Organic methods: good for carrots and for the climate.

The Rodale Institute, founded by organic farming visionary J.I. Rodale, is one of the nation’s leading organic-farming research and advocacy organizations. Today, Rodale sits on a 333-acre farm near Kutztown, Penn., home to the longest-running U.S. field trials study to compare organic and conventional farming practices.

I had a chance recently to talk with the Institute’s executive director, Timothy LaSalle, about Rodale’s vision, its work, and how it sees agriculture as part of a crucial response to climate change. Our conversation touched on some of the key findings of the Institute’s many decades of field studies, as well as what their findings have to teach us about the relationship between farming and climate.

As you might expect from someone with a doctorate in “depth psychology,” LaSalle was fascinating to talk with — and his vision inspiring.


What’s the vision and mission of the Rodale Institute?

We hold the firm belief that farmers can be our climate-change heroes.

Heroes? How can organic farmers make such a difference?

Timothy LaSalle.

Organic farmers are taking carbon out of the air. They’re creating robust and healthy crops that are ensuring against drought threat, which will only get worse as climate change gets worse. And we’re improving the nutritional quality of our crops, too. At the very same time, we’re reducing costs: We’re reducing the costs of destroying our topsoil, of chemical agriculture and farm runoff.

What we’re doing, though, is pushing up against every special interest: the farm chemical companies, the genetically modified seed companies, the commodity companies. But what we’re talking about is going to appeal to people, real people — and people are listening.

What’s the organic farming-climate change connection?

Synthetic fertilizer and oil-based pesticides release carbon dioxide into the air. But the organic approach, which is truly regenerative agriculture, sequesters carbon: It takes carbon out of the air and puts it back in the soil.

If we pulled these synthetics out and put in compost and cover crops and changed rangeland and valued old-growth forests … we could pull so much carbon dioxide out of the air it would be phenomenal. Between improving forestry management, protecting our grasslands, and promoting organic agriculture, I’m not sure we couldn’t mitigate climate change by sequestering so much carbon.

Of course, we’d still have to change our evil ways, too!

Explain a little more how this works.

With regenerative farming, we’re building in the soil mychorrhiza fungi, which creates a protein, an encasement, that has a 1,000-year half-life. So it sits down there in the soil and holds carbon for a long, long time.

When you pour fertilizer down there, you kill the fungi and it volatizes into the atmosphere into carbon dioxide. Agriculture as we now practice it is one of the biggest contributors to global warming, but it could be one of the biggest mitigators.

Why do you prefer the term “regenerative farming” to “organic farming”?

I like to say “regenerative” because it gets at core principles: Some people can grow “organic,” but do so without the composts and cover crops and without building the root systems that I’m talking about. It’s profound farming: We’re saying this is the way nature wants to work.

We’re also talking about grassland management. Well-managed grasslands mean, for instance, letting large herds come through to trample the grasses, kick up the soil, and move on. This is the way the Earth existed long before we humans came around, and that’s what we need to foster.

The food and climate change connection has been so off the radar. Why do you think that’s been the case?

Part of the reason more people haven’t understood this connection is because they hadn’t been thinking the right way about farming. A conventional soil scientist thinks in terms of chemicals, not in terms of biology, which is the true health of the soil. They weren’t measuring much, because they weren’t asking the right questions and they were missing the damage.

The way we have been farming has been taking carbon out of the soil. There were soils in Illinois that had 20 percent carbon concentrations; today they have 1 percent. We need to put it back whence it came. The neat thing is that soils want this carbon. Let’s give it to them.

I’ve heard that organic farming may also help us survive the vagaries of global climate chaos because organic crops will be more capable of dealing with erratic weather.

In severe weather, healthy organic soils, regenerative soils, are going to sustain the crop better, are less prone to disasters, and are going to hold the soil in place.

Organic farming can also help us deal with another actor of global warming: droughts. We know that healthy, carbon-rich soil holds water: 1 pound of carbon holds 40 pounds of water. We know that we can put 1,000 pounds of carbon back into an acre each season; that means 40,000 pounds of water will be in that soil. In wet years it will permeate through the soil. The plants will do better.

And organic systems can help us clean up the water we have: the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is caused mainly by agricultural pollutants; 94 percent of the pollution in the Chesapeake Bay is from agricultural pollutants.

I hear a lot of organic farming detractors say that the only way we are going to feed the world is through chemical agriculture — there simply isn’t enough organic fertilizer to farm without chemicals.

I would say just the opposite. Conventional farms are on a one-way journey of addition. You need to keep adding more and more: more fertilizer, more chemicals. And at the same time you’re destroying waterways and taking carbon out of the soils. Conventional systems are feeding the plant on a short-term basis. We’re feeding the soil.

Our studies are showing that organic systems outperform conventional systems in terms of production, especially in stress years, which we’re going to have many more of in the coming years. Those who say we can’t feed the world with organic farming are perpetuating a myth of falsity.

How did you get interested in organic farming?

I come from a chemical agriculture background and I used to believe in it; I was reared on it. I was convinced that this was the technology that was going to feed us. But I now realize that it’s this kind of farming that is causing us to lose topsoil every year, to deplete the quality of our soil, to pollute our water. Today, I realize it’s what’s going to kill us.

What changed for you?

It wasn’t one epiphany, but a gradual awakening. I’ve traveled to 80 countries, including China, and I kept seeing, over and over, that what we’re doing is not working. I realized that the course we’re on is not sustainable and started critically thinking about my own training.

I also realized that your training can be your impediment to growth, because it stops you from getting to solutions. You’re stuck in the paradigm and you can’t get out of it. The candlestick makers didn’t invent the light bulb.

You talk about the potential for carbon sequestration if we converted corn and soy to organic, but what would happen to the yield, especially now that we’re hearing so much about food shortages?

There can be a transition loss as a farmer learns a new methodology. Yes, there might be some decline, and the longer we wait the more difficult it will be. But we have learned a lot, and adept farmers could make the transition immediately. If we converted all our land to regenerative agriculture, we could see immediate benefits and not major decreases in yield.

But to do this we need major policy change. I’m currently suggesting legislation that we should be paying our farmers to sequester carbon. We’d get farmers asking how they could get that carbon into the soil. They’d learn to adapt pretty quickly.

Right now they’re competing on how many tons of corn they can produce. That’s the wrong incentive.

How could farmers measure how much carbon they’re sequestering?

We’re working with DEP in Pennsylvania to look at ways to measure it quickly and easily on the farm. We’re also starting to ask, Can we start to read it from satellite? That’s not feasible yet. That’s some of the research we’d love to do with NASA.

When we hear about carbon offsets, we’re mainly hearing about forests, not soil.

Forests hold a huge amount of carbon. We know that, but even foresters don’t always understand the role of the soil in this story: Do they understand the mychorrhiza fungal role? They tend to talk about the sequestration above ground when the important part is what’s happening below ground.

We need to pay attention to “terrestrial stewardship” — to how we manage the Earth’s land surface, how are we reinvesting in forests and grasslands and in farmland. This should be the cornerstone of the climate change conversation.

How does your work connect with the Farm Bill? Right now, virtually all of the billions spent by the federal government for agriculture is not going to the regenerative agriculture you describe, but to conventional agriculture.

We’re working with our legislators to get them to see what the 2012 Farm Bill could look like, to get them to see that we shouldn’t just be the commodity producers and the Cargills and ADMs. We should be paying the farmers who truly benefit every citizen of the world.