For the past few months I have found myself on the email list of the Union of Concerned Scientists. The press releases from Tara Mosby, the group's public relations officer, mostly describe the latest blog postings of Douglas Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist in the UCS Food & Environment program.
I appreciate the PR business -- especially knowing that getting the attention of editors like me is not always that easy. With hundreds of emails rolling through the inbox every week not all of them get the attention they might deserve -- and that includes moving them to the unsubscribe list.
Mosby's releases are written in the alarming language of an old school environmentalist and she takes the extra step of emphasizing the potential for disaster by printing the titles in all capital letters.
For example: PESTICIDE USE IS MUCH GREATER THAN REPORTED; or POPULAR INSECTICIDE CONCERN FOR BIRDS, BEES AND WATERWAYS; or USDA ABILITY TO MEASURE IMPACT OF 2,4-D CROPS HOBBLED BY OUTDATED REGULATIONS; or NEXT GENERATION OF HERBICIDE-RESISTANT CROPS POTENTIAL THREAT TO ENVIRONMENT; or AGRICULTURE NO-TILL PRACTICE LINKED TO POLLUTED WATERWAYS.
Actually it was this last one that finally caught my attention and spurred me to action. (You can read Dr. Gurian-Sherman's blog for yourself here). Having written about the benefits of no-till and interviewed some of the nation's best no-till farmers in my career, not to mention attending more than I can remember discussions of the topic, I was concerned that the concerned scientist might not have all that much field experience.
Right away I realized the UCS is bringing a little different point of view to the table. Here's the statement you get when you open their Web page on Food and Agriculture:
"Our agricultural system has lost its way.
"Millions of acres of corn, soybeans, and other commodity crops, grown with the help of heavy government subsidies, dominate our rural landscapes.
"To grow these crops, industrial farms use massive amounts of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, which deplete our soil and pollute our air and water.
"Much of this harvest will end up as biofuels and other industrial products—and most of the rest will be used in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) or in heavily processed junk foods, which seem cheap only because their hidden costs don't show up at the cash register.
"Industrial agriculture is unhealthy—for our environment, our climate, our bodies, and our rural economies."
The UCS has a solution:
"There's a better way to grow our food. Working with nature instead of against it, sustainable agriculture uses 21st-century techniques and technologies to implement time-tested ideas such as crop rotation, integrated plant/animal systems, and organic soil amendments."
To me that just says, "We want some credit for moving agriculture in the direction it is already going."
With help from Mosby, I called Dr. Gurian-Sherman and he answered with a friendly, "Call me Doug." Having already read the blog posting about no-till, I realized that there was some disconnect between the PR vigor and scientist's actual comments. In fact G-S notes that no-till offers some real benefits. He merely claims it is no cure-all.
Fine. We know that.
I remind him that in his blog he states that, "it appears that no-till may be contributing to some serious environmental problems." In his blog he cites a study about toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie. Here is the summary of that study:
"In 2011, Lake Erie experienced the largest harmful algal bloom in its recorded history, with a peak intensity over three times greater than any previously observed bloom. Here we show that long-term trends in agricultural practices are consistent with increasing phosphorus loading to the western basin of the lake, and that these trends, coupled with meteorological conditions in spring 2011, produced record-breaking nutrient loads. An extended period of weak lake circulation then led to abnormally long residence times that incubated the bloom, and warm and quiescent conditions after bloom onset allowed algae to remain near the top of the water column and prevented ?ushing of nutrients from the system. We further ?nd that all of these factors are consistent with expected future conditions. If a scienti?cally guided management plan to mitigate these impacts is not implemented, we can therefore expect this bloom to be a harbinger of future blooms in Lake Erie."
There is no mention of no-till in that summary, and there is no mention of no-till in the entire scientific study! It talks about phytoplankton, dissolved reactive phosphorous or DRP, 11% more corn acreage in the USA, decreased CRP acreage, large storm runoff events, hydrodynamic particle transport models, record-breaking nutrient loads and weak lake circulation.
"Lacking the implementation of a scienti?cally guided management plan designed to mitigate these impacts, we can therefore expect this bloom to indeed be a harbinger of future blooms in Lake Erie."
Since that writing, all interested parties including "industrial agriculture" have come together with a plan and we will see how it holds up in light of weather extremes and the nonagricultural factors mentioned above as well as the dramatically shrinking size of Lake Erie. As so often is the case, Doug is much mellower in person than he is on the written page -- to say nothing of how he comes across in the emails of the PR department. He defends his blog saying he noted the advantages of no-till in his article. He agrees that huge storm events in 2011 played a big role in the situation. He is pleased to hear the extent of the Ohio approach to solve the problem. And is surprised to find how little no-till is actually carried out in the Lake Erie Basin – 10% or less.
"I think the purpose of a blog is push the some buttons and stimulate some thought," he admits. "Our PR people are always urging us put some more controversy in our reports."
He targets cover crops as the solution. I let him know cover crops have been getting plenty of ink in the world of "industrial agriculture." He maintains that conservation tillage is the same as no-till, despite my breakdown. He acknowledges that while he is degreed in plant pathology from Berkley and has studied wheat and rice at the molecular level, he has not been a "bench scientist" for many years and now works simply as a think-tank scientist summarizing and commenting on the work of active scientists.
He says farmers should not get defensive about what the UCS says. He especially notes that their stand against GMOs is often misrepresented in the press. "We all need to work together," he says.
I'm not sure the UCS is to agronomy what the HSUS is to livestock, but I think they want to be. It's certainly enough to make me want to join the Union of Concerned Agriculturists.