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Natural herbicides, climate eco-labeling, urban gardening initiatives, education programs, and CAFO restrictions can combat climate change.



This proposal outlines solutions to (1) maximize how organic agriculture can decrease the carbon footprint of food production and (2) reduce the negative climate change impacts of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Organic agricultural practices can reduce greenhouse gas emissions for multiple reasons, including the reduction of the usage of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer produced using fossil fuels that can result in nitrous oxide emissions and the improvement of soil quality allowing for greater carbon sequestration. However, the usage of tillage for weed control in organic production systems can result in increased carbon dioxide emissions from the soil, but the carbon footprint of chemical herbicides also cannot be ignored (the common postemergence herbicide glyphosate has a carbon footprint of 95.9 kg/ha). 

“Natural-product herbicides” made of naturally occurring ingredients that qualify for organic registration by current standards can offer a solution to achieving weed control without the usage of synthetic herbicides made through carbon intensive manufacturing practices or tillage, but traditionally the need for these herbicides to be applied in high application volumes in repeated applications to effectively control weeds has limited their cost-effectiveness. The Engineers for a Sustainable World Natural Herbicides team at the Georgia Institute of Technology has conducted research on optimizing the effectiveness of natural herbicides that can become a tool for making farming more climate-friendly through educational programs about natural herbicide usage modeled after our Organic Weed Control Education project and integration of natural herbicides with the federal government’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program in the United States.

This should be combined with other actions including climate eco-labeling, the provision of scholarships to students to specialize in sustainable agriculture, urban gardening initiatives, and CAFO regulations.

What actions do you propose?

1. Develop a large-scale organic weed control education program. The Georgia Tech Engineers for a Sustainable World Natural Herbicides Team has developed and is currently implementing an Organic Weed Control Education project through a partnership. This project currently involves presenting to gardeners on how to make and use natural herbicides, providing the gardeners with samples of natural herbicides and instructional pamphlets, and presenting the gardeners with two partnership options: (1) collaboration, in which our team can help with a given garden at monthly intervals and bring herbicides to apply, and (2) a cooperative exchange in which our team could provide a given garden with a year’s supply of herbicides in exchange for the gardener completing assessments and providing pictures of the herbicide performance. This education program could be implemented on a larger scale tailored more to agricultural audiences (for example, educational activities could occur at agricultural conferences). 

2. Promote natural herbicide usage through the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in the United States. Farmers can participate in the EQIP by visiting their local NRCS office. NRCS officials help prospective EQIP participants develop conservation plans and applications to receive economic compensation for conservation practices through EQIP. These officials could show farmers how to incorporate the usage of natural herbicides into their management plans. In evaluating, EQIP applications NRCS could also treat using natural herbicides for organic weed control rather than tillage as a conservation benefit.

3. In the United States, individual states could implement more comprehensive eco-labeling for food similar to the climate eco-labeling model in Sweden, Klitmatmarkning for Mat. The United States Department of Agriculture could eventually define an “organic plus” term that could suggest to consumers that certain products -- those meeting carbon footprint and other environmental life-cycle standards -- offered a better choice than organics. As with organic certification, the federal government could implement a cost-share program in which it guarantees coverage of at least 75% of the costs of certifications.

4. The inclusion of gardens in public housing projects and garden adoption programs in local parks can decrease the prominence of “food deserts” in urban areas and reliance of city residents upon packaged foods transported over long miles, consuming fossil fuels. Gardens in public housing projects could be accessible to all residents and provide an alternate to food stamp programs to some residents. Residents could potentially participate in the construction of these gardens for career development and potentially pay.

5. Universities and colleges could offer scholarships for students to study such areas as sustainable agriculture, urban agriculture, and sustainable cooking and develop respective programs and resources to encourage a generation of more climate-friendly food production. Sustainable culinary programs could also be offered discouraging the heavy consumption of meat that has encouraged the economic prosperity of environmentally destructive CAFOs.

6. Legislation/regulations could require that owners of livestock operations produce at least half of their own feed. This would help minimize the issues of CAFOs using large quantities of feed transported over large distances, contributing to fossil fuel emissions, and potentially serve to limit the power of CAFOs, helping smaller-scale farmers to compete against international agribusinesses with more sustainable practices. In the European Union, this change could be made to the Common Agricultural Policy.

Who will take these actions?

1. The Engineers for a Sustainable World Natural Herbicides team at Georgia Tech will provide technical information on natural herbicides and assist with developing educational programs and making herbicide solutions. We will continue to form partnerships with community programs. Our collaborators/supporters -- including the national Engineers for a Sustainable World organization and IBM -- will assist in scaling up the the Organic Weed Control Education Project to reach many agricultural communities. 

2./3. The USDA will play a key role in integrating natural herbicides into the EQIP and in changing organic standards to address climate change. A state government could also first implement an climate eco-labeling program as a trial.  

4. The federal governments' Public Housing Operating Fund and municipal governments could incorporate urban gardens into public housing. 

5. University faculty can play a role in proposing educational programs centered around sustainable agriculture. Private donors and nonprofit organizations can help fund scholarships for students to participate in these programs.

6. The United States' federal government and European Union could be involved in implementing policies/regulations restricting CAFOs.

Where will these actions be taken?

This program is primarily geared towards addressing land management issues in the economic and political landscape in the United States and European Union. However, it could be used as a model for actions could be taken in developing countries. For example, microfinancing programs could incentive natural herbicide usage. 

How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?

On an area basis, tilled soil produces 31% more global warming potential than zero-tilled soil (1). Carbon dioxide fluxes from zero-till soil range from 47 to 216 mg/(m^(2)h^(1)). Assuming the lower value for a conservative estimate, this amounts to 9057840 g of carbon dioxide that could be reduced by avoiding the usage of a tillage system. Research on the carbon footprint of natural herbicides would be needed to calculate the net carbon reduction.

Social research would be needed to calculate the exact impacts of the other proposed actions on carbon reduction. While some relevant information does exist (studies suggest that climate eco-labeling increases the sale of climate-friendly milk by 6-8%) it is not sufficient to completely quantify carbon reduction.

What are other key benefits?

Through efforts promoting natural herbicide usage, we will make strides to improve water quality by decreasing the demand for chemical herbicides that can contaminate our water supply. The usage of herbicides such as glyphosate can also endanger pollinators, which in turn negatively impacts food production as the presence of pollinators can increase the yield of a number of different crops. Thus, by reducing chemical herbicide usage, we are preserving pollinators and their positive impact upon food production systems.

Both the promotion of natural herbicides and climate eco-labeling will hopefully encourage an overall cultural shift towards responsible consumerism, which would result in continued impact as people consider the environmental ramifications of products as part of their purchasing decisions. 

Incorporating urban gardens into housing projects will encourage environmental justice, giving disadvantaged communities access to fresh food.

Restricting CAFOs helps small-scale farmers.

What are the proposal’s costs?

The cost of educational programs on natural herbicide usage could range from $500-$10,000 depending on scale. Incorporation with existing programs would reduce these costs. 

The cost of incorporation incentives for natural herbicide usage into the EQIP would be negligible as EQIP infrastructure is already in place.

Based on average tuition rates, the cost of a scholarship for one student to study sustainable agriculture would be $20,000/yr. However, partial scholarship for $3000/yr could be considered. Private donors could be solicited to cover costs. In addition, nonprofit organizations such as Georgia Organics could potentially assist with curriculum development and funding. State lotteries could also be used to obtain funding for these programs as with many other higher education programs in the state of Georgia.

The average start-up cost of a community garden is $1000 to $5000 dollars. Funding from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) could potentially be used to fund these gardener programs rather than funding as many food stamps for individuals living in project housing with major programmatic changes. Financial reprioritization could also occur within the Public Housing Operating Fund. Alternatively, nonprofit/community organizations focused on hunger and/or organic gardening could be involved.

The costs of adopt-a-garden programs in parks should be negligible as parks are already funded. 

The costs of requiring livestock operations to produce half of the feed consumed would also be neglible. 

Time line

In the short term, relationships could be developed with relevant government and community programs to further natural herbicide education. Discussions could also proceed with the USDA on incentivizing natural herbicide usage. A state government could institute a climate eco-labeling program as a "trial run." Potential sponsors for scholarships could be solicited, and university faculty and relevant organizations could begin the development of sustainable, climate-friendly agriculture programs. My team could work with the city of Atlanta through our current relationship with the urban agriculture director and sustainability director. Several public housing developments could serve as models for the institution of an urban gardening program and parks for an adopt-a-garden program.  

In the medium to long term, EQIP could incorporate natural herbicides, the federal government could potentially implement climate eco-labeling requirements, regulations on the amount of feed consumed by livestock operations, and larger scale prioritization of the inclusion of community gardens in public housing. 

Related proposals

These proposals describe potential practices that could be taught in the proposed sustainable agriculture education programs or awarded points in a climate eco-labeling process:



  1. Mangalassery et al. To what extent can zero tillage lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from temperature soils? Scientific Reports. 4, 4586 (2014).