I’m so glad you asked!
From the previous post I hope I made it clear that natural fibers (whether organic or conventionally produced) have a lighter footprint than do synthetics – both in terms of emissions of greenhouse gasses and in terms of energy needed to manufacture the fibers. And natural fibers have the added benefits of being able to be degraded by microorganisims and composted, and also of sequestering carbon. According to the United Nations, they’re also a responsible choice, because by buying natural fibers you’re supporting the economies of many developing countries and supporting the livelihoods of many low-wage and subsistence workers. The United Nations has declared 2009 the Year of Natural Fibers and they have a great website if you’re looking for more information: http://www.naturalfibres2009.org/en/index.html
Substituting ORGANIC fibers for conventionally grown natural fibers is not just a little better but lots better in all respects: uses less energy for production, emits fewer greenhouse gases, and supports organic farming (which has myriad environmental, social and health benefits). A study published by Innovations Agronomiques (http://www.inra.fr/ciag/revue_innovations_agronomiques/volume_4_janvier_2009) found that fully 43% less greenhouse gasses are emitted per unit under organic agriculture than under conventional agriculture. A study done by Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University found that organic farming systems used just 63% of the energy required by conventional farming systems, largely because of the massive amounts of energy requirements needed to synthesize nitrogen fertilizers. Further, it was found in controlled long term trials that organic farming adds between 100-400KG of carbon per hectare to the soil each year, compared to non-organic farming. When this stored carbon is included in the carbon footprint calculation, it reduces total greenhouse gasses even further. The key lies in the handling of organic matter (OM): because soil organic matter is primarily carbon, increases in soil OM levels will be directly correlated with carbon sequestration. While conventional farming typically depletes soil OM, organic farming builds it through the use of composted animal manures and cover crops.
Taking it one step further beyond the energy inputs we’re looking at, which help to mitigate climate change, organic farming helps to ensure other environmental and social goals:
- eliminates the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisims (GMOs) which is not only an improvement in human health and agrobiodiversity but also for the associated off farm biotic communities
- conserves water (making the soil more friable so rainwater is absorbed better – lessening irrigation requirements and erosion)
- ensures sustained biodiversity
- and compared to forests, agricultural soils may be a more secure sink for atmospheric carbon, since they are not vulnerable to logging and wildfire.
Agriculture is an undervalued and underestimated climate change tool that could be one of the most powerful strategies in the fight against global warming, according to Paul Hepperly, Rodale Institute Research Manager. The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST) soil carbon data (which covers 30 years) shows conclusively that improved global terrestrial stewardship–specifically including regenerative organic agricultural practices–can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions. (http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/files/Rodale_Research_Paper-07_30_08.pdf
So just how much CO2 can organic farming take out of the air each year? According to data from the Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST) :
- If only 10,000 medium sized farms in the US converted to organic production, they would store so much carbon in the soil it would be equivalent to taking 1,174,400 cars off the road.
- If we converted the U.S.’s 160 million acres of corn and soybeans to organic, we could sequester enough carbon to satisfy 73% of the Koyoto targets for CO2 reduction in the U.S.
- Converting U.S. agriculture to organic would actually wipe out the 1.5 trillion pounds of CO2 emitted annually and give us a net increase in soil carbon of 734 billion pounds.
Paul Hepperly says that organic farming is a no brainer: “Organic farming is not a technological fix, not an untried experiment that could have its own unforeseen consequences.” Instead, it may well be one of the most powerful tools we have in our fight against global warming that brings with it a wealth of other environmental benefits.