Farming Without Disturbing Soil Could Cut Agriculture's Climate Impact By 30%

Farming Without Disturbing Soil Could Cut Agriculture's Climate Impact By 30%
What if there was a better way to prepare the soil for crop sowing?
GLF Media/Shutterstock

Perhaps because there are no chimney stacks belching smoke, the contribution of the world’s farms to climate change seems somehow remote. But agriculture accounts for a staggering 26% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Tractors running on diesel release carbon dioxide (CO₂) from their exhausts. Fertilisers spread on fields produce nitrous oxide. And cattle generate methane from microbes in their guts.

Even tilling the soil – breaking it up with ploughs and other machinery – exposes carbon buried in the soil to oxygen in the air, allowing microbes to convert it to CO₂. Farmers usually do this before sowing crops, but what if they could avoid this step?


 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

In newly published research from farms across the UK, we discovered that an alternative approach called no-till farming, which does not disturb soils and instead involves placing seeds in drilled holes in the earth, could slash greenhouse gas emissions from crop production by nearly a third and increase how much carbon soils can store.

The neat rows of raised soil on tilled fields might seem like an inevitable part of farming, but no-till agriculture has already become quite popular in other parts of the world, especially the US.

Only one machine is needed to drill the small seed holes required and it’s driven over the field just once. Compared to conventional methods where farmers use a range of equipment to till, harrow, sow and firm in the seed, the amount of soil disturbed during no-till farming is very small.

Tilling the soil in conventional farming creates large air pockets which fill up with oxygen, prompting microbes to turn carbon in the soil into CO₂. We compared the soil on tilled farms with fields prepared using the no-till approach by scanning them with X-rays – the same technique used in hospitals to examine broken bones.

The fields without tilling had fewer and smaller air pockets, which is why they generated less CO₂. Most of these pockets were created by burrowing earthworms and roots that thrived in the absence of ploughs and other tools disturbing the soil. There was still enough pores to let the soil drain well and allow roots to grow deeper in search of water though – an important additional benefit as droughts become more frequent under climate change

Conventionally tilled soils have more air pockets, which is where CO2 is generated.Conventionally tilled soils have more air pockets, which is where CO2 is generated. Cooper et al. (2021), Author provided

By keeping excess oxygen out of the soil and away from the microbes that live there, no-till farming ensures the carbon that builds up when plants die and decompose remains buried underground. The farms we studied that used the no-till approach accumulated more carbon in their soil over time, and the longer the soils were left undisturbed, the more carbon was stored.

It’s clear that undisturbed soils release less CO₂ to the atmosphere. But microbes in farmland soil can generate methane and nitrous oxide too, and these gases can be even worse for the climate. Methane is more than 20 times as effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere as CO₂, and nitrous oxide is about 300 times as effective.

In our study, we combined measurements of all three greenhouse gases from traditionally tilled soil and fields managed using the no-till approach. We found that the latter produced 30% lower emissions in total, with the greatest reductions seen on farms that had been using no-till for the longest – around 15 years.

Not having to till the soil has other benefits, especially for farmers as there’s less preparation to do. It can dramatically reduce how much diesel farms need to burn, as farmers need less heavy machinery. That amounts to fewer costs overall.

Drilling holes in the soil before planting seeds has a long history in agriculture. Drilling holes in the soil before planting seeds has a long history in agriculture. Jayjay Adventures/Shutterstock

Despite these advantages, farmers in the UK and across Europe have been slow to adopt no-till farming. A recent survey suggested as little as 7% of arable land in England is currently managed this way. When we asked farmers, many claimed the initial cost of buying a direct drilling machine put them off no-till agriculture. Some were concerned that making the switch would lead to lower yield compared to their tried and tested methods.

Farms using the no-till method could produce less food at first if seeds struggle to germinate in the harder, less-oxygenated, uncultivated soil. This can be a problem in the early years of no-till farming. But evidence suggests that earthworms and roots can help restore a natural soil structure which reduces these problems over time. A study found no consistent differences in yield over the first ten years after a farm converted to no-till agriculture.

Such a shift is within reach for the agricultural sector in Europe, where the no-till method is still marginal, as the technology has been well-tested elsewere. If governments can incentivise farmers to switch to no-till agriculture, our soils will have a chance to resume their natural function and lock carbon away for decades.The Conversation

About The Authors

Sacha Mooney, Professor in Soil Physics and Director of the Hounsfield Facility at the University of Nottingham, University of Nottingham; Hannah Victoria Cooper, Research Fellow in Environmental Science, University of Nottingham, and Sofie Sjogersten, Associate Professor in Environmental Science, University of Nottingham

Related Books

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming

by Paul Hawken and Tom Steyer
9780143130444In the face of widespread fear and apathy, an international coalition of researchers, professionals, and scientists have come together to offer a set of realistic and bold solutions to climate change. One hundred techniques and practices are described here—some are well known; some you may have never heard of. They range from clean energy to educating girls in lower-income countries to land use practices that pull carbon out of the air. The solutions exist, are economically viable, and communities throughout the world are currently enacting them with skill and determination. Available On Amazon

Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy

by Hal Harvey, Robbie Orvis, Jeffrey Rissman
1610919564With the effects of climate change already upon us, the need to cut global greenhouse gas emissions is nothing less than urgent. It’s a daunting challenge, but the technologies and strategies to meet it exist today. A small set of energy policies, designed and implemented well, can put us on the path to a low carbon future. Energy systems are large and complex, so energy policy must be focused and cost-effective. One-size-fits-all approaches simply won’t get the job done. Policymakers need a clear, comprehensive resource that outlines the energy policies that will have the biggest impact on our climate future, and describes how to design these policies well. Available On Amazon

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate

by Naomi Klein
1451697392In This Changes Everything Naomi Klein argues that climate change isn’t just another issue to be neatly filed between taxes and health care. It’s an alarm that calls us to fix an economic system that is already failing us in many ways. Klein meticulously builds the case for how massively reducing our greenhouse emissions is our best chance to simultaneously reduce gaping inequalities, re-imagine our broken democracies, and rebuild our gutted local economies. She exposes the ideological desperation of the climate-change deniers, the messianic delusions of the would-be geoengineers, and the tragic defeatism of too many mainstream green initiatives. And she demonstrates precisely why the market has not—and cannot—fix the climate crisis but will instead make things worse, with ever more extreme and ecologically damaging extraction methods, accompanied by rampant disaster capitalism. Available On Amazon

From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you InnerSelf.comelf.com, MightyNatural.com, and ClimateImpactNews.com at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.

 

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

follow InnerSelf on

facebook icontwitter iconyoutube iconinstagram iconpintrest iconrss icon

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

MOST READ

image
Climate explained: how the IPCC reaches scientific consensus on climate change
by Rebecca Harris, Senior Lecturer in Climatology, Director, Climate Futures Program, University of Tasmania
image
Far more adults don't want children than previously thought
by Jennifer Watling Neal, Associate Professor of Psychology, Michigan State University
image
While debate rages over glyphosate-based herbicides, farmers are spraying them all over the world
by Marion Werner, Associate Professor of Geography, University at Buffalo
image
Gap departs high street as prime store locations left stranded by high-speed retail revolution
by Anthony Kent, Professor of Fashion Marketing, Nottingham Trent University

New Attitudes - New Possibilities

InnerSelf.comClimateImpactNews.com | InnerPower.net
MightyNatural.com | WholisticPolitics.com | InnerSelf Market
Copyright ©1985 - 2021 InnerSelf Publications. All Rights Reserved.