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Civil Eats

Big Ag Goes Green

Tom Laskawy

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?

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 blogs on food and the environment at and Beyond Green, where he covers food policy, alternative energy, climate science, and politics.

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