Commentary: No-till being blamed for green slime

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More “green slime of cyanobacterial,” which most people call blue-green algae, was in Lake Erie, and some lakes and water reservoirs, during 2011, and it has environmental activists foaming slime at their mouths.

At least one environmental scientist is extremely upset that a lake such as the shallow Lake Erie and others were infected with more blue-green algae than in the past, and he is blaming it on no-till cropping systems combined with global warming. 

“The Lake Erie algal bloom of 2011 set records, eventually reaching about 5,000 square kilometers, or about three times larger than the next-biggest bloom. But records show that algal blooms have been increasing since the mid-1990s, after several decades of progress,” wrote Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist, food and environment, with the Union of Concerned Scientists, on The Equation blog site.

The decades of progress that Gurian-Sherman refers to is reduced phosphorus from sewage treatment plant water put into the lake and reduced laundry detergent phosphorus going into water. Today, he claims high amounts of phosphorus coming off crop ground that is being no tilled is the problem.   

He sees increased eutrophication, the process by which a body of water acquires a high concentration of nutrients, especially phosphates and nitrates, as a problem to totally blame on farmers. To scare people as much as possible, he also says the algae problem is more than foul odor and fish kills because cyanobacteria can produce liver or neurotoxins, which were found in the Lake Erie “at alarming levels.”

The increase in harmful algal blooms coincides with increasing use of no-till in the Corn Belt. It turns out that without tillage, applied phosphorus fertilizer or phosphorous in manure becomes concentrated in the surface layer of the soil. Even though no-till reduces soil runoff and erosion—which carries phosphorus bound to soil particles into waterways—the resulting high phosphorus concentration at the soil surface leads to runoff of dissolved reactive phosphorus. The algal blooms that result from this are exacerbated by heavy rainfalls, which wash more phosphorus into the lake, and which are predicted to become more frequent in the region as global warming proceeds,” Gurian-Sherman wrote.

He suggests the use of phosphorus fertilizer, which makes runoff possible, is a waste of a natural resource, and he thinks “occasional tillage will help alleviate this problem by burying the phosphorus.” He admits he is “unclear” whether cultivators or chisel plows that do not invert the soil would do any good. He has no real opinions about “rotational tillage or ridge till.”

He did write that “most corn acres are still not using no-till or conservation tillage, so it is possible that further adoption could make matters even worse.”

The self-claimed scientist condemns “industrial agriculture” as destroying the earth and environment and being unsustainable agricultural production.

“A lesson in all of this is that reductionist approaches to ecological issues that narrowly focus on solving one problem, such as soil erosion, without understanding the entire agricultural ecosystem are vulnerable to missing harmful unintended consequences. No-till is a valuable practice in some respects, but as used in industrial agriculture, it depends on heavy use of herbicides, which cause their own harm to agroecosystems, such as loss of habitat for monarch butterflies, bees, and other helpful organisms,” he wrote.

He also wrote that “industrial no-till” is one of the “few practices that big ag can promote that has some environmental benefits. And unlike agroecology, it depends on expensive purchased products. That’s good for the industry’s bottom line, but not so good for the rest of us.”

Here is another “scientist” who finds blame with conventional farming practices and ag professionals for helping farmers raising food and feed. His agroecology— or basically forms of organic—farming cannot feed the world, but that doesn’t matter.

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Centra NY  |  May, 06, 2013 at 10:53 AM

It seems like the spraying of the fertilizer is the reason it ends up in the water. How about we stop spraying that crap? How about that as the answer?

Des Moines Iowa  |  May, 06, 2013 at 11:48 AM

There are so many different options to employ. The industrial farmers have the money to perform safe care of the environment without hurting production but they don't want to spend the money. How would the "ag professional" like to be called a so called "ag professional" like he did to this true scientist. Maybe you should reach out and find some solutions with the scientist instead of always going to battle as OBVIOUSLY the practices are hurting the environment. I can't even eat the fish any more in our lakes and streams because of this farming practice.

Milwaukee, WI  |  May, 06, 2013 at 12:18 PM

Why does the article call him a "self proclaimed scientist" and use quotes around "scientist" when talking about him? I looked up his bio and he has a legitimate doctorate in related science as well as a history of related scientific employment. All by itself this tactic of trying to damage the credibility of a critic rather than addressing the issues tells me not to trust either the article's author or the publication it appears in.

poopy  |  May, 06, 2013 at 12:54 PM

poop tastes good

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