Parting Thoughts On The Future of Conservation Agriculture

By David Gustafson, departing interim executive director, CTIC
With the welcome arrival of CTIC’s new Executive Director Mike Komp, I bid a fond farewell to this interim role. There are many to thank for this wonderful opportunity, and I begin with Chair Terry Tindall, a true gentleman and also a genuine champion for conservation agriculture. I also offer sincere thanks to Vice Chair Mark Schmidt, Treasurer Mark White, and the entire CTIC Board of Directors. The CTIC staff have also been a true joy to get to know, and I look forward to continuing to work alongside these dedicated professionals – now in the role of OpTIS Project Director.
As I pass the CTIC reins to Mike, I offer some parting thoughts on the future of conservation in US row crop agriculture. In doing so, I realize some of what I have to say could be regarded as controversial, so let me be very clear that these are my words alone, and not those of CTIC. There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that practices like cover crops and continuous no-till have tremendous potential to deliver a future of improved soil and water conservation outcomes. But the bad news is that this future is now imperiled by rising levels of aggressive litigation targeted against agriculture, such as (1) the 2015 Des Moines Water Works lawsuit (eventually dismissed in 2017 after two years of costly legal wrangling); (2) a second March 2019 lawsuit against the State of Iowa brought by two activist organizations and a bevy of California-led lawyers; and (3) the on-going circus of anti-glyphosate litigation occurring in California.
It’s especially confusing and disheartening to see this explosion in costly and unproductive litigation. CTIC has been on the front lines of the hugely successful voluntary efforts on conservation agriculture, such as the adoption of cover crops, which the recent USDA AgCensus confirms to have increased by 50% in just five years, to more than 15 million acres in 2017.
As for herbicides like glyphosate, they can play a critical role in conservation practices. Modern agriculture includes mechanization and intensification, which provides many important societal benefits including greater crop yields, more efficient animal production enterprises, and multiple new consumer products. Conventional tillage is often an essential contributor to these benefits, but there are some scenarios where it can also lead to extensive soil disturbance – and the resulting erosion of top soil and unwanted delivery of soil sediment to surface waters.
That’s where glyphosate and other herbicides became part of the conservation solution – by reducing the need for mechanical tillage. Conservation tillage practices, especially continuous no-till, are a particularly effective way to enhance soil health and reduce surface water impacts. Conservation tillage also saves fuel, reduces soil erosion, retains soil tilth, prevents loss of soil organic matter, and avoids greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Herbicide-tolerant crops facilitate the adoption of conservation tillage by enabling broad-spectrum herbicide mixtures, rather than mechanical tillage, to be used for weed control (e.g. Green, 2012).
A companion practice that helps growers adopt conservation tillage is the incorporation of winter cover crops into the rotation. Cover crops have a tremendous potential to capture atmospheric carbon and transform it into relatively stable forms in soil. At the adoption rate of 15 million acres reported in the AgCensus, this corresponds to approximately 30 million metric tons of CO2 per year in the top six to ten inches of the soil. Additional sequestration can be expected at deeper soil depths, especially since many cover crops root to a depth of more than 1 meter. Another benefit of cover crops is their climate adaptation potential, by creating an environment that permits deeper infiltration of water into the soil profile, thereby enhancing the resilience of agricultural fields to both drought and intense rainstorms. Broad-spectrum herbicides such as glyphosate are used to terminate any cover crops that survive the winter.
Cover crops, conservation tillage and other conservation practices—and timely data on the adoption of these practices that can serve as the foundation of carbon markets and help policymakers direct programs where they can do the most good—promise a brighter future for American farmers! But only if our judicial system begins to adjudicate the power of voluntary conservation efforts and the safety of valuable conservation tools like glyphosate based on facts, rather than on misleading tales told in urban courtrooms – far removed from the realities of US agriculture.
About the author: Dr. Gustafson is an independent scientist who uses modeling to help food systems meet human nutrition needs in more sustainable ways. His academic training was in chemical engineering (Stanford, B.S., 1980; University of Washington, Ph.D., 1983). He worked 30 years in private industry (Shell, Rhône-Poulenc, and Monsanto – a manufacturer of glyphosate). Dr. Gustafson now leads research projects at two non-profits: CTIC and ILSI Research Foundation.