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Background

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is a science policy and advocacy group. They have reasonable attitudes about some issues. Their recommendations about farming are not so rational.  UCS is not the same as the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), although the names are similar at first glance.

The UCS published a blog post in October 2012, updated in March 2013, about rotating crops to increase yields without chemical fertilizers. It is titled, “Crop rotation generates profits without pollution (Or, What Agribusiness doesn’t want you to know)”.

Are chemical fertilizers unnecessary?

The UCS post begins with the finding that modern farming is not more productive than pre-industrial agriculture. Allegedly, crop rotation and Bronze-Age farming yields the same bountiful harvests as modern methods, with minimal dependence on chemical fertilizers:

Big Ag has worked hard for decades to instill a belief that its chemical-intensive industrial farming methods are more productive than low-input methods. Now a team of researchers has published data showing that more sustainable farming systems can achieve similar or greater yields and profits, despite steep reductions in chemical inputs, the Marsden sustainable farming study.

Mixed cultivation of fauna and flora! Uh, maybe not…

Next, the author—let us call her UCS Author—explains why encouraging large animals to graze on, around, and in between crops is the key to sustainable farming:

livestock will produce manure…if feed grains and alfalfa are grown for livestock raised on-site or nearby, their manure in turn becomes an asset, fertilizing the crops, improving soil quality, and reducing the fossil fuel needed to transport grain and manufacture synthetic fertilizers.

The Marsden study is credited with these findings. Sounds great! Reintegrate crop cultivation and animal husbandry. UCS Author says that Big Agriculture is deceitful, and cannot be trusted:

Now, you can bet that Monsanto or Cargill would never pursue a study like this one. I mean, why would they? There’s very little for big corporations to sell to farmers who are engaged in low-input agriculture. In fact, just the opposite—the more farmers are convinced they can’t be profitable without pricey inputs, the better the companies’ bottom lines will look. Even when it just isn’t true.

However, it just might be true.

Farmers near and far

In the blog post comments, an agronomist from Uruguay explains:

Cattle stepping on farm land indeed produce natural manure deposits act as fertilizer. But cattle stepping on carefully kept land for no-till farming more than offsets the benefits, we have found. Cattle weight compresses the fragile topsoil, affects oxygenation and makes it difficult to plant seeds on compact soil afterwards.

Painting of the burial chamber of Sennedjem

Farmers in ancient Egypt concur with Cal, Jasper and the agronomist from Uruguay

It would seem that having one’s hefty livestock, cattle in particular, trampling around, in between one’s crops, while pooping and urinating on them, is not such a great idea.

A Midwestern agriculture professor is troubled by UCS Author’s interpretation of the Marsden  study. He observes that her article is “co-opting research in an attempt to bolster a position”, thus ethically compromised, and “intellectually dishonest at best.”

UCS Author insists that Monsanto, Cargill et al. easily fool credulous farmers and public policy experts:

Every now and then we get a Marsden study that refutes Big Ag’s dominant storyline. But mostly farmers and policymakers just hear what the companies want them to hear.

UCS Author plows on, impugning the honesty and motives of Iowa State University (ISU):

So it is curious that Iowa State’s Office of University Relations, which typically takes every opportunity to trumpet the contributions of its researchers, hasn’t done more to shine a light on these groundbreaking findings. ISU has a responsibility to use the university’s Twitter feed and Facebook page—to tell the average person in farm country about this research and how it could revolutionize farming. Why wouldn’t they do that?

In fact, ISU did publish the Marsden study findings in the September 2012 edition of its agricultural extension publication, Energy and Economic Returns by Crop Rotation.

ISU most likely knows best about how to get the word out to “the average person in farm country”. The county extension is the center of farming communities. University agriculture extension publications are widely read. I know this to be true from my childhood, spent in a town where agriculture was the second largest source of income, and the nearby land grant university was best known for its agriculture school.

Sustainable AND beefier

Extrapolating from UCS Author’s recommendation to integrate livestock and farming, Commenter Cal infers advocacy for increased meat production 🙂

So now we should eat MORE meat? Whew, that was a close one because we were nearly brainwashed into believing meat production is dooming us through water depletion. But, now not so much? And we should use less corn and soy. OK, we can always put fossil fuels back in, to supply energy and plastics currently produced from corn & soy substitutes. That’s more convenient and cheaper anyway.

Oh, great day in the morning. This will be a truly revolutionary transition of agriculture back some 40 or 50 years. I can taste the yummy pot roasts and mashed potatoes and dark gravy already! Let’s get going, the sooner the better!!

Poor Cal is rebuked by UCS Author and her supporters. They say that Cal is wrong, that more meat consumption is not part of this disruption of agriculture. Yet Commenter Jasper was equally puzzled by the UCS suggestion of mixed usage of land for crops and livestock 😉

So you’re going to grow more clover and alfalfa for livestock feed, but you’re not going to eat the livestock? Will they be kept as pets? I agree with Cal, there will be more meat to eat and that’s fine with me too. Hey, livestock will always be part of any sustainable rotation. A critical link in the cycle, no? Beef — it’s what’s for dinner!

UCS Author gets flustered:

Jasper, I am beginning to suspect that you and Cal are purposely misunderstanding me!

I was sufficiently offended by the disdain and posturing by UCS Author that I threw in my non-sequitur:

Crop rotation is encouraged in the book of Genesis. Or maybe Deuteronomy, I don’t remember. Agribusiness isn’t keeping terrible secrets. Midwestern farmers are NOT the intellectual simpletons that the article seemed to imply. Even small farms need to know how to hedge in physical commodity markets, as well as care for their livestock and let their fields lay fallow, in rotation.

Herbicides, GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and Monsanto are persistently controversial. However, as Henry Kissinger said,

Moderation is a virtue only in those who are thought to have an alternative.

After THAT, there was no further discussion and UCS closed comments on the post.

Apparently, I am not alone in expressing concern about the UCS: Union of Concerned Scientists FAIL on farming via We Beasties blog at Science 2.0.

*All emphasis, in quoted passages and elsewhere, is entirely, dramatically, mine.

UPDATE 1

Before rushing to judgment about the supposed evil of Big Agribusiness, ask people in Pakistan and India about a Monsanto employee, Norman Borlaug, now deceased.

Nobel prize winner Norman Borlaug is widely known for saving over a billion lives from famine, with new (GMO) strains of wheat.

UPDATE 2

The following exchange is tacky and terrible. It closely coincided with the 150th anniversary of Borlaug’s birthday. It involves fertilizers and herbicides, so I wanted to include it for any readers who remain.

Dow has a new CEO. Dow also manufactured and probably formulated napalm. Note the (unintended) tie-in to my Kissinger quotation, made five years earlier!

Napalm is a defoliant, which could be considered a sort of herbicide and insecticide, uh… but kind of haphazard.

Roundup is a weed killing product developed and manufactured by Monsanto. It has been the subject of much inquiry due to the question of whether its active ingredient, glyphosate, is harmful to humans.

The National Cancer Institute researched glyphosate in 2017. It determined that Roundup does not cause cancer, but as Newsweek said, the study will probably not persuade everyone.