In 1990 my daughter Rima commented to her friend Dan as they choked their way across a fume-filled Harrow Road: “Wouldn’t it be nice if the drivers of these filthy cars had to plant trees to mop up the pollution they created?” Dan Morrell agreed and founded Future Forests to do just that. When we launched Whole Earth organic wholegrain cornflakes back in 1996, they became the first ‘carbon neutral’ food product. Dr. Richard Tipper of the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Management did a lifecycle analysis of the cornflakes to establish how many trees Future Forests should plant to balance off our CO2 emissions. We were pleasantly surprised to find the cornflakes were almost carbon neutral already – because they were organic.
A few weeks ago Future Forests invited me to a preview of The Day After Tomorrow, the blockbuster teen romance thriller whose plot revolves around a greenhouse gas disaster. This movie will move the global warming debate beyond climate scientists on one side, and the hired guns of the oil industry on the other, and put it squarely in the mass consciousness. At the launch of the Climate Group a few weeks earlier, Tony Blair told us “Commitment to preventing global warming has to transcend the electoral cycle and become a permanent part of national policy. We need the public to support us on this if we are to achieve real results.” When I asked Margaret Beckett if future emissions trading arrangements would reward the huge contribution to greenhouse gas reduction that comes from organic farming, she smiled thinly and said that she couldn’t comment on policy still under development. But Steve Howard, the Climate Group’s CEO, responded positively and the President of Timberland Boots said they already used 5% organic cotton in the lining of their boots and counted it towards their carbon reduction targets. Here are some facts. Organic farming uses half of the fossil fuels used by agrichemical farming, per unit of food; emits less nitrous oxide than agrichemical farming (a greenhouse gas 310 times more warming than carbon dioxide); absorbs one tonne of carbon per hectare into the soil every year. Combine all of these and you have an annual saving of the equivalent of 2 Gigatonnes of carbon. To bring greenhouse gas back to a stable level requires an annual reduction of 6 Gigatonnes of carbon. So if we adopted organic farming practices worldwide, including green manures, non-use of nitrates and pesticides and composting of animal manures, we would be a third of the way towards saving the planet. What does agrichemical farming offer the future? Every tonne of nitrogen fertilizer costs one tonne of carbon to manufacture and transport Nitrogen fertiliser runs off into water and becomes a nitrous oxide source - nitrous oxide is 300 times more harmful than carbon dioxide Animals eat subsidised soybeans, and fart prodigious quantities of methane into the air – methane is a greenhouse gas 20 times more harmful than CO2. Cheap subsidised feed also produces a proliferation of meat animals. Organic cows fart too, but they don’t suffer the chronic acid rumen digestive problems that lead to E.coli O157 infections in ‘normal’ cattle because 80% of their diet must be pasture or hay - cows’ natural food. And the Soil Association supports the CIWF campaign to reduce meat consumption and move from quantity to quality. I was born in Nebraska, a prairie state. When my pioneer ancestors first built their houses from prairie sod, many proudly preserved a few acres of virgin prairie so their grandchildren could see what the land was like before it went under the plough. Those bits of prairie now stand as much as 8 feet higher than the surrounding farmland – Nebraska’s shame. Unsustainable farming practices have turned all that rich organic matter into dust, sand and a hell of a lot of CO2. We are at a crucial juncture: grain prices are at historic highs, which will impact on meat prices, oil prices are at historic highs, which will make chemical fertilizers and pesticides more expensive - now public concern about global warming is about to reach historic highs. This triple whammy might be extra momentum we need to swing to organic farming - one of our planet’s best hopes for as sustainable future.