If you have an image in your head when you think "plow," it’s probably a moldboard plow: a deep cutting edge that swoops up and out into a curved wing, the moldboard. As the plow moves forward, it lifts the earth and flips it, inverting sod into neat lines of corduroy.
The point of plowing is to kill. It wipes out perennial plants and buries seeds deeply enough that they’ll never have a chance to grow. There’s something beautiful about the plow and its action of bringing linear order to the chaos of a weedy field. But there’s nothing natural about the act. Nature only rarely turns the land upside down -- only during disasters.
As a result, soil organisms have not evolved to thrive in this kind of tillage. Soil ecosystems, made up of insects and worms, microbes and fungi, are arranged according to depth and chemical needs. For instance, many soil microbes near the surface need oxygen, but oxygen is toxic to others that live deeper down. This ecosystem responds to being turned upside-down the same way a rainforest would: It falls apart. In the process, soil erodes, waterways are polluted, and greenhouse gases are released.
Monsanto and its competitors advertised herbicide-tolerant transgenic plants as a solution to this problem. Instead of plowing, you could use chemicals to deal with the weeds. Genetic engineering would lead to a boom in no-till farming, company representatives said.
Is that what actually happened? There are indeed farmers around the world who have embraced no-till farming because herbicide-tolerant corn made it easier. But judging from the statistics, most low- or no-till farmers in the U.S. are more like Brian Scott.