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Analysis of the FAO Report by Jean-Paul GUYOMARC'H

Friday 4 April 2008
If FAO is right, we can understand why the President of the French Academy of Sciences, Roger Heim, declared in 1963, in his preface to the French translation of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring: “Gangsters are arrested, bank robbers are shot, assassins are guillotined, despots are executed — or so-called despots are, anyway — but who will put in jail the public poisoners instilling day by day the products that synthetic chemistry delivers for their profits and their careless actions?”

Who will put the public poisoners in jail?

While we are waiting for an answer, hopefully soon, to this essential question, let us go back on the declarations of FAO which constitute a real declaration of war to agrochemistry.

According to this venerable institution, the advantages of Organic Agriculture are countless. As a matter of fact, this type of respectful agriculture for the Environment makes it possible to:

  • To feed the whole planet with highly nutritious and healthy food, free from poisons
  • To save on water reserves
  • To limit soil erosion and allow total percolation of rainwater in the ground
  • To preserve food biodiversity while preserving preciously traditional varietals that are more resilient and therefore more apt to adapt to climate change
  • To generate local production and distribution and thus promote food safety
  • To protect traditional peasantry
  • To regenerate traditional agroforestry
  • To fight against global warming by doing away with chemical fertilisers and pesticides and by fixing carbon in the soil and therefore increasing its organic matter content. 
  • And so on and so forth.

Agriculture will be one of the sectors most affected by drastic climate change, while glaciers are melting and temperatures are rising, while some of the oceans can no longer absorb CO2, and the world's food stocks have never been so low following repeated draughts and a general shortage of fresh water and the promotion of necro-fuels.

What is the responsibility of modern conventional agriculture in the global warming issue? 

According to agronomist Claude Bourguignon, “Due to carbon dioxide released, intensive agriculture contributes for a third to global warming.” 

According to Jean-Marc Jancovici, “if you take into account all the greenhouse effect gases in international negotiations, and not only CO2, then the distribution changes: it is actually agriculture which releases most, with 26%. This is mostly due to the so-called minor gas emissions (CH4, N2O) which are respectively due to cattle breeding and the use of fertilisers”. 

Some soil specialists consider that a 1% loss of organic matter in the soil is equivalent to releasing 20 tonnes of carbon dioxide or CO2, per hectare. Therefore, the organic matter loss in the great plains of America generated more CO2 than all the automobiles ever produced in that country! 

According to Pr Pimentel of Cornell University in the USA (a soil erosion specialist), intensive agriculture in the US releases 420 millions tonnes of CO2 (out of the 6 billion released annually in that country).

According to CITEPA in France (Interprofessional Technical Assessment Centre of Atmospheric Pollution), agriculture and forestry are responsible for 16% of the 534 million tonnes of CO2 released in the atmosphere in 2005, i.e., 86 million tonnes of CO2.

Not only can intensive agriculture soils no longer stock CO2, but they are becoming a considerable CO2 source themselves. 

Why? Simply because they are dead. According to agronomist Claude Bourguignon: "All over Europe, about 90% of the organic activity of cultivated soils have been destroyed by intensive agriculture.

Yes, I am saying destroyed. The most devastated areas are tree cultivation and vineyards. And yet the organic activity of soil is essential to the ecosystem. The soil is a living matter, within a 30 cm thick layer, it concentrates 80% of the living beings of the planet. Worms by themselves weigh more than all the other animals united. But soils also shelter bacteria, fungus, and countess organisms which feed on organic matter. And yet in Europe, the rate of organic matter in the soil went down from 4 % to 1.4 % in fifty years.

In France, 60 % of the soil is suffering from erosion. At present, we are losing 40 tonnes of soil per hectare every year. In fact, some beet producing soils are losing 100 tonnes of soil per hectare every year. This means that 2000 years will be needed to repair 20 years, if we let nature reclaim its rights.

Modern intensive agriculture is generating cancers, desertification and global warming. 

Does Organic Agriculture really offer the potential for reducing global warming?

We need to turn to the USA and more specifically to the Rodale Research Center at the heart of Pennsylvania to obtain a scientifically backed up answer to this question. The Rodale Research Center set up an experiment on 3 cultivated fields in 1981, the first one in conventional chemical agriculture, the second in organic agriculture with leguminous plants and the third one in organic agriculture with manure. They published their results after 23 years in 2003:
  • No carbon increase in the soil of the field in chemical agriculture
  • An increase in carbon ranging from 15 to 28 % in the other two fields, the largest increase having been obtained with manure. 
The Rodale Research Center deduced that fixing capacity of soil was of 3.7 tonnes of CO2 per hectare every year. And this, without taking into consideration the reductions of CO2 emissions due to the lower needs of organic farming in terms of energy, which Professor David Pimentel estimates to 63% of that of chemical agriculture.

According to Pr Pimentel, if the whole agricultural surface in the United States, (i.e. 200 millions hectares) was converted to organic farming, this would cancel the equivalent of the CO2 emissions of 158 millions US automobiles every year.

The French agricultural surface is distributed over 33 millions hectares (i.e. 60 % of the territory), 62 % of which are occupied by arable land and more than a third of fields covered in grass. 

For France, according to the same data, the conversion to organic farming of 20 millions hectares of arable land would generate the fixing of about 74 millions tonnes of CO2, whereas conventional agriculture and tree cultivation are releasing annually 86 millions tonnes of CO2.

The British Royal Society estimated that 1.2 billion hectares of arable land could confine from 6.1 to 10.1 billion tonnes of CO2, providing that sustainable agricultural practices are adopted. 

The Australian agricultural author Grame Sait reckons that “if we could increase organic matter by 1.6 % over 8.5 % of the cultivated surface of the planet, we could easily confine the extra 100 ppm of CO2 that humanity has released into the atmosphere.”

As far as greenhouse gases are concerned, we do not have precise studies that would make it possible to assess the potential reduction of nitrous oxide or N2O, following a conversion to organic farming. Let us not forget that this gas is generated by fertiliser spreading and the process of degradation of nitrogenous fertilizers in the soil as well as the packing down of soils due to intense cultivation methods.

As far as the fourth greenhouse effect gas is concerned, methane, or CH4, it is generated by the enteric fermentation of ruminants and the fermentation of manure pits. We could be inclined to question the inconsiderate consumption of meat in Western countries. The consumption of meat, at a global level, has increased from 44 million tonnes in 1950 to 265 million tonnes in 2005. Such a trend is amplifying.

Let us remember that in intensive agriculture, about 100,000 litres of water are necessary to produce 1 kilo of beef and that Latin America is ruined by the cultivation of transgenic soy to produce meat that is consumed by the rich of the planet.

As a conclusion, if it is true that CO2 is not the only greenhouse effect gas attributable to intensive agriculture, it remains that confining it with organic agriculture would not only limit global warming, but also increase soil fertility in an amazing way. We cannot develop this aspect within the limited framework of this article, but we can already refer the readers to an Amazonian technique known as Terra Preta, that the French organization Kokopelli was able to experiment in the South of India with spectacular results and which makes it possible to confine carbon over very long periods of time. 

One can only thank the FAO for taking such a radical stand towards the necessity of converting agriculture to ecological methods of farming. It is also true that decades were needed to reach this conclusion!

The working documents that FAO has published during its international symposium during the congress of May 2007 on Organic Agriculture constitute an excellent working basis for any institution that sincerely wants to implement sustainable agriculture.

Les us not doubt that the Government of Messrs Sarkozy and Juppé, within the framework of its ecological revolution, will get a hold of this opportunity to ban all pesticides and the genetical chimeras and all the synthetic fertilisers straight away and promote the conversion of the whole cultivated surface in France to organic farming methods.

And why not promote the protection of food biodiversity? This would enable Kokopelli to breathe a little, and not to be harassed by repeated litigations because they distribute ancient varietals that are not registered in the French national seed catalogue.