Long-lasting heat and droughts followed by intense storms with heavy rain and floods: in the face of the climate crisis, more and more attention evolves around the scarcity or surplus of water. Already for 2023, Southern European countries such as Spain, Portugal, Italy, and France are reporting an unusual lack of rainfall, whilst many Northern Europeans feel that they have already seen more rain than in the last two years. Our weather patterns are out of balance. And although no life is possible without water, we have been paying far too little attention to the quality and availability of this precious good. Only when our harvests wither and fail, when roads are flooded and water prices rise, we realise that water cannot be taken for granted. The good news: Organic farming helps to protect, clean, and store water where it is needed.

natural water resources

Faced with the climate crisis, we need our soils to store more water

Already at school, we learned how the natural water cycle works: The solar radiation makes water evaporate from oceans, rivers, and lakes. As it cools down, it condensates and falls as rain on our soils. From here, it leaks into our groundwater and finally flows back into the sea. However, due to climate change, rainfalls have become more irregular. Therefore, it is more important than ever that our soils can absorb and store water. But less and less soils are able to do so.

Conventional farming undermines the importance of healthy soils for water storage

Depending on climate conditions, bedrock, topography and use, our soils can be sandy, silty, clayey, or loamy; light or heavy, acidic or basic; fertile or infertile; water-saturated or drained. Conventional agriculture has long been neglecting the importance of healthy soils and impaired their fertility and ability to store water. Instead of appreciating them for naturally providing nutrient to our plants whilst capturing CO2 and water, soils are often perceived as mere anchoring platforms on which plants are fed with mineral fertilisers and sprayed with poisonous substances.

Conventional agriculture has long been neglecting the importance of healthy soils and impaired their fertility and ability to store water

In times of water shortage or surplus, healthy sponge soils are key

The best-suited soils to deal with extreme weather patterns are so-called sponge soils. They allow rainwater to percolate whilst cleaning it biologically at the same time. To get an idea of the health state of our soil, it is worth having a closer look at it. Sponge soils have plenty of cavities and many irregular particles, and they allow water to drain efficiently. “You can simply dig a hole in the soil, fill it up with water and watch how quickly it disappears. The quicker this happens, the healthier the soil”, explains Manfred Mödinger. He is a chartered engineer, co-founder, and chairman of the German quality community for organic mineral water, “Bio-Mineralwasser”.

natural water resources
123rfLimited©abhbah05. Drip irrigation system

Organic farming enables our soils to naturally capture and purify water

For Mödinger and his colleagues, water is more than just a liquid. “It’s the basis of life and a fruit of our soils. The best way to secure it is not to pollute it – and to store it where it is needed: in our soils”, he says. Since 2017, his organisation has been publishing information about the deteriorating quality of German ground and tap water. “The natural water resources in Germany are severely endangered. And, shockingly, there is not even a uniform national regulation for a comprehensive monitoring of our water quality”, Mödinger criticises. For him, organic farming is the most sustainable way to secure our water resources. “Organic farmers refrain from synthetic pesticides and nitrogen input by artificial fertilizer whilst supporting soil fertility through mulch, compost, crop rotation, and mixed cultivation. Instead of polluting and degrading our soils, they enable them to capture and purify our water naturally”, he explains.

natural water resources

In water catchment areas, organic farming should be compulsory

Mödinger has been promoting the benefits of organic agriculture for our water for many years. Still, only ten percent of farmland in Germany is cultivated organically. “We still have a long way to go. Especially in water catchment areas, it should be compulsory to farm organic”, Mödinger says. To proof that these claims are not only idealistic pipe dreams, but economically viable solutions to a more and more pressing threat, Mödinger and his colleagues have launched a powerful communication tool: the organic water metre. It shows the annual amount of water that organic farming in Germany protects by not polluting but supporting our soils. The figures are impressive: “In 2021, organic farming has protected around 2.3 billion cubic meters of water”, says Mödinger.

Only when our harvests wither and fail, when roads are flooded and water prices rise, we realise that water cannot be taken for granted

A metre that confirms water-related benefits of organic farming

The calculation of the organic water metre is based on the annual rainfall, the organically farmed area, and the average infiltration rate of rain into the soil. The infiltration rate measures how much water a soil can absorb in a given period of time. Mödinger knows: “Water treatment is an expensive affair. The average cost for removing nitrates, pesticides and their degradation products from water sums up to about 65 cents per cubic meter. If rain falls on non-toxic, humus organic fields, these costs do not occur. In 2021, each organically farmed hectare in Germany has hence saved 837 Euros in treatment costs, that have to be spent on polluted water.” The water metre proofs once more that organic farming is the way to go forward. “Still today, state subsidies for organic farming are often criticised. Our metre shows very clearly that state support for organic farming is justified. Because we all benefit from it”, says Mödinger.

Author: Ina Hiester, freelance journalist for the organic sector

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