News Analysis: No-Till Farming Oversight A Sticking Point in Climate Bill

In last week's show, we looked at farming that involves not tilling -- a.k.a., for us ag novices -- not plowing the land. Pennsylvania rewards farmers for what's called conservation tillage by some and "chemical no-till" by its critics. The climate change and energy bill federal legislators are considering could also reward farmers for not tilling. The Allegheny Front's Jennifer Szweda Jordan joins Host Matthew Craig to discuss these issues.

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CRAIG: In last week's show, we looked at farming that involves not tilling -- that is, for us agriculture novices -- not plowing the land. Pennsylvania rewards farmers for what's called conservation tillage by some and "chemical no-till" by its critics. The climate change and energy bill federal legislators are considering could also reward farmers for not tilling. We give news analyst Ann Murray a break this week, as The Allegheny Front's Jennifer Szweda Jordan joins me to discuss these issues. Jennifer's the producer of our Earth's Bounty series on food and the environment. Welcome, Jennifer.

JORDAN: Thanks, Matthew. No-till is a hot topic and Iím glad to talk more about it.

CRAIG: Now, let's just clarify why some would criticize no-till by using the term "chemical no-till."

JORDAN: Sure, not tilling, like you said, means simply not plowing. It can help reduce erosion and maintain organisms like worms in the soil. But tilling eliminates weeds. So if farmers arenít plowing, they have to replace that with something. As we discussed last week, there are ways to do that organically, but most farmers who donít till are using chemical herbicides to keep down weeds. Since the release of genetically modified seeds in 1995, many farms have used, say GMO corn, in conjunction with an herbicide that kills all plant life except that corn.

CRAIG: The big agribusiness firms must like this.

JORDAN: Indeed. It's part of their heavily advertised strategy to feed the world in a way that they view as sustainable. Bayer, which has its U-S corporate offices here in Pittsburgh, agribusiness giant Monsanto, and a couple other companies pretty much have the market locked up on GMO seeds and many chemical pesticides. And they are working out plans to give tradeable carbon credits for practices like no-till that encourage purchase of their products.

CRAIG: Let's quickly review what you mean by tradeable. "Emissions trading" or "cap and trade" is an approach to control pollution. One party, in this case farmers, could get paid or some kind of credit for sequestering carbon. Others from industry who emit pollutants could buy those credits to virtually reduce their own emissions.

CRAIG: How does this fit into the big federal Waxman-Markey climate and energy bill?

JORDAN: The House Agriculture Committee is largely in agreement with agribiz that no-till is a major way to sequester carbon, and that it should be part of the climate legislation.
CRAIG: Is that true, DOES no-till sequester the potent greenhouse gas carbon?

JORDAN: Well, I donít think we know for sure. Depending on how deep into the soil scientists are measuring, weather conditions, and other variables can all combine to make sequestration look like it ranges from negligible to substantial.

CRAIG: So who would decide on how worthy a farming activity like no-till is for a carbon credit?

JORDAN: The way the bill's written now, that duty would go to an offset-review board within the Environmental Protection Agency. The House Ag committee wants something much different. Chairman Colin Peterson, a Democrat from Minnesota, has said that he doesnít want the EPA ñquote ó ìto go anywhere near farmers.î

CRAIG: So that's a major sticking point in that federal legislation. We also mentioned Pennsylvania giving some credit to farmers who don't till.

JORDAN: Lots of credit, actually. The state has already allowed 10 (M) million dollars in tax credits for farmers who don't till over the last couple years. And they've just approved another round of about five (M) million in tax credits for no-till. Officials say that it has already prevented erosion and runoff of chemicals.

CRAIG: What kinds of data do they have for that claim?

JORDAN: I spoke with Mary Bender, who is the administrator of the state's Resource Enhancement and Protection ñ or REAP -- program. We can listen to what she saidÖ

BENDER: In our first annual report, no-till alone reduced over 140-thousand pounds of nitrogen to the water, over 13-thousand pounds of phosphorous, and over 18-thousand tons of sediment to the waters of the commonwealth.

CRAIG: Well, it sounds like there are some very powerful people making powerful arguments about tilling. We'll keep an eye on this issue.

JORDAN: Yeah, if this conversation doesnít continue on the show, I'll be mentioning the progression of no-till particularly in the federal bill on my Earthís Bounty blog.

CRAIG: And that's on alleghenyfront.org. If you missed last week's stories on organic no-till ag, or if you'd like to listen again, comment, or share our stories with your friends on facebook, you can also visit our website. That's alleghenyfront.org.