Carbon-reducing myths

March 2011

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Policy-makers and corporate executives have been scrambling to find a way to ditch our current dependency on fossil-fuels. Not only is oil becoming increasingly scarce and costly, but we're releasing so much carbon dioxide gas that we're cooking ourselves.

The fashionable answer to the problem is a transition to a 'bioeconomy'. This 'clean', 'green', 'renewable', 'sustainable' economy of the future will be based on biomass from agricultural crops, forests and algae.

Even to those unversed in science, this alternative to fossil fuels is quite clearly no more sustainable than our current energy source. It's simply dependent on other finite natural resources which are already limiting: suitable land area, soil nutrients, and fresh water. 

The United Nations has so far failed to act on the question of long-term sustainability. It has put in place a fancy global scheme which amounts to business-as-usual under a regulatory umbrella of 'controlled' greenhouse gas emissions.

The scheme is based on a novel global currency called 'carbon credits' which are traded within approved Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM). Effectively, any industry can carry on polluting the world as much as it wants, providing it has 'carbon credits' derived from reducing, avoiding or sequestering carbon produced elsewhere. This heads-I-win-tails-you-loose strategy is being abused to the point of farce.

Big business, which is never short of cash, need do nothing beyond paying out for carbon credits which leaves less for everyone else, or paying to fund CDM projects in the developing world. That way, the have-nots of the South are forced to tighten their belts to reduce, avoid or sequester carbon, so that the wealthy of the North can carry on living the same self-indulgent and wasteful life-style they're accustomed to.

Just how little effort is required to evade the need to care for their carbon was revealed recently when it was reported that £5.9 million worth of carbon credits had been stolen from the Czech Republic by a computer hacker.

CDM projects have been extended to include all sorts of unlikely initiatives.

Since the very fact of owning a piece of land which is classed a 'degraded' counts as a CDM, the scheme has lead to the biggest land-grab of all time, so bad that it's been referred to as the new colonialism. Degraded land includes not only forests but any spent agricultural land, so that land ruined in causing the problem can now be used to avoid the solution.

Biotech industries, of course, have been quick to create GMOs for the lucrative purpose of feeding into CDM projects. Monsanto has been lobbying since 1998 for 'no-till' agriculture , based of course on its own Roundup herbicide and Roundup Ready crops, to be an approved CDM methodology. The paradox here is obvious: the agricultural model which uses a chemical plough, chemical fertilizers and the machinery to apply the chemicals and to plant the seed is fossil-fuel dependent from head to tail.

One US farmer blogger has pointed out another flaw in the current practice of 'no-till': it's “a big fat fib”. He describes how
“The original idea was to plant seeds using a special “no-till” planter, in undisturbed sod killed with a herbicide, or into last year's undisturbed plant residue, particularly cornstalks, thereby reducing (soil-) erosion. It took lots of (fossil-fuel dependent) herbicides to make it work, but that's another story”.
In reality
“Instead of the plow, farmers work up the soil with a variety of disks, chisel plows, field cultivators and turbo tillage tools”.
In other words
“they are tilling the soil as much as they ever did, in fact more in some cases, with just about as much subsequent soil erosion.”
The only thing “no-till” farmers are not doing is using a mold board plough. The farmer admits that
“In truth, these alternatives to the plow sometimes do control erosion a little better, but not much”.
GM crops are very much part of the problem this farmer describes. The Roundup Ready trait causes metabolic disturbances which increase lignin (woody fibres) in the GM plant. The result is that the stalks of the crop plants which are “mostly from new genetically engineered varieties, are thick and stout and resistant to rotting. So although they help control erosion if left undisturbed, they are too much of a good thing in this regard. They gum up the planter and hold moisture so well” that planting can become impossible.
The Union of Concerned Scientists has pointed to scientific evidence showing that
“The most promising systems for carbon sequestration in soil combine crop rotation and low or no inputs of pesticides, herbicides, and industrial fertilizers. Long-term studies done by the Rodale Institute and others suggest that such systems build (not simply conserve) significant quantities of soil organic carbon through a variety of mechanisms such as enhanced abundance of mycorrhizal fungi.”
“In a head-to-head comparison between conventional no-till and organic plowed systems, organic plowed systems sequestered more carbon even though the sampling was restricted to shallow soil, where no-till tends to show carbon accumulation.”

It seems the use of GM crops and no-till methods as a way of generating 'carbon credits' is as big a myth as the carbon credits themselves.


We've put an awful lot of carbon in the wrong place in our world, so much so we're killing ourselves and our planet.

A global food and energy market predicated on big business myths such as the rich-man's carbon currency, kid-on sustainability and GM solutions which cause more problems than they solve, won't get rid of all that carbon.

There's no escaping reality. We need to promote agro-ecology, especially in the developing world. We need to use less of anything which needs fossil fuel to produce or transport. We need to scale down our agriculture possibly, as the farmer blogger suggested, to the level of our own backyard garden.

Maybe it's time we all started learning to grow some food.

  • Agricultural Practices and Carbon Sequestration, Union of Concerned Scientists Factsheet, 1.10.09
  • Gene Logsdon, “No Till” is a Big White Lie, The Contrary Farmer blog, 16.06.10
  • The false solutions to save the climate: Agribusiness Transnational Corporations and UNFCCCC process, La Via Campesina, 29.11.10
  • Hackers breach carbon scheme, Metro, 21.01.11

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