The Agriculture Act of 2014, signed into law on February 7, in many ways is an energy bill, with $881 million of the $956-billion bill going directly toward energy programs on agricultural lands.
But less well known is the profound impact on energy efficiency of the bill’s organic farming provisions. By giving additional subsidies to organic farmers, improving the organic standardization process, and making it easier for organic farmers to compete with conventional agriculture, the new farm bill incentivizes certain types of agricultural practices, which has a direct impact on energy use.
While the bill could go much further to promote energy-efficient farm practices, the Organic Trade Association is largely in favor of it because it increases the integrity of the organic certification while putting organic farmers on a more level playing field with conventional producers. The farm bill includes for the organic industry:
- Up to $15 million in annual funding for the National Organic Program, up from $11 million.
- An additional $5 million to the National Organic Program for technology upgrades.
- Appropriates $20 million annually to the Organic Agriculture Extension and Research Initiative, matching current annual funding levels.
- Increases annual funding for the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program from $4.4 million to $11.5 million.
- Maintains the $1.5 million in annual funding for the Agricultural Management Assistance program, available to farmers in 16 states.
- Renews $5 million in funding for the Organic Data Initiative.
By Promoting organic farming, the new farm bill is a big a win for energy efficiency because, simply put, organic farms use less energy. Organic agriculture production uses 30 to 50 percent less energy than comparable conventional systems, according to a report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Organic farms reduce energy use in three main ways: by reducing on-farm fossil fuel use, reducing embodied energy of agricultural inputs, and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by storing it in healthy soils and woody biomass.
Results from the 27-year Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial – the longest-running side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional corn and soybean production systems in the United States – finds that fossil energy inputs in organic corn production were 31 percent lower than conventional corn production and 17 percent lower than conventional soybean production. The largest difference in energy use between organic farms and conventional farms comes from the energy required to manufacture, ship, and apply pesticides and nitrogen-based fertilizers, according to a report from the Organic Center. In summary, organic farms use less energy to produce the same amount of food.
In addition to reducing energy use and the embodied energy within inputs, organic agriculture helps to build the organic matter content in soil, which stores atmospheric carbon. Today’s conventional, non-organic farms are responsible for nearly one-third of all US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. While conventional farming releases carbon, organic farming sequesters it by building organic matter in the soil.
The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial found that soil managed using organic techniques accumulates about 1,000 pounds of carbon per acre-foot of soil each year. This accumulation is equal to about 3,500 pounds of carbon dioxide per acre taken from the air and sequestered into soil. When multiplied over the 160 million acres of corn and soybeans grown nationally, there is potential for 580 billion pounds of excess carbon dioxide per year to be sequestered when farmers transition to organic practices. This direct sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere into the soil is why the California Climate and Agriculture Network says organic farming systems offer one of the best opportunities to reduce GHG emissions, build soil organic carbon and sequester atmospheric carbon.
In addition to increasing organic farming, the new farm bill also increases funding for energy efficiency projects directly. The highest funded energy program under the new bill is the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which will now receive $50 million per year in mandatory funding for the next five years. REAP provides grants and loan guarantee incentives to agricultural producers and rural small businesses of up to 25 percent for the adoption of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies.
The new farm bill also strongly supports the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), which is designed to jump-start production of sustainable, non-food crops for energy. BCAP will receive $25 million each year over the next five years. The funding of BCAP and REAP will further spur renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies on agricultural lands around the country.
While the total amount of money allocated to energy programs – $881 million – and to organic programs – $250 million – may not seem like much in a bill worth nearly 1 trillion dollars, it shows a significant improvement over the 2008 farm bill. In spite of being a long way off before the energy-intensive conventional agricultural model shifts to a more energy-efficient, organic model, this latest farm bill is a step in that direction. For now, organic farming is on the backburner, but it is increasingly becoming an important tool for the US government as it tries to simultaneously combat rising energy costs, meet new energy demand and reduce carbon emissions.