How have your personal farming practices changed over the past decade or so that would raise your “environmental” score?
"The increased use of no-till since the 1980s and glyphosate-resistant crops since 1996 has significantly turned farmers into environmentalists," says Stu Ellis, editor of the University's of illinois' The Farm Gate blog. "Less soil has eroded, less chemicals have been applied and less fuel has been used because of significant changes in farming practices.
"And many of these practices have combined to retain carbon in the soil instead of releasing it into the atmosphere, which is the model for farmers to profit from future regulations regarding climate change."
Recent changes in tillage practices, biotechnology adoption, reduction in herbicide and insecticide use, and the way farmers are cutting back on their “carbon footprint” have come in the face of a greater need to produce more food, Ellis says. The global population is just shy of 7 billion and will be 9 billion in 2050.
"At that time, people will not only want higher-quality food but will need high quantities of food compared to what we produce today," Ellis says. "As an example, University of Illinois economist Pete Goldsmith says we don’t have room for another 168 million acres of soybeans to meet human needs by 2030, so biotechnology will be required to double today’s yields."
While biotech seeds are planted on 90% of U.S. soybean acres and 60% of U.S. corn acres, the global farmer is also using the technology, Ellis says. Citing a Conservation Technology Information Report (CTIC) report, 13 million producers in 25 nations have increased their productivity by $44 billion between 1996 and 2007 in increasing quantity and quality of their crops.
Ellis says with the adoption of biotech soybeans, weeds can be controlled without disturbing the soil. Before the introduction of glyphosate-tolerant soybeans, 27% of U.S. beans were raised in no-till fields. Today, it's 39% nationally with state no-till rates for soybeans in 2007 at 69% for Indiana, 72% for Maryland, 63% for Ohio, 50% for Illinois, 43% for South Dakota and 40% for Iowa.
"By adopting biotech beans in a no-till field, no-tillers have reduced soil erosion on those fields between 90% and 95%," Ellis says.
And citing CTIC statistics, Ellis says with no erosion there is 70% less herbicide run-off from no-till fields planted with biotech soybeans. Biotech beans and cotton made the use of more than 47 million pounds of herbicides irrelevant in 2007, he says. In that same year, he says biotech corn and cotton which resisted insects prevented the use of nearly 9 million pounds of insecticides.
"The loss of fertilizers has also been reduced in those biotech no-till fields," Ellis claims. "Compared to a field prepared with a chisel plow, no-till reduced phosphorus loss by 81%. When no-till corn follows no-till beans, there is an 86% reduction in soil loss and another significant reduction in phosphorus loss of 66% to 77%.
"The lesser amount of soil and phosphorus entering waterways reduces the criticism that farmers are polluting Midwestern rivers, the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico."
Ellis says political leaders in Washington, D.C. want to know today how to reduce the country's “carbon footprint.” One of the main proposals is to convert 19 million acres of Corn Belt cropland to forests, which absorb and hold carbon from carbon dioxide.
While some advocates want to accomplish that goal, Ellis says it will likely not happen because of the need for those acres to produce food. Nevertheless, he says a CTIC report says no-tillers have already made a major reduction in their carbon footprint.
"Your use of biotechnology has reduced the need to drive across fields spraying weeds and insects," he says.
Ellis says such technology, along with the use of reduced tillage and lower-horsepower tractors will save an estimated 354 million gallons of diesel fuel per year, citing statistics from University of Nebraska ag engineer Paul Jasa.
He says it's estimated that the 16.3 million acres of continuously no-tilled cropland in the U.S. is currently sequestering 9.7 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent each year. Using U.S. EPA data, the use of reduced tillage and biotechnology will cut carbon emissions from agriculture by 2.3 million tons per year by 2020.