Eat organic – reduce carbon

Today I met my friend and ex-Soil Association colleague, Gundula Azeez, for lunch.

She wrote the Soil Association 2010 report, Soil carbon and organic farming.

I confess carbon used to confuse me.

As a journalist, my ignorance is my strength. If I can understand it, so can you.

Gundula kindly went back to basics for a beginner’s mind explanation.

Is carbon good or bad?

Carbon is both good and bad depending on where it is.

When it is in the soil, or locked up in oil and coal, it’s good.

When it’s in the atmosphere, it’s bad.

Carbon-in-the-air i.e. carbon dioxide is something we need to breathe OUT.

In the case of current planetary concerns, rising levels of carbon dioxide (or CO2) create rising greenhouse gases – too much of which contributes to climate change.

(Sentence rewritten following Georgie’s comment below).

Organic farming and the carbon cycle

Plants remove carbon from the atmosphere by breathing IN carbon dioxide.

That’s good.

When plants decay, the carbon is stored in the soil.

That’s good too.

Organic farmers uses this natural cycle to replenish the soil.

According to the Soil Association report, if all UK farmland were converted to organic farming, at least 3.2 million tonnes of carbon would be stored in the soil each year – the equivalent of taking nearly 1 million cars off the road

Not only that – but when carbon is stored in the soil, it does a LOT of good.

That’s because it is stored as organic matter which retains nutrients, soil structure and water.

Organic farmers create more carbon-rich organic matter through their farming practices.

They grow green manures and add compost to enrich the soil.

Soil life

Introducing soil microbes, the tiniest creatures on earth that perform vital functions to keep the soil healthy.

These soil microbes are exterminated by chemical farming practices but are actually encouraged by organic farmers.

Soil micro-organisms are essential to life on earth.

They help deliver nutrients to the growing plant.

They help it decompose when it is dead.

Thus creating more organic matter and its carbon-storage capacity.

Clods of earth

The soil actually clumps – or aggregates – around the carbon to protect it.

This delicious crumbly soil also provides a holding place for water, nutrients and air.

Which is why majority-world countries benefit from organic farming practices because they increase yield, and create water-retaining soil.

This gives developing countries more economic independence too.

They don’t have to pay the West for chemicals to feed the soil because organic farming does it naturally – by using the planet’s natural carbon cycle.

Lunch at Saint Stephen’s cafe

I had sweet potato frittata and salad – pictured – at Saint Stephen’s cafe.

The food is amazing – home-cooked and organic, seasonal, fair trade and local where possible.

Saint Stephen’s church cares deeply about the environment and this is reflected in its cafe food, conceived by one of Bristol’s best cooks, Edna Yeffet Summerel.

Nice to know when I eat organic food that I am enriching the soil and helping store carbon…

14 responses to “Eat organic – reduce carbon

  1. Pingback: Eat organic – reduce carbon « Real Food Lover Eating

  2. Hi, thanks for the info about carbon. It’s really new for me!


  3. Hi Body Face – just looked at your site and item on back pain. You may be interested in this post I wrote.

    Thanks for your feedback about carbon.

    It is heartening as I wanted to share what I have learnt!


  4. Hi. I would not describe carbon (or even carbon dioxide) as ‘good or ‘bad’ or dependent on where it is at any given time. All elements have natural cycles and combine with other elements etc in a continuous movement through air, water and land. It’s only when these cycles become unbalanced that there may become a potential problem. One of the main benefits of organic farming is not using artificial fertilisers which are commonly nitrogen based because they take a very very high amount of burning fossil fuels to produce them. Organic farming when it deploys methods such as crop rotation allows nitrogen to return to the soil naturally through the decay of e.g clover which is a very good natural nitrogen fixing plant. When we talk about the carbon cycle being out of balance, what that normally means is that the earth ‘s pattern of solar radiation being absorbed and reflected is out of balance. i.e the atmosphere gets hotter because more greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide and methane) are present in it. (from burning carbon based fossil fuels oil and coal and natural gas (methane) ) Greenhouse gases aren’t ‘bad’ …we need them or the earth’s surface would be frozen! So really eating organic is beneficial for the environment because it reduces man’s consumption of fossil fuel burning…I think it’s something like 0.2 % of consumption goes to making artificial fertilisers (which might not sound a lot but actually its HUGE!) A very good way of re-balancing the different cycles of water, carbon, nitrogen etc etc is to eat less meat, but that’s another discussion ! 🙂


  5. Thank you, Georgie, for your informed and informative comment.

    The good/bad thing is the way I learn something at the outset. ie like a five-year-old.

    I think a lot of people are confused by the carbon/greenhouse gas arguments.

    I am more of a Daily Mirror writer myself! I like to spell things out, and not assume knowledge. (and explain them to myself at the same time).

    But I also need people like you to add another dimension of knowledge.

    So thank you…


  6. Hi Georgie

    Just to add. I agree – we need greenhouse gases.

    The problem is, as you say, the balance.

    I will correct that in my post.

    I also agree that fertilising the soil the organic way is better for the planet.

    In fact I now believe in my heart that this is the most fundamental difference between organic and non-organic farming.

    Non-organic farming burns fossil fuels and creates pollution to make chemical fertiliser.

    Organic farming recycles waste and stores carbon to make solar-powered fertiliser.

    Non-organic crops using chemical fertiliser grow quickly but are more sappy – hence less nutrients (as research shows) and less taste. Chemical fertiliser also denudes the soil and creates pollution.

    Organic crops grow more slowly but with more taste and robustness (so can more readily withstand pests and disease) than non-organic crops.


  7. Thanks for this post and for the helpful comments. I’ve been trying to eat less meat to reduce my carbon emissions. Now I know that eating organic is making a positive difference as well.

    I echo your appreciation of the St Stephen’s Cafe. Their felafel are delicious and such a warm friendly atmosphere.


  8. Organic food would also be cheaper than non organic food if it were not for a very major flaw in the way we account and price goods.

    A basic rule of accounting is that you should not count anything if the cost of counting it comes to more than it’s percieved value.

    Obviously the cost of counting the environmental effects of carbon on climate change is very difficult and expensive.

    Normally the Government would adjust for these undesirable effects caused by an impererfect economic system through the instruments of taxation.

    Will a political party increase tax on food in these increasingly fickle times of communications driven policy or will they snuggle up in bed with Tesco and friends?


  9. Thank you for the information – I am really glad to have it !


  10. A separate eco-friendly plus of going organic is that the inorganic fertilizers that are used on non-organic farms can wash into water systems which is a huge environmental devastation.


  11. Hi Elisabeth,

    What a fascinating article – I had understood many of the benefits of Organic in terms of Health, Animal welfare and so on but this was another facet I had not appreciated. Really needs to be more widely publicised!


  12. This is an informative post regarding the use of carbon. Organic is still the best option.


  13. This is very important – needs to be more widely known that organic is the UNselfish choice, better for the environment and the farmers. Too much media makes it out to be the selfish, stupid, trendy choice.

    The Observer Food Monthly Awards are on now – vote for Real Food Lover as best food blog! And also perhaps win some prizes…


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