Big Ag Goes Green | Civil Eats

Big Ag Goes Green

Sadly, the green I’m referring to is the color of money. As Tom Philpott reports, Big Ag is trying to get an agricultural technique known as “chemical no-till” established as a legitimate carbon offset in the Waxman/Markey legislation. There’s only one problem, all the research out there says that chemical no-till doesn’t actually sequester carbon:

In no-till systems, farmers plant directly into fields without plowing. One of the main reasons farmers plow is to control weeds. In a practice that has become known among critics as “chemical no-till,” farmers idle the the plow and rely on chemical herbicides for weed control.

…As a source of carbon sequestration, chemical no-till is a highly questionable practice. In a 2006 peer-reviewed paper [PDF] called “Tillage and soil carbon sequestration” what do we really know?,” a group of soil scientists led by John M. Baker of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service took a hard look at conventional no-till. They report: “Long-term, continuous gas exchange measurements have also been unable to detect C gain due to reduced tillage.” Translation: No-till doesn’t seem to sequester carbon. Their conclusion: “Though there are other good reasons to use conservation tillage, evidence that it promotes C sequestration is not compelling.” The report compelled climate expert and frequent Grist contributor Joe Romm to declare that no-till farming “does not save carbon and is not a carbon offset.”

So the USDA itself thinks the practice’s emissions impact is bogus. In fact, there’s even evidence that chemical no-till leads to increased carbon emissions through nitrous oxide outgassing from the synthetically fertilized fields. And who’s taking the lead in all this? Why our good friends at Monsanto, of course!

Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” seeds–genetically modified to withstand lashings of Monsanto’s herbicide glyphosate–have greatly facilitated chemical no-till in the Midwest: farmers can spray their fields with Roundup as needed, without affecting the crops. According to the Center for Food Safety [PDF], glyphosate use jumped 15-fold between between 1994 (when GMOs were first released) and 2005, generating a windfall in Roundup sales for Monsanto. Monsanto now clears more than $1 billion per year in profits from Roundup alone.

Monsanto has even created a new carbon-trading entity to take advantage of this glyphosate-fueled scheme. These guys don’t fool around.

The unfortunate thing is that there is a no-till technique out there whose carbon sequestration benefits have solid science behind it — the Rodale Institute’s “organic no-till” regime, which I wrote about some time ago with regards to saving bees. So, there’s hope right?

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Nope. Because this is Congress we’re talking about. To paraphrase Frank Herbert (and apologies to all you Dune fans out there), “He who controls the committee, controls the universe.” And, the man you love to hate — House Ag Committee Chair Rep. Collin Peterson, is in charge of ag offsets hearings. Guess how many sustainable ag experts or farmers are testifying? Would you believe “zero”?

This is shades of the recent and under-reported harassment of single-payer advocates during recent health care reform hearings. Not only were they not invited, but when a group of nurses attended hearings wearing t-shirts advocating their single-payer positions, they were arrested and thrown in jail. No, I’m not making this up.

If Congress doesn’t hear the facts that apparently means they don’t exist. So much for the return of science to Washington, DC. When the truth hurts, it’s best to ignore it. And barring that, arrest it.

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Tom Laskawy is a founder and executive director of the Food & Environment Reporting Network. His writing on food politics and the environment has appeared online in Grist, The American Prospect, Slate, The New York Times, and The New Republic Read more >

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  1. Vince
    Good Post.

    I have a few remarks, though:

    There is a lot of inconclusive and contradictory research pertaining to the ability of no-till to sequester carbon. A quick peer-reviewed journal database search will show you what I'm referring to. One example being that there is some evidence that mild tillage can help in sequestration, by shifting soil layers and pushing organic matter a bit deeper into the soil. But at the same time, other research has shown sequestration of carbon, and increased productivity under complete no-till systems, even those which use Glyphosate. They also suggest that the short half-life of the chemical does not pose a major threat to the environment. Also, as you pointed out, Rodale Institute makes numerous efforts to push complete organic no-till, and has even developed a really cool front-end tractor implement, called a "crimper," to perform the job -- because there are numerous benefits to doing so. But, farmers are entrepreneurs, and they have to do what's viable, and profitable, for their system. Organic no-till is great deal of work for a small sustainable farmer. So, my point being, that yes, agribusinesses may try and take this opportunity to "greenwash," but we shouldn't be discouraging transitional farmers, who may be practicing herbicidal no till, away from a very environmentally positive practice!

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