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Conservation-tillage pollution claims hard to understand

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Table of Contents:

• UCS casts aspersions on a practice that allows some farmers to improve soil conservation.

• UCS folk have no clear understanding of how conservation-tillage works.

• Plowing to kill weeds is not part of most reduced-tillage systems.

As if the Environmental Working Group (EWG) isn’t challenge enough to farmers doing their best to provide adequate food and fiber to a rapidly increasing global population — while also doing their best to preserve the natural resources necessary to accomplish those goals — along comes another self-righteous organization to cast aspersions on a practice that allows some farmers to improve soil conservation.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is taking no-till to task, claiming that the practice is linked to increased waterway pollution. A recent news release hit my e-mail box with that claim.

The ‘news’ item—and I use that term ‘news’ guardedly—suggests that “conservation tillage, turning or plowing the soil to kill weeds, may be linked to an increase in toxic algae blooms.”

The opinion piece — which is a more apt description — says the claim is based on “new research.” The toxic blooms come from runoff that carries phosphorus into waterways, according to the UCS.

Apparently, the UCS folk have no clear understanding of how conservation-tillage works. The process of “turning or plowing the soil to kill weeds,” does not fit the definition of most conservation-tillage practices and particularly not no-till, which minimizes soil disruption to seedbed preparation. Other practices, including reduced-till, ridge-till and other systems, vary in the amount of soil disruption used to plant seed. But plowing to kill weeds is not part of most reduced-tillage systems.

But no worries, the UCS offers options. “Sustainable practices, like cover crops, achieve all the suggested benefits of no-till and more, but the agriculture industry continues to push no-till,” according to a UCS spokesperson. They add: “Unlike sustainable practices, no-till depends on expensive purchased products. It’s good for the industry’s bottom line, not so good for the rest of us.”

I don’t disagree with the idea of using cover crops. Indeed, many practitioners of no-till, reduced-till and minimum-till rely on cover crops to provide the residue they need to hold moisture, increase organic matter in the soil and protect the land from water and wind erosion in the off-season.

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