Washington State University researcher Craig Cogger checks cover crops in an organic plot.
Washington State University researcher Craig Cogger checks cover crops in an organic plot.

Even organic agricultural systems produce greenhouse gas emissions—how much is the subject of a study by Washington State University and Purdue University.

As organic matter in the soil decomposes, it releases nutrients, particularly nitrogen, according to a news release.

What isn't taken up by the plant is either released as a gas into the atmosphere or carried away in runoff.

For farmers, the loss of nutrients affects their bottom line.

For the environment, those escaping nutrients could be in the form of greenhouse gas emissions.

Washington State University scientists Ann-Marie Fortuna, Craig Cogger and Doug Collins are conducting a series of experiments to determine the types and amounts of gases emitted by organic cropping systems.

They are conducting the work in research plots in Puyallup, where a long-term organic farming experiment was started in 2003.

Ron Turco at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., is conducting similar experiments in plots transitioning to organic status.

To be called organic, a field must not have received any synthetic inputs for three years.

Those fields that receive no synthetic inputs but haven't completed the three-year wait are referred to as "in transition" or transitioning to organic.

The researchers plan to measure the cycling of gases through the soil over several years.

“Any time you are adding nutrients to a system and building them up, you need to be concerned about where the nutrients are going," Fortuna said in the release. "But just because you have more organic inputs doesn’t mean you are creating more greenhouse gases. There is probably a difference in the way the gases cycle, but you do need to have proper cropping and management systems in place to keep nutrients from escaping and becoming pollutants or contributors to greenhouse emissions.”

In the end, the researchers hope to develop a set of best management practices for organic producers that will help them maximize the use of natural nutrients while minimizing their losses.

They also hope to be able to develop a method so growers could calculate their carbon footprint.