Intensive agriculture can have devastating effects on soil health as it degrades soil aggregation and water holding capacity, prevents carbon sequestration, and leads to runoff and erosion. In contrast, the improvement and maintenance of soil health is considered a cornerstone of organic and the National Organic Program mandates that farmers use practices that ultimately reduce greenhouse gas emissions, lock carbon into the soil, and increase resilience to extreme weather conditions associated with climate change. For example, certified organic farmers are prohibited from using synthetic pesticides or chemical fertilizers that release a lot of nitrous oxide gas into the atmosphere. Instead, they rely on crop rotation, fertilizers derived from compost or manure, and the planting of winter cover crops. These practices build robust communities of pollinators and natural enemies that manage pests and squeeze out weeds so that farmers don’t need to rely on pesticide sprays, and restore important minerals in the soil that provide nutrients to crops and microbes that help fight diseases. Together, organic practices not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but they also put carbon back into the soil to help slow down climate change. And the healthy soils that results from organic farming help farmers adapt to drought, flooding, and severe storms that are already increasing due to climate change.

Past research: Organic stores more long-term soil carbon  

The Organic Center partnered with Northeastern University to explore how organic farming impacts carbon sequestration in the soil and found that not only do organic farms store more soil carbon in general, but they also store more of the type of carbon that stays in the ground for longer periods of time. By analyzing over a thousand soil samples from organically and conventionally managed from across 48 U.S. states, this ground-breaking work found that organic soils had 13% higher soil organic matter and 44% higher long-term carbon storage than conventionally managed soils.

These results highlight the potential of organic agriculture to increase the amount of carbon sequestration in the soil, contributing to climate change mitigation.

The Organic Center has been building an extensive portfolio looking at ways to fight climate change and build soil health. In addition to showing the benefits of organic in sequestering carbon and reducing global nitrogen pollution, we have also worked on projects that will help farmers build soil health within their farms. Check out this project that examined over 150 published studies to take an inventory of current knowledge on best practices within organic for enhancing soil health, providing a roadmap for current management opportunities and future research directions.