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Getting at the Roots of Unsustainable U.S. Ag Policy

Around one third of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the way we produce, process, distribute, and consume the food we eat according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Meanwhile, farmers the world over will be the most affected by climate change, as higher carbon in the atmosphere and higher temperatures increase erratic weather patterns, pests, and disease occurrence, while decreasing water availability, disrupting relationships with pollinators and lowering yield and the efficacy of herbicides like glyphosate (aka Round-Up)—all detailed in a revealing new report from the USDA called The Effects of Climate Change on U.S. Ecosystems [pdf].

We should all give the USDA credit for keeping the ties between agriculture, food, and climate change at the forefront of the discussion. Even in Copenhagen, where agriculture is getting less attention than it arguably should be considering its impact and potential for mitigating climate change, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke about the need for research, and seeing agriculture as an opportunity for climate change mitigation. He even said to the delegates in Copenhagen, “We need to develop cropping and livestock systems that are resilient to climate change.” While I agree on the surface with these statements, taking a deeper look reveals potentially problematic ideas for just how to do this.

Outlined in Vilsack’s prepared remarks are a few clues for how the U.S. is looking at adapting agriculture in the face of climate change. I find it valuable to do a little point-by-point debunking here, so we can look at the facts again, laid out so clearly in the USDA report above, and come up with real solutions. And since the U.S. is responsible for the most greenhouse gases, and we were the first to adopt intensive agriculture practices, we have an opportunity to lead the world to a more sustainable future.

No-Till. Here is a classic case of agribusiness co-opting a perfectly good solution and making it bad (and then whispering it into the USDA’s ear). Sustainable no-till practices involve building soil fertility with cover crops, which sequester carbon, and then turning them into a healthy mulch. No chemicals are used, and soil fertility increases. This practice is being studied at places like the Rodale Institute. The co-opted version, on the other hand, which I’ll refer to as chemical no-till, is the one touted by Monsanto with it’s Round-Up Ready seeds, which can be planted and doused with glyphosate—killing the weeds and not the soybeans. Aside from the fact that superweeds are more and more common as pesticides increase in use, the life in the soil is also being killed by these chemicals. What this means is that the earthworms, protozoa, ants and other decomposers that are actively ‘tilling’ the soil are not there to do so. Furthermore, bacteria in the soil, like rhizobia, actively fix nitrogen. Without nitrogen-fixing soil life to intervene, a putrefaction process called denitrification results in lost soil fertility, as nitrogen is released as nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. What is totally not funny about nitrous oxide is the fact that it is 298 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Do you get where I’m going with this? Nitrous oxide may only represent 7.9 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions in total, but it is one powerful source, coming directly from synthetic agriculture fields.

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