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Helping David Take On Goliath

Climate stewards take aim at ­herbicides, tout healthy soils 
      It takes good soil for plants to grow healthy and vibrant. It takes brave souls to push for better legislation to make that happen.
     Last year, environmentalists and organic farmers scored a win when the Maryland Legislature passed the Healthy Soils Program and Gov. Larry Hogan signed the bill. The program works to sequester the global-warming bad guy, carbon, in Maryland soil while increasing its biological activity.
      Soil sequesters carbon by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — where it’s causing all the trouble — and storing it in the earth’s carbon pool. Plants aid the sequestration by taking carbon into their leaves and down to their roots, where microorganisms in healthy soil convert it into humus. Undisturbed, that carbon is permanently fixed in the soil.
     The development of healthy soils is hindered, says Dick Vanden Heuvel of the Climate Stewards of Greater Annapolis, by the widespread use of the controversial herbicide Roundup.
     Roundup, made by the company formerly known as Monsanto before being acquired by Bayer AG in a $66 billion merger, is the most widely used weed killer in the U.S. It is used around the world by itself and paired with such Roundup-Ready genetically modified crops as soybeans and corn.
     The main ingredient in Roundup, a chemical called glyphosate, is accused of killing the beneficial microorganisms that fix carbon in the soil.
     First patented by Monsanto in 1974, glyphosate revolutionized farming by making it easier and cheaper to control weeds, hence grow crops. Use of the herbicide has grown exponentially, along with biotech crops. GMO or biotech crops account for roughly 90 percent of the corn, soybeans and sugar beets grown in the U.S.
     “Roundup kills microbial life in the soil, the very microorganisms necessary to sequester carbon,” says Alexis Baden-Mayer with the Organic Consumers Association. Thus phasing out Roundup or finding ways to neutralize its impacts is a hurdle to achieving healthy soils.
     “There are better methods out there,” Baden-Mayer says. “An organic farm can sequester more carbon and create healthier soils and plants.”
    Organic farming helps keep the carbon locked in place by nondisruptive practices such as no-till farming and rotational grazing and planting deep-rooted crops like industrial hemp.
    But most farming is not organic. Many Maryland farmers depend on herbicides for their corn and soybean crops. Roundup has made itself essential to their operation.
     To get conventional farmers, locked into the industrial system, less reliant on chemicals, the Healthy Soils Program offers incentives: research, education, technical assistance and financial assistance.
      “Our farmers need education and support to help make this transition,” Baden-Mayer says. “The Healthy Soils Program is attractive. It’s not a regulation but an opportunity.”
     Roundup and its counterpart Rodeo, used near waterways, may be as dangerous for farmers as for soil.
     If glyphosate sounds familiar to you, you may have heard that a California court awarded a groundskeeper $289 million, later reduced to $78 million, on a claim that exposure to glyphosate contributed to his lymphoma. A clear and decisive link between the chemical and cancer has yet to be established by experts on either side of the issue.
      “I say it is the most dangerous substance we have ever introduced,” says Michael Locklear, an independent health researcher and soil consultant with experience in organic farming. “I’ve seen over 500 studies by 1,000 scientists over the last 35 years that show us that Monsanto has been rigging the science. This chemical is more dangerous than DDT. And it is ubiquitous in our environment.”
      Monsanto has insisted that studies over four decades, including research by the Environmental Protection Agency, show that Roundup can be used safely.
The companies have made friends with agricultural researchers and lawmakers, as well as with farmers. So restricting the chemical helper will be an uphill struggle.
      The same was “true of DDT and Agent Orange,” Locklear says. “People always claim there is no other avenue, but we know there is. We can find a different approach that is healthier for our bodies, our food, our soil and our planet.”
Hear OCA’s Alexis Baden-Mayer and soil researcher Michael Locklear at a meeting of the Climate Stewards of Greater Annapolis, Nov. 17, 2-4pm, Annapolis Friends Meeting House: