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WSU researchers taking sustainability of organic farming to new level

PULLMAN, Wash.Washington State University researchers have received a $1.5 million federal grant to help organic farmers keep a better account of their ecological footprint.

Seven researchers in the WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Biosystems Engineering, and USDA Agricultural Research Service will focus in particular on carbon and nitrogentwo elements central to farming and out of balance with the planet's biological boundaries.

The researchers will conduct both laboratory and on-farm research to model how carbon and nutrients are cycled through organic farming systems. They will concentrate on five commercial organic farms covering a range of vegetables, livestock, grains, rainfall and irrigated systems. Ultimately, they will develop a tool for other farms, both organic and conventional, to estimate their greenhouse gas emissions and the overall impact, or life-cycle analysis, of different farm inputs and systems.

"This research and this tool will let farms analyze what they're doingtheir crops, their management on their soil and their exact place on earth," said Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, a research leader for WSU's Biologically Intensive Agriculture and Organic Farming (BIOAg) program and director of the university's graduate certificate in sustainable agriculture. "They can ask, 'How much carbon am I bringing in, how much carbon am I releasing and storing?' And they can ask the same with nitrogen."

Levels of carbon in the atmosphere and reactive nitrogen in the earth's land, air and water are generally considered to be too high for the earth's life-support systems. Rising carbon-dioxide levels are warming the earth, while byproducts of reactive nitrogen used as fertilizer are both contributing to global warming and marine "dead zones."

"Agriculture has been a major contributor to these problems, but can also be part of the solution," said Carpenter-Boggs. Meanwhile, consumer groups and large buyers like Walmart and McDonald's are asking suppliers to account for the ecological sustainability of their practices.

"Carbon and nitrogen impacts could very well be decreed," said Carpenter-Boggs. "I know they're being looked at by these big purchasers."


Contact: Lynne Carpenter-Boggs
Washington State University

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