THE WAR BANNERS of the North American Global Climate Change Brigade are flying high and flapping in the wind as the West’s Crusade Against CO2 (carbon dioxide) ratchets up against the alleged Lex Luther of fossil fuels, the super-villain coal favored by the up-and-coming industrial economies of India and China. But the USA has an ace in the hole, an agricultural crop super-hero warrior equivalent of the comic book-heroes Batman & Robin or the US Navy Seals ready to colonize world grain farming areas and help save the day by reducing global CO2 emissions. Though its longer term sustainability is open to question and the development of herbicide resistant weeds are almost an assured part of the package, an interesting case can be made for using grain crops resistant to herbicides (mainly glyphosate at the moment) in no-till and minimum-tillage farming systems to reduce global CO2 emissions.
“Weeds are the most significant of the economic and environmental pests, and they are the target of much of the pesticides applied throughout the world,” wrote Rachel E. Cruttwell McFadyen in an Annual Review of Entomology article titled Biological Control of Weeds. “Herbicides comprise 47% of the world agrochemical sales, and insecticides 29%. Weeding, usually by hand, accounts for up to 60% of total pre-harvest labor input in the developing world.” All this herbicide use is having predictable ecological results. According to to the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds: “There are currently 432 unique cases (species x site of action) of herbicide resistant weeds globally, with 235 species (138 dicots and 97 monocots). Weeds have evolved resistance to 22 of the 25 known herbicide sites of action and to 155 different herbicides. Herbicide resistant weeds have been reported in 82 crops in 65 countries.”
However, when the herbicide use is coupled with grain crops that are herbicide-resistant in no-tillage or minimum-tillage farming systems, the reduction in CO2 emissions from the farming systems is quite dramatic. In a 2008 article titled “Glyphosate: a once-in-a-century herbicide” in the journal Pest Management Science, S.O. Duke and S.B. Powell wrote: “Glyphosate-Resistant crop use worldwide in 2005 resulted in a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions and potential additional soil carbon sequestration equivalent to the removal of about 4 million family cars from the road in terms of effects on global carbon balance.” This positive view of Roundup Ready® crops, which are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, was echoed in 2012 in the Weed Science Society of America’s journal, Weed Science: “Adoption of conservation tillage in the United States since 1982 is credited with reducing average soil erosion by 30%, raising the amount of soil carbon, and lowering CO2 emissions.”
“In 2010, the combined biotech crop-related carbon dioxide emission savings from reduced fuel use and additional soil carbon sequestration were equal to the removal from the roads of 8.6 million cars, equivalent to 27.7% of all registered cars in the UK (United Kingdom),” wrote Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot in their 2012 UK report. “Based on savings arising from the rapid adoption of no till/reduced tillage farming systems in North and South America, an extra 4,805 million kg of soil carbon is estimated to have been sequestered in 2010 (equivalent to 17,634 million tonnes of carbon dioxide that has not been released into the global atmosphere).”
If you subscribe to the CO2-centric consensus that temperature change on planet Earth revolves almost exclusively around the evil-demon molecule, CO2, then like night follows day the case for no-tillage farming schemes using herbicide-resistant GMOs (genetically modified organisms) that sequester carbon, reduce soil erosion, minimize fossil fuel use and reduce CO2 emissions in a major way is tough to fight, even if the GMO scheme has some discomforting side-effects to swallow.
On the other hand, the consensus or majority view can sometimes turn out to be dead wrong, be it CO2 or commodity prices (e.g. houses, gold). I remember vividly the early 2000s, being in the 17% minority when an overwhelming 83% of the USA population were “in consensus” with the world “intelligence community” consensus belief in the absolute certainty of another evil demon threatening life on planet Earth, Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction. Turned out to be Iraqi Weapons of Mass Deception. But realistically, we cannot demand God-like perfection and 100% correctness from the consensus-making machinery. On a more scientific level, before the USA came into existence as a nation-state, there was a very sincere consensus belief (perhaps 97%) that the Earth was flat and ships sailing from Europe towards North America would be swallowed by dragons or perish in the void. A skeptical Christopher Columbus undeniably demonstrated otherwise. Likewise, Aristotle’s most accepted ancient scientific wisdom was later revised; and a skeptical Albert Einstein punched holes into previous beliefs about the nature of the physical world.
Organic and traditional grain growers do have some good reasons to resist growing herbicide-resistant GMO (genetically modified organisms) grains, despite the reduced CO2 emissions. Indeed, it is theoretically possible to develop organic herbicides (e.g. allelopathic extracts of sorghum, eucalyptus, sesame, sunflower, tobacco and brassica fight weedy wild oats & canary grass in wheat fields) and implement organic no-till and minimum-till systems with cover crops, green manures, mulches, intercropping, crop rotations, etc.
But for the moment, herbicide-resistant GMO grains have been voluntary adopted (no mandates or penalties for non-use) and dominate in the Americas for reasons having little to do with direct concern for CO2 emissions. Reduced CO2 emissions from farming systems incorporating herbicide-resistant GMO crops might be called a pleasant side effect; though logically it could become a global selling point, if not a global mandate (perhaps even enforced by the USA, EU, NATO or United Nations) as part of the “War on CO2.”
In point of fact, the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change), which sets the European Union (EU) and global agenda on these matters is on record in their official reports, that herbicide-resistant GMOs used in no-tillage and minimum-tillage farming are a valid remedy for reducing CO2 emissions.
Though Brookes and Barfoot caution against taking their numbers too literally, because they are estimates based on assumptions and models (e.g. IPCC data), the contribution to CO2 emissions reduction from herbicide-resistant GMO crops and no-tillage farming is hard to dispute. If the consensus case against CO2 as the climate-change evil demon molecule is fully accepted and considered closed and beyond debate, then the case for herbicide-resistant GMO grains becomes politically correct and GMO-skeptics should logically be housed with CO2-skeptics in the same denial and heretic camp. However, the evil-demon status of CO2 is open to alternative interpretations incorporating some beneficial attributes of carbon atoms and CO2 molecules as essential to life on planet Earth.
Call it carbon skepticism or CO2 denial if you wish, but the famous Italian chemist Primo Levi, a concentration camp survivor (who later committed suicide) and knew firsthand that majority opinion can sometimes be tragically wrong, questioned the mainstream CO2 obsession and wrote: “Carbon dioxide, that is, the aerial form of carbon…this gas which constitutes the raw material of life, the permanent store upon which all that grows draws, and the ultimate destiny of all flesh, is not one of the principal components of air but rather a ridiculous remnant, an ‘impurity,’ thirty times less abundant than argon, which nobody even notices. The air contains 0.03 percent (CO2)…This, on the human scale, is ironic acrobatics, a juggler’s trick, an incomprehensible display of omnipotence-arrogance, since from this ever renewed impurity of the air we come, we animals and we plants…”
Lost in the shrill certitude and climate change bullying is the fact that CO2 is only 1 of about 200 atmospheric gases interacting with each other and other factors such as cloud cover in still not fully understood ways affecting climate and temperature; lack of adequate understanding for computer input is one reason why the computer model predictions are inherently prone to error and inaccuracy. Side effects of reduced atmospheric CO2 may include less plant photosynthesis (e.g. less food crop growth) and less water transpiration by plants (which may affect cloud cover and rainfall in ways that actually increase global warming).
Coal gets more of the blame for CO2 emissions. But, ironically, scrubbing (removing) sulfur dioxide (SO2) from burning coal caused much of the global warming blamed on CO2 by shrinking the Earth’s sulfate layer (which offsets the warming effect of CO2). Though the SO2 from coal burning is a pollutant we would not want back, it illustrates the complexity of the atmosphere, where selectively manipulating one thing leads to other unexpected problems. For example, put back the SO2 “scrubbed” from burning coal, and almost like magic the CO2 warming effects vanish (along with the rationale for global carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, and herbicide-resistant GMO crops to fight CO2). It’s like Dem Bones song on YouTube. Indeed, the cooling of the Earth when SO2 or sulfates are put back into the atmosphere by natural sources like volcanic eruptions is very dramatic. According to the U.S. Geological Survey:
“The most significant climate impacts from volcanic injections into the stratosphere come from the conversion of sulfur dioxide to sulfuric acid, which condenses rapidly in the stratosphere to form fine sulfate aerosols. The aerosols increase the reflection of radiation from the Sun back into space, cooling the Earth’s lower atmosphere or troposphere. Several eruptions during the past century have caused a decline in the average temperature at the Earth’s surface of up to half a degree (Fahrenheit scale) for periods of one to three years. The climactic eruption of Mount Pinatubo on June 15, 1991, was one of the largest eruptions of the twentieth century and injected a 20-million ton (metric scale) sulfur dioxide cloud into the stratosphere at an altitude of more than 20 miles. The Pinatubo cloud was the largest sulfur dioxide cloud ever observed in the stratosphere since the beginning of such observations by satellites in 1978. It caused what is believed to be the largest aerosol disturbance of the stratosphere in the twentieth century, though probably smaller than the disturbances from eruptions of Krakatau in 1883 and Tambora in 1815. Consequently, it was a standout in its climate impact and cooled the Earth’s surface for three years following the eruption, by as much as 1.3 degrees at the height of the impact. Sulfur dioxide from the large 1783-1784 Laki fissure eruption in Iceland caused regional cooling of Europe and North America by similar amounts for similar periods of time.”
Yes, major volcanoes are rarely more than a few per century; but there is also possibility of global cooling from a nuclear winter triggered by nuclear explosions. In 2011, a “rare” combination of a tsunami triggering a nuclear power plant meltdown intimidated the Japanese into shutting down their “clean” (as far as CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions go) nuclear power plants and substituting CO2-emitting fossil fuels; ironically, going against the United Nations Kyoto Protocol treaty negotiated in Kyoto, Japan. The Kyoto Treaty, whose stated “goal is to lower overall emissions from six greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur hexafluoride, HFCs, and PFCs,” had a few other flaws: “Please recall that China and India are Exempt from Kyoto standards,” writes Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis. “The US opted out because China was not a party. Canada signed the treaty but in 2012 Canada Leaves Kyoto Protocol, Lets China Buy Into Oil Sands.”
CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere of planet Earth have actually dropped dramatically over geologic time, and are nowhere near returning to former levels that favored plant life over animal life. University of Cambridge chemist John Emsley notes that natural sources, mainly the metabolism of food sources by plant and animal life, are still responsible for most CO2 production on planet Earth. In his book, Nature’s Building Blocks, Emsley writes: “The Earth’s early atmosphere may have contained a lot of carbon dioxide and methane, but once life evolved that began to change. Today, there is very little of these gases and a lot of oxygen instead, thanks chiefly to the action of plants which convert carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrate and oxygen by photosynthesis. The Earth’s atmosphere contains an ever-increasing concentration of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, from fossil fuel burning, and of methane, from paddy fields and cows. Human contributions to these sources are still minor compared with natural sources: most carbon dioxide comes from plants, microbes and animals, while methane is given off by swamps, marshes and termite mounds.”