makes biological sense as you improve the soil you improve its fertility, improve its organic matter, that you're not going to lose production. What you're doing is making those nutrients available over the full course of the cropping season when it's tied up in organic matter and is released in this slow-timed release sense with the biological action of the soil.

Monica Trauzzi: In this current climate of a global food crisis and soaring food prices, how much luck are you going to have in pushing something like this that many scientists say is environmentally unsound and cannot meet the world's food demands? I mean is there going to be a lot of resistance to this?

Timothy LaSalle: There will be resistance, but not only will it perhaps be our best bet on meeting the world's food demand, because when we look at some of the crisis what's going to happen with climate crisis in the world is increased droughts. So there's nothing that's going to really ensure against droughts like a lot of organic matter in the soil. That ensures against it. So it's a really critical point of why, if we're concerned about humans eating on this planet, we go to getting organic matter back in the soil instead of continuing to remove it. The other thing that I think is really crucial to understand is there is a food crisis, but there's an energy crisis. Well, agriculture in this country some data points say that we use 7 percent of the energy to farm. That's in tractor passes, that's in fertilizer, because that's fossil fuel based. That's in pesticides and herbicides. If we go organic and regenerative half of that production energy is in the fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. So we can take that 7 percent and reduce it to about 3.5. If we return to our economy 3.5 percent of our fossil fuel, everybody would benefit in and of itself. So, the benefits now are not just going to be to the farmers by going to a regenerative system, it's to the consumer as well. Additionally, if we would start to pay farmers to farm carbon, not farm commodities specifically, we start to benefit everybody because it's mitigating our carbon excesses, when we turn our car ignition on, when we turn our light switch on. So, it's perhaps one of the best investments, as a society, we could make from a climate crisis standpoint, from cleaning up our waterways and taking the chemicals out of our waterways, from building soil for future generations.

Monica Trauzzi: So, what specifically should be done legislatively to help this process along?

Timothy LaSalle: It seems to me with great clarity that the climate change legislation and the farm bill for 2012 should begin to look, in a very different model, of what our farm policy should be, because, in essence, if we want to build soil and build really a future for generations to come, we need to reinvest in the biological systems that have sustained life for so long on this planet. And the Rodale Institute has had this research going on for 28 years that affirms, in essence, an investment in building soils is the most crucial thing we can do and that's for climate change, it is for water, it's definitely for nutrient density and quality of food, as well as getting the chemicals out of our waterways and our food chain.

Monica Trauzzi: You've been talking to some people on the Hill about this, what's the level of interest and who exactly are you talking to?

Timothy LaSalle: We've been talking to a number of legislative staffers in some of the senator's offices who are connected to the farm bill, certainly in some of the congressional offices as well. And certainly one of the easy accesses for us at this point has been some of our Pennsylvania legislators. But, in fact, we have certainly reached into New England and into the Midwest. We will be reaching California. I'm a fifth-generation Californian and I know they have a consciousness and understanding around this that I think is important. So, in fact, we will continue these dialogues. We will probably start to spend some time on briefing legislative assistants and legislative aides on the Hill so that they can get the deep science behind this. This is run, as I said, in contradiction to what mainstream, sort of more conventional soil science is understood, but it is, not just the cutting edge, it's the deep understanding of what the mycorrhizal fungi experts know that we can do with soils if we start to approach them in different ways.

Monica Trauzzi: Science aside, organic food, at this point, is very expensive to purchase and with the current economic climate, how do you convince consumers that this is the way to go? And will the price of organic come down if we do switch to it completely across the board?

Timothy LaSalle: Of course, the price will come down if we switch, if we really start to make a commitment to reinvesting into our environment and paying farmers to do that in a very handsome way. But, in essence, one of the things we don't calculate when we buy conventional food that's not organic is the cost to climate change, is the cost of the chemicals in our waterways, and the death of the Chesapeake Bay and the death of the Gulf of Mexico. We're not calculating in that food price either the loss of soil or the crop disaster relief, nor our health concerns. So, if you really calculate it, the cost of conventional food is much more expensive than organic, regenerative produced food. And the sooner we make that investment as a society and a planet the better we're all going to be. Is it Michael Pollan that says in defense of food, we're not paying enough for food? And I think these are some of the rationales where we need to think about, yes, it matters to us at all levels, from our own personal health to the ecological health to begin to make this investment in whole, organic, regeneratively produced foods.

Monica Trauzzi: On the flipside of this discussion that we've been having here, what impact is climate change going to have on organic farming?

Timothy LaSalle: It's going to have an impact on all farming in a pretty negative way. The beauty about the organic regenerative is it's going to be more resilient in those times. As I mentioned, in very wet conditions or in very dry conditions, it will out-produce conventional practices. So, it will have a better shot in the stresses that climate crisis will bring.

Monica Trauzzi: OK. We're going to end it right there on that note. Thanks for coming on the show.

Timothy LaSalle: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having us.

Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

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