How have your personal farming practices changed over the past decade or so that would raise your “environmental” score? Some farmers would say they have done a lot, and other would say they have not done much. But the latter may not give themselves much credit, in the areas where credit is being lavishly spread around. And the next time some critic puts a burr under your saddle, here are some talking points that might surprise even yourself.

The Conservation Technology Information Center has been around since the early 1980’s, and was an early resource for farmers wanting to reduce their tillage, either to cut back on soil erosion or cut back on their diesel fuel bill. Maybe both. The CTIC has issued a report that details the impact of recent changes in tillage practices, biotechnology adoption, reduction in herbicide and insecticide use, and how farmers are cutting back on their “carbon footprint.”

All of those achievements have come in the face of a greater need to produce more food. 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. 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 US soybean acres and 60% of US corn acres, the global farmer is also using the technology, and 13 million of them in 25 nations have increased their productivity by $44 billion between 1996 and 2007 by increasing quantity and quality of their crops, according to the CTIC report.

With the adoption of biotech soybeans, weeds can be controlled without disturbing the soil. Before the introduction of glyphosate tolerant beans, 27% of US beans were raised in no-till fields. Today it is 39% nationally, 69% of Indiana’s soybeans were no-tilled in 2007, 72% of Maryland’s, 63% of Ohio’s, 50% of the soybeans in Illinois, 43% in South Dakota and 40% in Iowa were also no-tilled.

By adopting planting biotech beans in a no-till field, you have reduced soil erosion on those fields between 90% and 95%. And CTIC says with no erosion there is 70% less herbicide run-off from those 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. That was the quantity of herbicides not applied because of biotech beans. In that same year, 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. Compared to a field prepared 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. (The pressure may be off for a while regarding the latter.)

Political leaders in Washington, D.C. today want to know how to reduce our “carbon footprint.” One of the main proposals is to convert 19 million acres of Cornbelt cropland to forests which absorb and hold carbon from carbon dioxide. While some advocates want to accomplish that goal, it will likely not happen because of the need for the food. Nevertheless, the CTIC report says you have already made a major reduction in your carbon footprint. Your use of biotechnology has reduced the need to drive across fields spraying weeds and insects. Such technology, along with the use of reduced tillage and lower horsepowered tractors will save an estimated 354 million gallons of diesel fuel per year, says Nebraska ag engineer Paul Jasa.

It is estimated the 16.3 million acres of continuously no-tilled cropland in the US is currently sequestering 9.7 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent each year. Using US EPA data the use of reduced tillage and biotechnology will cut carbon emissions from agriculture by 2.3 million tons per year by 2020.

The increased use of no-till farming since the 1980s, and the increased use of glyphosate-resistant crops since 1996, has significantly turned farmers into environmentalists. 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 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.

Source: Stu Ellis, University of Illinois